Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Complimentary perspective

Today is my father's 84th Birthday.

What began last week as a "Roast & Toast" in the moment has been reenforced this week by seeing it archived on video, and continues each day since with EMAILs scurrying around the world describing just how much his life has meant to his children and our children.

I include this one in particular from my next older sister, Cathy (I'm in the middle), as an example of a continuing thread that tells a story. This is not to draw particular attention to our family as something special, but to share in a world too full of doom and gloom a story of love and appreciation, a happy-ever-after tale that seems to have no ending, but continues to grow, to ripple, like Love, shining a bright light into dark corners.

"The gifts and the examples are huge, unique and precious. They formed us.

...And taking on Granny without any hesitation in the midst of a new marriage, a new baby, and building a new house (himself). Especially after I had kids of my own, I marveled at what an incredible thing that was and tried to learn the lessons - be generous even when it seems hard, and then just do what it takes. Dad did the same thing for Geeg, though I know it was hard to come home every night to find him still holding court at the table.

Dad, I also want to thank you for how you handled our teenage years.
I know it was a busy time for you at work and you were gone a lot.
But you showed a tremendous, quiet respect for our questioning of the status quo (and thus your own life and choices). You also showed a remarkable understanding of teenagers when you built the Octagon.
Not only was it the perfect building for the purpose, but the idea behind it - giving you and Mom some distance and us some private space - was sheer genius and generosity. Most of all, it showed that you trusted us, which my friends could never believe, in a way that made us respond in kind. (And I don't think I would have had any social life at all if it weren't for that combination. As it was, people thought I had the coolest house and the coolest parents in the world. I was along for the ride.)

I am also grateful for the relationship you built with your grandchildren. Few families I know have the kind of bond my kids feel towards you. As Vicki said, you have created ripples that go on for generations. Thank you for those generous summers with Jesse and Hans (thanks Meg and Lauren, too).

Last week's visit reminded me of how much we laughed (and still do), and how many funny/fun things we did together, instigated and spurred on by Dad. And all of your images, Meg, bring up more vignettes. ...
... dancing polkas every Saturday in the living room to Charlotte Shed on the radio, swirling until we collapsed
-- the time when Dad labeled everything in the camper - was that on Swans? - the lamp, the books, the bananas in the bowl, even Mom, as I remember
-- Dad reading that creepy ghost story about willows on an island, when we were camping with David
-- playing baseball on the beach, at Beach Haven, when Dad told the awestruck kid that he played for the Boston Red Sox and I
was proud of him, because it seemed for a minute like it could be true
-- building and icing toboggan ramps down the front hillside, and then telling us not to be scared ... Piling us on top of each other on the bed until it collapsed under our weight ... Painting the totem pole up the wall of Lane's bedroom ... teaching us to write old english letters, and painting easter eggs with our names on them ... jumping jacks and peanut butter sandwiches in the Howard Johnson parking lots on the turnpike (while other families actually went inside and ate hamburgers) ... soaping the rocks in the creek in the Poconos so we could slide down them faster ... making up "Tom Swifty" jokes in the car - "I love hamburgers, she said with relish"
... joking in the elevator at the hospital in Denver as they wheeled him away with a kidney stone ... holding up the sign for Richard and Pat Nixon in Swarthmore - I was sure they'd stop just to take a closer look at Dad's brilliant caricatures ... and the accordion - who could forget the accordion?!?!
... watching Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan and Hogan's Heros on TV ... reading the history of architecture book aloud at every building in Europe ... drawing diagrams of cantilevers at the dining room table for Lane's homework assignment ... "Cocktail time!"
... Eating a bowl of peanuts, one at a time ... Dad's guilty look when he roughhoused too hard and somebody got hurt, and then how he stroked our heads to say he was sorry, but did it so hard he practically knocked us over, making us forget the original transgression ... Packing the car for a trip - the assembly line to load and unload the car; waking us up in the middle of the night to leave so we could get past New York by rush hour; sleeping on a flat bed of duffel bags and waking up to the streaks of dawn and breakfast.
... watching people count us in the car as they passed us on the turnpike, and holding up our fingers to show them "5"
... Playing double solitaire, Dad's accompanying monologue, complaining that we were going too fast and then beating us. (Vicki sliding cards in so nobody would notice) ... Scrabble - "Oy!"

