It has certainly not felt much like spring in the Pacific Northwest! With continuous rain since October (only three days without rain we are told), it is hard to accept spring has arrived. Yet, there have been a few days when the sun has peaked through. I felt it in the air today, sneaking a walk between clouds. It was absolutely beautiful…the air crisp…and in every garden, life springing forth anew after the long dreary winter. Weather or not, spring reminds me how much a change in seasons affects me. I find my thoughts wandering back to my childhood…to spring and to my father.
I grew up believing that every flower that bloomed in spring was a crocus. Whether it was a narcissus, daffodil or primrose didn’t matter, it was always a crocus to me. At least that is what I had learned from my father.
Every spring as first flowers appeared, my mother would nonchalantly ask, “what kind of flower is that?” Without a second thought (or look at the flower in question) he would conjure up a smile and reply in the most assured voice, “why that my dear is a crocus!” My sisters and I would giggle at the silliness and familiarity of the exchange between them. It was spring awakening for our family in a visual and familiar way.
Spring holds magical memories for me. And just as each year I can be sure that the crocus will return, I can be sure that thoughts and memories of my father will emerge as well.
You see, since those early days, spring and my father go hand in hand. It was strawberries as big as my fist…picked fresh in acres of strawberry fields…layered on angel food cake and topped with whipped cream celebrating his April birthday! It was hand-picked peanuts and Dodger baseball, and the inevitable tale of the crocus. I believe now that it was divine intervention that father was born and also died in the spring, sealing spring and father together in my mind for the rest of my days.
One of six siblings, heart disease ran in the family and several left too early as a result. Dad’s first heart bypass came at 55 and changed him in a good way. He let go of much of the steel veneer built to protect him and us from the reality of years he served as a decorated army officer. He was tough on the outside but on the inside his heart was big.
Nonetheless, discipline was tough. On road trips when young and bored from hours of driving, we three girls were often restless. I never understood how he could, with a single swipe of his massive arm, catch each of us with a whack from one side of that big Cadillac to the other! If that didn’t work, he’d just pull over and have us run laps around the car…it was huge…had big Cadillac wings on the back that I could barely see around! It was horrible, memorable, and exhausted us into submission and slumber and a few more hours of peace for parents also tired from the drive.
As a teen, and with some distance from active military, his tactics and demeanor changed. He often waited up for his girls to return from nights out and rigged the house…yes rigged! A French slatted door, dividing living spaces was a favorite booby trap! Closed one night, and trying to tiptoe in, I slammed into it with a deafening crash! Stunned by the hit, the noise and the two-week restriction, I was defeated! I heard him telling mother…in a hushed and muffled laugh…he was the victor…obviously quite pleased with himself!
And there were other similar episodes…lying in wait on my bed…scaring the heck out of me as I sat relieved to have made it past the door only to hear him say…”it is past your curfew…two weeks”…as I peeled myself from the ceiling…asked “why are you so crazy?!”
Almost everything my BFF Sylvia and I did was discovered. Seemed like we were always in trouble…but we really were not! We were terrible at lying and terrible at being bad. Dad often caught us at our worst and was mostly amused by our pranks and ridiculous explanations. He loved Sylvia as much as me and protected us in his spirited way that we somehow connected with, feared, and which probably saved us in a world that was rapidly changing and becoming more scary and risky for all of us!
Raising three girls was hard and had to be a challenge for this man’s man although I’m sure he would deny it! We never heard him swear, and though drank a whiskey most nights, never saw him after too much, he held his temper, and kept his top secret work a secret…sparing us the details of a military career that was always classified. He encouraged us to strive for more…when he heard I was majoring in Home Economics, he said drop the “home” and get a degree that will take you places! (Retrospect, neither suited me and I should’ve done something else but that’s for another story). He was a typical parent of the “greatest generation”. Mostly he led by example, let mom do most correction and let the school system worry about education. At times, I think he longed for a boy…and at times I felt the surrogate…competing in sports and joining him often for baseball.
He loved baseball and baseball was our “soundtrack of summer.” He shared season tickets for the LA Dodgers for years. He was a man of routine. He packed a hat, a toothpick, portable radio and hand-picked a brown bag full of perfect hard shell peanuts. There was always a stop in Chinatown for pork fried rice, BBQ pork, and specially made veggie egg rolls…same place every time…the owner/cook and dad bowing to each other with respect, sharing words in a hybrid of English/Chinese only they understood, leaving a lasting impression on a daughter in awe this unexpected friendship.
