A father’s gift
I loved the idea that Dad could still surprise me. That I’d known him well but not fully.
Forty years ago, whenIwas fresh out of college and not sure what to do with myself, myfather gavemesomeadvice. I had job applications out to what seemedlike every newspaper in Southern California. Waiting tables, atrociously, in aMexican restaurantwas notmy dreamjob. Iwas temporarily living inmydad’s condo. I needed a mission beyond slinging theNo. 4 comboand margaritas. I can still hear hiswords today, challenging and sympathetic. “Go do something. Even if it’swrong.” Itwas a conceptmuchin keeping with Dad’s general “never complain, never explain” worldview.
I took his advice. That day I collectedmywaiter’s tips froma dresser drawer, bought a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt, Germany, then packedmybags and hit the road. I ran out onmyjob, girlfriend and student debts. It felt wrong but good.
With something like $420 inmy pocket, I had decided on a mission: See Europe and, for sure, No. 7 Eccles St. inDublin, LeopoldBloom’shomein “Ulysses.” (Iwas an English major.) And, always drawnto the impossible, Iwantedtowalk LochNess in search of the monster. Amongthemanysnapshots I have of that summer, one is of myself standing in the crumbled doorway ofNo. 7 Eccles St. and another is of LochNess, smooth and shiny and utterly monster-less. Dosomething. Even if it’swrong. Well, maybe not fully wrong. But I did something that Iwouldn’t have done without Dad’sprovocative advice. Andthatwas his bigger point, of course, to do. (And, perhaps, get out ofmy condo!)
I’ve tried to followthat advice, within reason, for better orworse, formyentire adult life. I’vemadesome spectacular mistakes but enjoyedsomesurprising accomplishments.
Fewof us really getmuch done by playing it safe.
Daddied in 2009. Hewas 78. Not long ago Iwas going through the last of his things, storedinanoutbuilding onmyproperty. I’dbeen putting off the task for half a decade. Sometimes, keeping suchthings around is a comforting reminder of a life. At other times thosesamethings are an unhappy reminder of death. It depends on your mood.
So Icamedownto the last fewboxes. Eachwas clearly labeled inmyfather’s bold draftsman’s hand and neatly bound with good packing tape. What they heldwas representative but nothing youwould call important: fly-fishing oddments, knives and knife sharpeners, a pair of very oldMotorolawalkie-talkies — large and heavy and stickered with faded redu-print labels:“RFParker.”
Thelast boxwas heavy. Itwas labeled “Shells,” undoubtedlymore of theempty shotgun shells and 30-06 brass thatDadhad collectedand reloaded. I’d already disposed of half a dozen such boxes of ammunition casings. Fifty years agomy dad had very patiently taughtme to hunt and shoot, but I’dnever learned to reload.
I set the box onaworkbench. With a shop rag I swept the dust off its top, cut the packing tape and folded it open. Insidewas a cache of seashells. SomeI remembered frommyboyhood, collectedinBaja near SanFelipe on camping trips; others probablycame fromHuntingtonorNewport.
I sawclams and small abalone and scallops and wavy turbans and sand dollars and smoothed-off coral thatMomused to put in bowls to decorate ourTustin home. Theshellswere mostlyworn and chipped, as shells collectedfrombeaches and stored for decades tend to be.
Therewas evena bag of store-bought seashells, some dyed in splendidly improbable colors, vibrant in their still-unopened plastic container. Iwondered brieflywhyno one had never opened that bag, and I decided itwas because store-bought-and-dyed could never matchsought-after-and-found. I’ll never know. When your last parent dies, the list of things you cannot ask gets long indeed.
I grabbed a fewtrophies, closed up the box and pulled a fresh strap of packing tape across the top. I set it on a shelf, label showing. Over the years, I had had no problem discarding the12-gauge shells and .45-caliber shells, but the seashellswould remain in the family until at least the end ofmygeneration.
Why? Because I loved the idea thatDadcould still surprise me. That I’djumpedto the wrong conclusion about his box and what he valued. That I’dknownhim well but not fully.
All of whichset the stage for the entrance ofmy son, 16, bound for his senior year of high school. “HeyTom.” “’S’up?” “Going throughsome of Grandpa’s things.” “More shells?” “Seashells this time.” “Cool. Did you find a guitar cordout here?” “It’s on the table.” That outbuilding is where the band practices. Tom’s a bright, good-natured boywhomwe realized, shortly after his birth, has a head shaped exactly like his grandfather’s (and mine). Ihave a snapshot on the wall ofmydad holding babyTomupnext to him, cheek-to-cheek, the backs of their true-to-scale Parker heads to the camera (best angle).
At times like this, a father gets to thinking of his position on the great relay. What advice of mine, if any, might stick and help nudgemy son through his years? Whichone ofmyownboxes will hold the surprise that Tomwill not see coming until he opens it? What ofme will he choose to part with, and what will he keep?
OnthisFather’sDay, I propose that all you dads and sons, mothers and daughters put aside something unusual— something you but not you— for your next in line to discover, andmaybe evenbe astonished by, later.