Dan and I just finished watching Tim Burton’s Big Fish. It was a wonderful blend of fantasy and reality. The movie was basically about a man’s search to know who his father was. He grew up with a father who liked to stretch the truth, and, according to the movie, “a man tells stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him and in that way he becomes immortal.”
My father died when I was still a teenager. Sure, I was technically an adult with adult responsibilities, but the child in me felt abandoned. I hated that my father never got to do things that grandfathers get to do: take their grandsons to the races or to the circus. My father would have loved doing those kinds of things with his grandsons.
As much as that saddened me, what saddens me more is that I never got to know my father, as an adult. Not that he wasn’t an adult – he died when I was on the verge of adulthood. There’s something wonderful about getting to know your parents as an adult. You brush aside the unrealistic expectations of childhood, and see them as people with the same problems that you have. When they’re gone, and years go by, you see them for who they really were – and not as you thought they were.
So it is with my father. Even though we never got to have an adult relationship, looking back, I see him with the eyes of an adult. My father was a real dichotomy. He was bright, but underemployed. He was by turns patient with people and impatient with things. Every Christmas, there was the battle with the tree and the lights. Why – I have no idea, but he seemed to struggle with making sure the tree was strung properly. He loved socialising with his buddies, and he went home to see his parents fairly regularly. He loved my mother and he loved his daughters, but he was the product of an era that didn’t encourage too much in the way of emotional displays. He had a serious nature, but a sense of humor that was easily invoked by the television set. I remember the whole family in hysterics over the Flip Wilson Show, or Laugh-Inn.
My father loved to smoke his pipe after a long day at work. To this day, whenever I see a pipe or smell tobacco (especially the brandy-flavored variety,) I am instantly reminded of my father. I wish more men smoked pipes instead of cigarettes. When I was eight years old, I made him a ceramic ashtray in art class for Christmas that he used for most of his life. After he died, my mother gave it back to me. When I die, I wonder if anyone will know how much sentiment went into that lopsided ashtray?
After he died, I found out that he had artistic talents that were never encouraged. I often wonder if it was because he was encouraged to pursue mathematics, which he also excelled in. He was an MP in the U S Air Force and worked on computers in the days of Fortran and Cobol. He loved cars and racing, and he loved boozing with the guys from work. Every year, he went to the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, where he worked as a Pit Boss. I got my love of classic and sports cars from him. We attended the auto expo every year to check out the new models coming out of Detroit.
My father wasn't perfect, of course. Sometimes I was angry that he drank too much. I was angry that he and my mother would fight in front of my sister and me. He had unfinished projects all over the house: everything from puzzles that got abandoned half way through, to his 1936 Packard restoration.
When my father died, at the age of 42, from leukemia, both my sister and I had the same dream. We dreamt that we were brought by an unseen entity, to a beautiful garden. My father was then brought to us, and we communicated telepathically. In the dream, my father assured me that he wouldn’t come back, even if he could, because he was happy.
I suppose his life, while short, was better than many men’s lives. To this day, I still regularly have dreams about him. No doubt he would have done more with his life had he lived longer – but we’ll never know. In a way, he is immortal, as he lives on in my dreams - and I dream about his shortcomings as much as I dream about the good things.