Then up the hill to Dodger Stadium…to third base side…a few rows back and left of dugout! So close we could see the sinewy muscles in the “lil’ Abner” arms of Ron Cey, the third baseman, and one part of the “longest lasting infield” in baseball history that also included Steve Harvey, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell. An outfield of Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and Rick Monday…celebrated pitchers Tommy John and Rick Sutton, catcher Steve Yeager…wow…heck of a team! And of course, the oh so remarkable coaching and high drama of Manager Tommy Lasorda.
It was in the 1970s and the LA Dodgers, held a decade record, of 910-710, had three Titles and three Pennants. They were awesome! And we were there!
Most memorable for me and countless others, was Vin Scully the legendary announcer and now Hall of Famer, calling play by play. Dad said Vin Scully made the game…could paint a word picture in such a way you could not just see the game you could “smell” the game! And in the 70’s, Scully was in his prime. One of my favorite quotes from his play by play…”Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill. It’s all there in front of you. It’s theater, really. The star is the spotlight on the mound, the supporting cast fanned out around him, the mathematical precision of the game moving with the kind of inevitability of Greek tragedy. With the Greek chorus in the bleachers!” It is understandable why dad always had a portable radio and listened to Vin Scully even in the stadium!
Later years, when driving to the stadium was no longer an option, dad could be found sitting in his recliner, chewing on a toothpick, radio to ear, Vin Scully, play by play, Dodgers on TV, sound off! I still see him there often.
Dad said his first bypass surgery was a good thing. I get that now…when faced with the prospect of death, we choose life! We learn to live and dad did just that! He bought a Ford 100 pickup truck, fitted it for a road trip to Alaska to fish…so he said. With a hard-shell camper top, a couple of pots and pans, a camp cook-top and army blankets he drove the 1700 mile Alcan highway to Alaska. In the 1970’s, the road was legendary for being difficult, a rough ride, and not for the faint of heart. Built by the US Army in the 1940’s it was a connection from the contiguous states and Alaska through uncharted terrain of Canada. The road was mostly compact dirt over layers of red clay and deep permafrost. Stops were way points for sharing stories and a beer with travelers on the same journey of a lifetime…passing strangers with a common and well understood bond.
Dad returned an “old sourdough” as mom would say…reflecting on his nature and rugged good looks…tanned…strong and at peace. Like his truck covered with miles of dirt…he too returned with miles of a new kind of dirt…”dirt” of revitalization. Dad always felt God’s presence when he was in nature. He had no patience for pretense of going to a church but he was a godly man who prayed and led a spiritual life. He just did it in his outdoor church. I often think this journey for him was not just a physical but a spiritual journey to rediscover his faith and who he was.
And as if once wasn’t enough…he did it again. On his second trip, mom flew to Alaska to join him. It was his heaven on earth and he wanted to share it with her. He was smart enough to know it would not be mother’s idea of fun to drive both ways. She agreed to drive back with him. This time he added a few more comforts to his F-100 including a full camper shell, with a bed and cook top and dishes. We teased him about how much pampering the truck got. His response was always something like “don’t worry, we go everywhere together…even when I leave this earth!”
His second heart surgery in 1982, went well. We celebrated with dinner…but left it unfinished as we were summoned to return. The drive to the VA Hospital a blur…what did the doctor say…a missed artery…a heart attack…does not look good…???
No tears…just dread…a speeding vehicle…his four strong women…together…facing the unknown…
Not this war hero!
Not this good man!
Not this husband of 33 years!
Not this beloved father!
Not this fisherman!
Not this day!
We buried dad at Riverside National Cemetery. His girls by his side. Taps…tears…and a toast for one helluva good man, war hero, husband, father, friend, fisherman!
Two weeks later the F-100 was gone…heaven bound…it was never found.
Spring is hope and renewal. For me it is dad! It is crocus…even when it’s daffodils. It is fishing…even when one doesn’t catch a fish. It is strawberries. Baseball. It is dad tending his lemons and tinkering on his F-100. Spring is hope in the beating heart of a man who lived life. Full and rich.
I learn from him still. Lessons I find myself adapting to this new journey. From dealing with each new circumstance, to appreciating the little things…baseball…spring flowers…changing seasons…routine…an occasional whiskey. To respecting and honoring the people in my life and mostly remembering to laugh, to love and to live the life I’ve been given. These will define me, not the myeloma that has simply (and maybe fortunately) magnified the importance of these things in my life.
Footnote: Age, reflection and a full heart can magnify one’s memories…I share those I cling to and color with how I have chosen to remember. In talking with my sisters, we often remember differently…but we all agree and remember, dad’s courage, strength and love for us. Maybe this will inspire Jan and Deb to write their own stories!