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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

The best that the internet can offer me today is National Yo-Yo Day and Gardening Exercise Day. But the universe gave me something much better. Today is my father’s birthday, so I’m using the opportunity to share a mere few words about him.

I have to start by mentioning that my father always complains about getting second billing to my mother. When we’d write cards with Dear mom and dad he’d tease us relentlessly about how he was always second best.

As far back as I can remember, he would count the little x’s and o’s at the bottom of my cards and say, “Oh sure, your mother gets five but I only get four.”

Even if you put an equal amount of x’s and o’s he always managed to find a way in which more were allocated toward mom.

Dad Math never worked out in his favor.

It should be noted that he is, in practical fact, getting his blog mention after my mother got hers. So I will have to go back and count her words and make sure he gets at least one more.

My father has always been the jokester, the one who wants to make you laugh or cheer you up, whether you’re in the ER getting stitches after falling off your bike or it’s just another sunny Friday.

Everything goofball and offbeat about me is inherited from him. And I mean that in the best way.

People tell me I look like my mother, but when it comes to personality I am often told how much I resemble my father, usually with much shaking of the head and sighing.

Ralph has taken to calling me Matthew (my father’s name) whenever I say things that drive him particularly crazy. I mean, it’s not untrue.

My father is quirky. He will ask you the same question a thousand times and tell stories using the maximum number of words possible, often by way of many tangents that can land you somewhere in Idaho if you’re not careful.

If you want directions, say, to someone’s house in the next town, it will take him almost as long to give them as it takes for you to get there. You’ll know exactly how many houses to pass on each street, exactly what color they are, which ones face slightly north and which ones have a big tree in the front yard.

Many years of my pre-internet life were spent frantically writing down “white house on corner facing opposite block look for grass and turn left at blue mailbox if you get to the green one you have gone too far” on the back of napkins and envelopes from that day’s mail.

Dad has always been my go-to person for Figuring Things Out.

He was especially good at figuring out the names of songs. I’d hear something on the radio, but nobody would tell you the name of the song and all I’d have to go by was a piece of a lyric that went something like “mahnah menene shark!” And he would go to work and come home later in the day with a little piece of paper that said “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and I’d go to the record store with full confidence that he was right.

I honestly have no idea how he did it. He must have walked around the office asking people if they knew a song about mahnah menene shark, until someone did.

It was impressive enough that I can forgive his lectures. Oh boy, did he get on a roll sometimes. I can remember coming home from [insert some night out clubbing here] and he would be waiting up in the den, watching TV and making sure I arrived safe and sound. If I was perhaps three minutes late or maybe he was feeling particularly wary of boys, he would tell me at great length and in more words than even I could have used about some situation in his own youth or some cautionary tale or offer some admonition or critique.

I nodded along a lot and tried not to fall asleep since it was usually 3AM by that point and even I have limits.

When I went to college and he worked nearby, he would pick me up on Fridays after class and take me home whenever I wanted. There were two kinds of car rides. Kind number one where I told him about my week and we joked and laughed. And kind number two where he was perhaps feeling particularly wary of boys and spent the hour-long trip lecturing or admonishing or critiquing.

He was never mean about it, but he also didn’t breathe long enough for me to get a word in.

In spite of all the nodding, my head never fell off. I believe, in fact, it helped screw it on a bit tighter. I get a chuckle-groan out of it today, but he was always the person willing to be brutally honest about how stupid I was being, which was fairly frequently. And he was always the person who listened to everything I said with empathy and consideration.

He never placated me or promised everything would be ok. But he did give me the profound sense that I had an ally who would go to the ends of the earth for me, no matter what.

To say my father spoiled me would be an understatement almost as big as saying that his 3AM diatribes were “lectures.”

I couldn’t so much as walk through a store with him and say, “Those are cute coasters” without him immediately buying them for me. When he knew about a tea I liked, he bought All The Tea. When he found out my favorite wine, he bought it by the case. There were no small gestures.

He made sure I had all the coolest toys. I remember the disco ball he gave me, big, round, sparkling. He hung it in my bedroom with spotlights and I could turn it on and play a little Madonna while the lights glittered around me. And then he would lecture me about the evils of Madonna.

Once, he got me a laser light that was a box about the size of a fat laptop that threw out a bunch of crazy swiggles of light all over the ceiling.

That was when I used to host frequent parties at my house. Not the “my parents aren’t home so come over” kind of parties but the “my parents are home so you know you’re going to get a good light show and some great food” kind of parties.

My friends loved my father. He was the one who showed up with boxes of pizza and boxes of giant cookies that looked like pizza.

He was also the one who drove me and half a dozen of my friends to the roller rink every Friday night, and to the dance club every Saturday. He was never late.

