It didn’t take long for my father to develop an email style. His very first email carried what would become his signature farewell. TIE. Take it easy. Sometimes he added SIT. Stay in touch.
His emails were short, very factual, reporting on his bowling score or his search for an even cheaper internet provider. He ended up going to Walmart for their $8.99 a month deal after changing providers three or four times in the eighteen months he owned a computer, the time between the death of my mother and his own death. It amazed me that he’d buy anything from Walmart after the years of being a small dime store owner always trying to outsmart the ‘big guys.’ In our house, a whole dinner would be spent discussing how to beat K-Mart’s price on Aqua Net, the essential ingredient in the 60’s elaborate beehive hair-dos.
“You just have to get them in the store, Janice,” he would say, as if I was taking notes for when I’d take over the store. Aqua Net was our star loss leader (which I thought was lost leader until this very minute when I Googled it to make sure it meant what I thought, fifty years of lost leadership gone just like that).
Oddly, the store was an interest we shared. How to outfox the competition the only topic of our conversation on the half hour ride from our house to the store. I worked for my dad from the age of 12 to 18. We drove to work together most of the time. And that’s all we talked about, when we talked, which wasn’t much.
After I left home, I spent the next many decades finding fault with my father. Often, especially when I was with my sister, it bordered on sport. How many problems could we lay at his feet? In how many ways did he fall short as a father? When was he going to change? Didn’t he know how unhappy he made everyone? Looking back on that time, it amazes me that this business-obsessed, nonviolent, gruff guy who read two newspapers every day and a book a week could provide enough material for even one night full of sisterly drunk talk. He was not a sweet, involved, supportive dad. That was his terrible flaw.
So as the story goes, my fault-finding with my father, really both my parents, culminated in a very long estrangement. A ten year estrangement interrupted by a couple of Christmas cards. When I finally saw my father again after all that time, he had magically changed. He was 88. I was 54.
He was very mellow. Non-judgmental. Interested in what I was doing. Kind to my children. He had a sense of humor. He wanted to try new things. He went to Taco Bell. He told me this, how he’d gone to Taco Bell and asked the young man at the counter what he would recommend like he was checking out the wine list at a ritzy restaurant. He and I and two of my kids squeezed into a booth at the Chinese restaurant in his small town and we studied the placemats to find out which ‘Year of’ he was born in. The placemat didn’t go back far enough. He waved it away with a laugh. I can still see his hands rolling up the edge of the placemat, the little finger on his left hand permanently bent by an injury he never told me about. I don’t think I ever asked.
When I visited my father during this time, the time between my mother’s death and his, I wondered why he hadn’t been like this when I was growing up. Easy-going. That was the word. He seemed easy-going. He was easy to talk to. I wanted to talk to him. After years of Aqua Net conversation, I had real conversations with him. About my mother, our growing up, what had made him happy and what he was sorry about. And there were the stories. About making his own skis when he was a kid, playing his horn in dance halls, running the tire department at Sears. Sometimes he’d refer to himself in the third person like he was telling me a story about a different person, someone he used to know.
When my cell phone rang in the car and it was my brother, I knew what he was going to say. While my husband kept driving and my teenage children hushed their constant ribbing in the back seat, my brother told me the news. My father had died in his favorite chair with the TV tuned to a 24-hour news station. When we got home, I went in the shower and cried. For a long time. It was a weird combination of grief and gratitude, of, for once, having done something right, sitting in the Chinese restaurant, listening to his stories, and telling him mine. But knowing that that one time would have to be enough. One time was all there would be.
At my father’s funeral, I read an Edgar Guest poem entitled “The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders.” I read it because we used to listen to Edgar Guest on WJR while we drove to work, when we weren’t talking about how to outfox the competition, and I read it because of this last stanza:
But it’s strange for a lighthouse man like me
after forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now – will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
plant marigolds in early Spring?
There isn’t a grand conclusion. There is a small one and it is this. People don’t stay the same their whole lives. My father changed but so did I. I stopped making him the culprit for everything disappointing in my life and he relaxed enough to be a whole person to his daughter.
It was a rare and precious coincidence. A once in a lifetime thing.