Father’s Day can be a rough one for members of the Dead Dad’s Club. It carries many of us on a trip down memory lane. For me, I think of my dad, Jim Parker, and smile. He was a fun guy for the most part, a good guy for the whole part. I’m not sure if he’d have ever used the word mensch, but he was one. Not that he was a saint, mind you, but pretty darn close in the mind of a girl who was only eighteen when he died. My mother and his friends will carry other memories, more layered with adult worries and circumstances, but I was young enough to have viewed him from the eyes of an almost-adult. The only picture I’ve found of my dad very close to me, is below. I feel a little funny using it as its before the arrival of my younger brother, but, it will have to do. This would be around 1961. I’m the baby in my father’s arms.
There are other pictures, of course, but not a lot. He died in 1979, long before everyone photographed everything.There’s a family shot from my sister’s high school graduation which I don’t love because Dad has a beard which he had grown for a bicentennial event, and it was not a great experiment. Also, seeing that shot reminds me that we never took a family shot at my graduation, two years later, and that’s kind of a drag.
But I remember moments without the help of photographs, and the lessons I learned could not be photographed.
I wish I’d gotten to the age where I could have thanked Dad for the things he taught me just by being him. I remember listening to my father brag about me and my sister and brother at a family event, and being very embarrassed, but also, secretly thrilled. I learned that sincere praise (even when it was inflated beyond reason, as it was in my dad’s case) can do much to increase a child’s self-esteem.
I remember my father taking me on his lap when I was up crying one night after everyone else had gone to bed. I was in fifth grade, a bit old to seek the comfort of Daddy’s lap, but he knew what I needed. Some girls had called me a “Mommy’s girl.” (I was a chronic rule-follower in those days – a straight A goody-two shoes for the most part.) While I don’t remember his exact words, I remember him saying something like this, People who are mean like that don’t get anywhere. Someday, you’ll show them. You’re going to go to high school and college and anyone who was mean to you won’t matter one tiny bit. You’re going places. The meanies aren’t. I don’t think I totally believed him, but I felt better. I did believe that one day, those “meanies” wouldn’t matter to me. And, they don’t. I learned that guiding a child through hurt that might seem on the ridiculous side to the parent, requires a gentle touch and a promise of hope for better times.
My father landed in a career that he shouldn’t have. He was a banker and I suspect, not a great one. He was probably a little too nice. He should have been a gym teacher; he was a natural as a coach and encourager, not at denying people loans who maybe weren’t really ready for them. When I was thirteen, I wrote in my diary, “I’m so scared. Dad’s so stressed out all the time about work. He’s going to have a heart attack. I don’t know what to do.” Five years later, I was right. I learned that it’s important to like what you do sometimes, better to love it all the time (and to marry someone who loves what they work at).
My dad also coached Little League and basketball, sang in the church choir, was a charter member of the town’s Lions Club, played basketball, and ran before running was trendy. He played a mean piano. I learned that being involved and contributing to something matters.
My brother and sister and I each were involved in different sports – for me, mostly ballet and gymnastics, but there were soccer matches, softball games, hockey games, baseball games. If Dad wasn’t coaching or working, he was there. I learned that being there – really being there – whenever you can, matters.
My father lived his values. It was easy to talk about blacks not being different than whites when I never saw any in our very white town, but it was another thing to watch my father literally jump to help a little African-American girl who had fallen off the merry-go-round at Riverside Park when all the other white people on the bench stayed seated. He drafted the first girl in town on his Little League team. He gave kids rides to and from practices if that meant they could be part of the team. I learned that kids often learn more from actions than they do from words.
Sometimes I’ve sat and wondered, besides genetic material, what of Dad do I carry in me? And I used to think, not much. He was funny and outgoing and nice. He was an exceptional athlete. But Dad was a cheerleader too, in so many ways – for his family, his friends, his teams, his causes. I think I may have gotten a little bit of that positive, encouraging attitude from him. I may not be a mensch, but I try. Will always love you, Dad.