|My dad behind the wheel. Coney Island, 1949.|
Thinking a lot about my dad.
There has been much to do and think about since Dad died this past Wednesday. It's weird being the grown-up, all of the sudden: to help decide what day a funeral should be and what should happen at it, to compose an obituary with a committee of siblings, to think about how to pay tribute to a parent in a public way.
Some random thoughts: my dad was born just before the depression, April 13, 1929. His father worked on roads and wasn't particularly nice (from my dad's accounts), and was frequently punitve. His mother was emotionally frail and sensitive, wrote poetry, gave birth to eight children, and managed to feed them all in the resourceful way parents of that time did, a lot of beans and rice. I think that was always my dad's favorite meal.
Still, my dad reports his childhood was mostly happy. He says he wore nothing put a pair of overalls, never had shoes, but didn't need them. Life was lived mostly outside in rural Phoenix. His two sisters married in their mid-teens.
My grandmother died in a mental hospital in the 1950s when my dad was in the Air Force. My dad had joined the Air Force out of a desperation that I can only imagine. His dad had kicked him out after high school and my dad went into the world penniless. He slept in fields, he told us, and one day wandered into the recruiting office.
He basically hated being in the military. His anecdotes of it are mostly about boredom: playing pool on Guam, doing some construction work, engaging in ersatz boxing matches. He went to Germany and he was stationed in New Jersey. The photo above is from a trip to Coney Island. My dad is the fellow in the foreground on the right. It's nice to see him having such a good time.
After four years, he did a variety of things in varying chronology: climbed telephone poles for Western Union, did construction work, drove a hearse for a mortuary. And, like many of his generation, used money from the GI bill to attend college. At Arizona State he majored in architecture. Many people don't know that my dad was creative and artistically talented. He loved to draw and was good at it. Took classes here and there, but never pursued it with consistently. He interrupted his college education to serve a mission from the Mormon Church in Western Ontario, Canada, decided he loved teaching and finished his degree in education when he returned to Arizona State.
His first teaching job (as far as I know) was in a small high desert town in eastern Arizona called Bowie. I think he liked it there and was well liked, but he was a bachelor, knocking about alone, and lonely. In 1963, he decided to take some graduate level education courses over the summer at BYU in Provo. While there, he attended a singles dance and spotted my mother, a school teacher whose parents were waiting for her in a car in the parking lot.
After the dance, my mother took my father out to meet her parents. Four weeks later, my mother and father were married in the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City. Their honeymoon consisted of driving back to Bowie in time for my father to start the new school year. I was born the following July; my sister came 20 months later. After that began a pretty peripatetic life: My dad couldn't seem to settle on a place, kept trying to pursue a better combination of things: job, environment. It was all unclear and ultimately, not so great. We lived in Chandler, both Rubidoux and Riverside in smoggy inland California (where my brother and youngest sister were born), then back to Arizona: Phoenix and then Yuma, where my dad was not given tenure after three years at one of the local high schools. He says it was political, that he never got along with the administration. (After meeting the assistant principal in question the following year as a high school freshman, this story made sense.)
It was too bad that that was my dad's last teaching job, because he seemed to love the teaching. He loved teaching the most troubled kids especially: kids who had fallen through the cracks, teens who had never learned to read, the students who turned up pregnant. In Phoenix, he had taught in an adolescent detention center, and I remember the students in their bright orange jumpsuits. He was sensitive and accepting, completely nonjudgemental.
Those years following the loss of that job were not good and my family struggled financially. We were been on food stamps, scrounged among the couch cushions for change to buy some basic groceries. We lived off our food supply: powdered eggs and milk. Our family was often the recipients of charity, as humiliating as that was for me. The stress of this was hard on my dad as he searched haphazardly for ways to earn money in an isolated low desert town where unemployment was high and opportunities were few, even if you had a college education. My mother was fragile like his own mother had been, and my dad seemed helpless in the face of that, but continued to love and accept her. Sometimes he was the only one on the planet who seemed capable of showing her love.
My dad enjoyed being in the company of people who seemed broken, beaten down, all of those who walk the earth in tightness, who live perpetually in tight places. He loved talking to transients, the tramps, people on the margins, those who struggled to respond to him in English.
He had a big open heart and loved to help, although he usually had not much to give. He was devoted to the Mormon church, the church he'd born into, this heritage extending all the way back to the church's beginnings. Dad was always proud of that heritage, loved sharing it, spoke of it often. It informed his life and the way he saw his fellow human beings: that everyone, no matter who they were, had great potential within them, that everyone had divine worth.
In spite of everything that seemed to go so wrong, my dad was an optimist. He thought often of heaven, spoke matter-of-factly about the apocalypse and never thought he would have to die. But he also loved the broken world of his present, his family and almost anyone he came into contact with.
In the spring of 2008, he paid his only visit to New York. While my brother and I entertained the our respective kids in a Central Park playground, Dad struck up a conversation with a late middle-aged Egyptian man--the nearest stranger on his bench. When I came back to check in on Dad, both men were beaming, happy to be with each other. The stranger said to me, "Your father is a good man."
The stranger was absolutely right.