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I can still hear my dad calling to me — “Laura! That’s far enough!” — as I floated out on Lake Conway in an inner tube one summer when I was 7 or 8 years old.
“Stay where I can see you!” he shouted from the beach. His voice, gruff and insistent, was impossible to ignore, though I really would have liked to go out just a little bit farther.
To a child, my 6-foot-2-inch dad seemed huge and totally invincible. During the week, he went to work every day in Boston, wearing a suit and tie, and on our suburban weekends he smelled of lawnmower gasoline, dirt, cut grass and sweat. In the winters he shoveled our driveway with lightning speed. He was a taskmaster, assigning chores and not taking any “guff” from my brother or me.
All those years ago, my father was always on shore, urging me to stay close; now, sometimes I’m the one on the beach, and sometimes we’re both at sea.
“Nobody likes a whiner!”
“Turn the TV off and get your homework done!”
He could be stern, but he was also fun. No one could play longer or with more imagination. When we played board games and card games, he would “interview” the winner afterwards, pretending to be a sportscaster. On summer evenings, he played Wiffle ball with my brother and me and the other kids in the neighborhood. We called him “The Turtle” because he was slow getting around the bases, but he could usually hit the ball so far into the woods that he didn’t need to be very fast to score.
As I got older, he seemed to soften a bit. I remember being horribly upset and embarrassed about not having a date to a formal dance at my high school. What would people think? Dad gave me a piece of advice that I still remind myself of all the time: “Sweetie, most people are so busy worrying about themselves, they don’t pay much attention to anyone else,” he said. It was true, and such a relief.
It was my dad who had a harder time when I, the baby of our family, left for college. My mom was happy to see me start an exciting new chapter, but my dad missed all the noise and chaos that had always driven him a little crazy. “I went grocery shopping the other day and went to buy frozen yogurt, but then I realized you don’t live at home anymore,” he told me forlornly over parents’ weekend.
As an adult, I have seen my dad filled with emotion more than a few times, something I couldn’t have imagined as a child: in the hospital room when we learned that there was nothing else to be done for my mother’s cancer; on my wedding day, at the moment he saw me in my wedding dress for the first time; on the day my daughter was born, holding her, his first grandchild, in his arms. Little by little, the stern taskmaster has made room for the vulnerable widower, the sentimental father, the doting grandpa.
All those years ago, my father was always on shore, urging me to stay close; now, sometimes I’m the one on the beach, and sometimes we’re both at sea. Still, I try never to let too much distance stretch between us. I try, always, to stay where he can see me.
This program aired on June 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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