A fa­ther’s gift

I loved the idea that Dad could still sur­prise me. That I’d known him well but not fully.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By T. Jef­fer­son Parker T. Jef­fer­son Parker lives in north­ern San Diego County. His latest novel is “Full Mea­sure.”

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.

Su­san Tib­bles For The Times

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