Many times after the rink or club had closed, I’d walk out to the parking lot and there he would be, waiting. Inevitably, one of my friend’s parents would not. So he’d hang out with us and wait until my friend was safely retrieved, and if that didn’t happen, he’d happily drive to any corner of any town to return them home.

I am often told, with much shaking of the head and sighing, that I complain like my father. Which is not untrue. We have the same disgust for uncooperative inanimate objects and people who walk down the middle of the grocery store aisle like they’re the sole survivors in a zombie apocalypse.

But he never once complained about chauffeuring me or anyone else around in pursuit of a good time.

As long as I was safe and happy, that was enough.

There are so many dad-isms about my father that I could really be here all day.

How he always orders a diet Coke at a restaurant and tells the wait staff that he does not want any lemon in it, near it, on it, or around it. He says each line with a punctuation of his hand through the air.

How, no matter how many of us there were in a restaurant, he always ordered for everyone. He would collect our orders like the world’s most efficient database and go around the table pointing to each one of us and repeating our requests down to which toppings we wanted on our burgers and how well done to make the fries.

These days it’s not uncommon to be standing in line at a movie theater with a mom and her two kids in front of you, waiting for the next ten minutes while she says what do you want and do you want a soda with that and look at the menu honey and what do you think of nachos? All while you keep looking at your watch and thanking the gods that there are 20 minutes of previews.

That would never have happened with my father. He was efficient. He was prepared. He was precise.

The nice thing about being the only girl in the family is that I’m his favorite daughter. All of his notes and cards are always addressed to me that way, and signed from “Stinkin’ Father.” You know, the one who always gets one less x or o than mom.

We don’t talk often, but when we do, it’s usually for a long time about a lot of things. He tells me stories about people he works with and I tell him stories about people I work with. We lament the same injustices, like when the person in front of you at the supermarket is the one who has to pay by check, but doesn’t bother to take said checkbook out of their purse until the entire order is rung up and then they have to empty the entire contents of their purse to find ID and inevitably the other four lines move through all ten people before the one ahead of you manages to remember the date.

We roll our collective eyes and say things like, “Unbelievable.”

Usually when I call home my mother answers the phone. When he answers, it’s to say, “Hold on, your mother is washing a chicken” and then narrates her activities until he can pawn me off to talk to her.

But when I call on his cell phone, he knows he’s stuck with me.

My father is the only person I know who can sleep laying on the floor in front of the TV with the remote control standing on one end propping his head up like a pillow.

He could always be counted on to be awake at any hour, so if you couldn’t sleep or had a bad dream, you could join him in the kitchen for a midnight snack.

Next to the definition of Santa Claus in the dictionary, it says see: dad. For years before I knew it was him, we’d leave cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve and wake up to a mess of crumbs with a handwritten note that said BURP!

Dad was the master of doing and undoing things. It’s been a longstanding family joke that he would put something up and take it down. A garden lattice. A wall. Once, he decided to lay slats of paneling diagonally across an entire wall of the den. He meticulously measured and cut and glued from one end of the wall to the other, until he reached the end and realized he could not get the last few pieces in because of how the grooves were arranged. So he had to take every piece down and start again.

It was known forever as the 400-curse wall.

Dad could not do anything without equal parts mayhem and hilarity. I think I get a lot of those skills from him.

He built us swing sets and when that wasn’t enough he built more swing sets. He played badminton with us in the back yard over the clothesline, running like a lunatic from one side to another while we took great joy in making him do it. He pushed us on swings and merry-go-rounds. He ran and ran and ran while pulling us on sleds through the snow like a human locomotive. He raked the leaves from every corner of the yard so we could jump into them.

If there was a pile of boys on the floor, wrestling or watching cartoons, my father would be at the bottom of them. He was simultaneously man, machine, furniture, hero.

He was the one you feared when mom said, “Wait until your father gets home!” And he was the one you cheered when mom said, “Dad will be home soon.”

He’s the reason we never sing “Happy Birthday” in unison but always off beat, off key, as horribly as possible, the more horrible the better. He is the one who shakes your gift and listens, then guesses what’s inside pretty much every time, no matter how you may wrap a box inside another box with all the paper and tape you can find. He’s the person who took every one of my birthdays off from work until the day I got married so he could spend the day with me.

The hard thing about talking about my father is that he is a story in a million snippets. He has always been larger than life, the bedrock and the glue, the thread that runs through every birthday party and every “go to your room” I can remember.

But I’ve counted the words and so far he has over a hundred more than my mother so that should be enough to make him smile. They’re not nearly enough to paint a portrait, merely a sketch. But any more and we’ll end up in Idaho. And I’m pretty sure we’ll bypass the green mailbox completely.

Photo: mom collects seashells, dad collects… well, the biggest, craziest thing he can find. Plus dad blowing out birthday candles during some birthday past, with a few Hello Kitties in the background that he has helped find a home with me even though they always eat all the chocolate he sends.