VIOLA - Dear Dad,
It’s been a long time since I last wrote to you.
Soon it will be Father's Day, which sounds way too formal. I always called you either ‘Popsie Turtle’ or ‘Dad,’ never ‘Father.’
You died unexpectedly when I was twenty-one and you were fifty-three, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that. When Mom called to tell me, she said, “Dad died.”
I said, “Your dad?”
She answered, “No, your dad.” Grandpa did die, but not until years later.
Not long ago, Mom gave me a copy of your death certificate. You’d been dead for over forty years when I first held and read it: brain aneurysm, alcohol poisoning.
The day before you died, my daughter was playing with the hose and dripped water into your brandy Manhattan (easy on the vermouth). We chuckled, but little Jessica was too young to understand.
I miss you. You were consistent and gentle, which may not sound like a big compliment, but I can assure you it is. I can still picture you sitting in your chair each day. You’d be reading the newspaper, wearing a sweatshirt, worn-out blue jeans, and your raggedy old moccasin slippers, with a stocking cap perched on your head. If it was morning, there’d be a cup of coffee on the end table next to your chair; in the evening it would be a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon and often a bowl of popcorn.
The only time you’d ever yell would be in the mornings when I wouldn’t get out of bed for school. Even when others were yelling at you, you didn’t yell back.
I always knew you loved me, even when you stomped down the hall to pull me out of bed after the umpteenth warning that I’d be late for school. I knew that no matter how small the bluegill was on my fishing line, you’d make a big to-do about it, and fry it up with your bigger catches. I knew if I got tired hiking with you, you’d put me on your shoulders and carry me.
Even when I came home from Treasure Island department store as a new teen, and they called ahead to tell you and Mom that Becky and I had been caught stealing earrings, I knew you’d still love me. Or maybe I only hoped so.
Terrified by the whole event, thinking I’d be sent to jail, I stood in front of you, my bony knees knocking with fear and shame. And you said, “Janie, what you did was wrong, and I suspect you’ll never do it again. But everyone makes mistakes and it’s best to move on from them. Go take a bath, you’ll feel better.”
Tears streamed silently from the corners of my eyes as you spoke, as they are now as I type, as they do every time the memory plays in my head.
Thanks to you, Dad, I excel at moving on. I don’t stay angry for long with myself or others. I see both as a waste of precious energy that I need for the work I’ve decided to do.
You wanted me to be a flight attendant, but I became a fitness instructor. I help people stay limber and fit, and (my favorite part) connect them with nature on hikes. You encouraged my love for nature and all things living, through our many trips up north, the rock garden you created with those crazy “hens and chicks,” and supporting me in my efforts to help wildlife, like the pigeon with the hole in his wing that we nursed back to health and released.
I often wish you could see where I live now. You’d love the hills and valleys, my animals, and the crabapple tree I planted in honor of the ones you planted at home for Jill, Jack, and me. I drove by our old house when I was visiting Mom this week. Those three crabapple trees are still there on the corner of our lot, tall and healthy. But Jill isn’t so healthy these days, nor is Jack. Mom, despite a fall, seems to be doing well. She's one tough cookie, almost ninety-three and still has that quick wit you enjoyed so much.
Do you remember me dancing outside for you, that time you were in the hospital? It seemed like I hadn’t seen you for a long time, and Mom pointed way up high to the window she said you were at, looking down on me. I didn’t understand then what had happened or why you didn’t come home with us.
I do now. Thankfully the accident hadn’t killed you, but it sure left its mark. Your face was torn apart from the corner of your mouth up into your military crew cut. Mom stayed angry with you and later filed for a divorce. (I’m glad you and Mom eventually remarried. She was so angry when you died. She took it personally!)
The last time I wrote to you, I sent the letter anonymously to your office. Did you guess it was from me? I’d clipped a Dear Abby column out of the newspaper. It was about how to tell if you’re an alcoholic. I’m not sure whether I lacked the courage to sign my name or didn’t want to hurt your feelings. I just know I wanted you to stop drinking.
I don’t drink. Jack drinks too much, and Jill no longer has any say in the matter.
Dad, you were so much more than an alcoholic. Because you died so suddenly, I never had a chance to tell you how much I loved and admired you. You were a generous, kind, and unassuming man.Happy Popsie Turtle Day! Jane