... buying our first TV just in time to see Mary Martin do Peter Pan live on TV and then, a few years later, watching Lee Harvey Oswald get shot as we painted murals for the Christmas Fair ... going to Linville Orchards; cider and ginger snaps (I still eat them together) ... dropping us off at church every Sunday, coming back to pick us up with a new painting in the back seat (I can still hear the sound of the paintbrush swirling in the jar) ... the pride I felt, every time we drove past the TWA building at the airport!
... breaking down on the Tapanzee Bridge ... Listening to Adlai Stevenson on the radio from the political convention (John says I couldn't possibly remember, but I swear I do) and staying up late to hear the Nixon/Kennedy election results on the radio ... sitting for pastel portraits (sit still!) and for the Christmas photo (smile!) ... the Christmas cards - taking for granted that each year would be better than the last - didn't everybody's father draw?
... Learning ballroom dancing by standing on Dad's feet - side together, step, step ... Eating in the make-shift dining room (feeding Meg, I think, in the high chair) during construction of the addition, with a flapping tarp for a wall ... Meg, you say that you wished more people saw our house, but I remember the stream of cars that went slowly by on Sundays when the addition was built. We would stand proudly at the window and count them. Sometimes people were brazen enough to come to the door and ask for a tour.
... playing touch football, Dad demonstrating the moves on your stomach, poking so hard it hurt ...or tickled ... watching To Kill a Mockingbird (we went with Grandma). Everybody thought that I looked like Scout, but I thought Atticus looked (and
behaved) just like my dad.

Which reminds me of one more story, a birthday story. I remember sitting in the Octagon minding my own business when Dad came out and said casually, "you know I'm kind of depressed today because I just realized that I'm too old to be the president of the United States."

It must have been his birthday. I was stunned by this, but I assured him that according to what I'd learned in Mr. Kline's class, Dad certainly was not too old to be president. And he replied, "yeah, I know. But it's too old to start in that direction. All the local and state politics, the elections. I'm too old to start down that path.

It's a funny feeling to know it's never going to happen." I was stunned by several things - 1) my Dad was confiding in me about something really big, 2) he was telling me the height of his ambition, albeit fleeting (I had always thought he could be president anyway) and 3) that he questioned himself and his own life, which seemed from the outside to be such a smooth, steady, confident path.
I have thought about that so many times since - the dual message that you should always think big and that, though every choice you make closes a door, you can be at peace with your life's journey.

There is no way to say thank you enough for any and all of it.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!!! I hope you can look back on your life with as much joy and satisfaction and you gave all of us.

Please share with your friends


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute to your Dad :-)

Pauline said...

Beautifully written - I imagine he was pleased and proud.

Hayden Tompkins said...

"You also showed a remarkable understanding of teenagers when you built the Octagon."

What, pray tell, was the Octagon?

Kip de Moll said...

The Octagon is shown in the picture of our house taken from the dining room looking out. It was built in 1967 and became the gathering place for many High School parties and afternoon hang-outs, with a fireplace upstairs, carpeting, and a pool table downstairs. It was impressive to see how many mentions it got in yearbooks, and when we sold the house last year, there were friends who offered to do all the work to have one last "Octagonal blast".

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

I am blown away by all your kind words and remembrances for my birthday. So far I have been unable to open Orman's video but someone will help me and I am sure it is as poignant.

When one reaches my age I have discovered, one wonders if his or her life has been successful. Has it been worthwhile? Have I left a mark? Have I made a contribution?

I supose, yes on all counts but I wonder if my best, along with your Mother, was producing you five. You were conceived with love. And, as in Cathy's story, although I never said so, I have loved you all.

Thank you,