I don’t want to write about my dad, even though Father’s Day is coming this week, and that’s a natural topic for my blog. Circumstances in recent weeks have thrust this topic into my lap, but I am resisting full force. In a prompt from my writing class, we were asked to pick the fourteenth photo in a randomly chosen album. The fourteenth photo: there we are in North Carolina on a drive from Detroit to Miami in 1973, but my first thought was, I don’t want to write about me and my dad.
Later that day, my wise friend Nancy saw a set of essays about famous fathers on http://myoldman.org/. With praise towards my weekly entries, she wondered what I would say about my parents instead of writing about food or art. How can you refuse a friend? Especially when they flatter you?
I didn’t know my dad well enough. That’s my problem.
When I was small, he was a giant. He was big not just to me but at 6’1”, 220 lbs – big boned — augmented by a fleshy Polish face, massive nose, and a wild mane of black curly hair. It wasn’t that he was tall – my 6’4” son outstrips him – but he had a giant presence. He literally played a Giant once during a summer camp play. His voice boomed when he spoke – I don’t think I ever heard him whisper – and he would always emphasize his stories with large gestures of his meaty hands. Even when he was wrong or making up facts to prove a point, he was never hesitant. He was famous at ping-pong for serving with such attack –“HA-A-A!” — that it didn’t matter where the ball went – you just dropped the paddle in fright.
So, when I was little, he was too big for me to really know. When I was eleven, my parents divorced, so I only saw him in the summers after that. Even though some summers I would spend weeks or a month with him, it didn’t seem as if we connected. Then, there was the father-daughter thing that kept as naturally apart. We were in that sense alien species to each other. He knew about sports and jazz, and he imparted those boy things in large measure to my brother, but not to me. At least, he never explained sports things or discussed sports with me. I do remember him letting me sit on his lap while he watched sports from the ripped vinyl Dad chair in the basement, exhorting the Detroit Lions to block the Purple People Eaters (Vikings), cheering when Al Kaline hit a screamer off the left field wall, or yelling, “Fly, Gordie, Fly” when watching the Red Wings. My wife would probably point to evidence that I absorbed all adequately this without the discussion I craved: the basketball poster in our garage, my plastic-enshrouded newspapers commemorating local sports wins I witnessed, or Hunter Pence (“my boyfriend”) San Francisco Giant’s jersey hanging in the closet.
Truthfully, I was also maybe not the daughter he expected – not the princess or Barbie type – even more of an alien creature. I was never Daddy’s Little Girl. He was not that kind of Daddy; I was not that kind of Girl.
He did know a lot about books — he had a master’s degree in English — and that is where we connected. I didn’t get the discussions about the latest column in the Detroit Free Press about on the Tigers or Pistons, but we did talk a lot about Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. That made a strong impression on me. He sent me Woolf’s signature novel, To the Lighthouse, for Christmas one year; next thing I knew, I was writing my Honor’s Thesis in college on it. He decided another time that I should read Vladimir Nabokov, and within two years, he had sent me complete Nabokov, twenty novels. In those days, with no online retailers, that meant he had to visit stores dozens of times to find them. I plowed through all the books, not always sure what I should be looking for, but hoping to learn something about my dad from reading them.
For all the warmth he exuded in the world, he was private with his emotions. We never had a heart to heart. I asked him a personal question on one occasion, and he more or less left the room in a huff. He would impart with gusto how to spread pizza dough properly or why a Miles Davis piece was great, turning up the sound on the stereo, “here, listen to him wail – ba-ba-doo-BANG, ba-ba-doo-ba…” To this day, when I hear any Miles Davis, I can smell the gin and olive of my father’s martinis. But I never heard him start a sentence with “I feel” or “I think.” In that sense, I suppose I am more like him than not; I am loathe to express openness about myself. I would much rather just be emphatically opinionated about this movie or that restaurant.
Most of all, though, he was larger than life, not just to me but to anyone who knew him. Not for success or fame or fortune. He did not have a particularly successful career; he wrote several novels which he could never get published. Yet everyone who worked with him or knew him would consider him a strong, positive influence on their lives. All three of his wives would speak fondly of him.
My brother got a degree studying Jazz, I got a degree in English, and both of us followed our dad into the business world. So perhaps I knew him much better – perhaps I was more like him — than I would have said. I just didn’t know him as much as I would have wanted. And there isn’t enough space in a blog or a couple of pages to cover it adequately. No matter how hard I might try.