It happened often. Not daily, by any means. Not even monthly, I’m sure. But it happened enough that I remember it. I don’t remember each time it happened, of course, but I’m quite certain I recall the very first time it happened.
I must have been a pre-teen or perhaps in my early teens. I’m sure it was during the winter, because the kitchen was dark and the lights were low as my Mom prepared dinner. We sat at the peninsula in the kitchen–my brother, my sister, and I–waiting, like ravenous dogs, for plates of food to be placed in front of us. My dad stood on the other side of the kitchen, and, with my Mom’s back turned, my dad looked me in the eye from across the room, with a smile on his face and completely unprovoked, he flipped me the bird.
I remember the shock I felt the first time my Dad raised his middle finger at me. Taken aback, I’m sure horror escaped my lips in the form of a scream followed by tattling to my Mom what my Dad had just done. I know there was a lump in my throat and I’m sure a few tears slipped from my eyes. I don’t remember what my Mom said, though, I imagine she just shook her head. My dad on the other hand, looked me in the eye, and as I remember it said this: Summer, it’s a harsh world out there. You’re going to be hurt. People will be mean to you. It’s important that you learn to shake it off, let it go, laugh, and not take everything so seriously.
Early on, my Dad saw that his middle child (me) was born with an extra sensitive heart and with layers of skin that might be just a little more thin than the average person. This condition led to emotions that were tossed every which way like angry waves in a violent storm. An unkind word sent me reeling, the smallest slight created havoc in my heart, and a sideways glance left me feeling sick to my stomach.
My dad knew the the world could be cruel. He knew I was going to be knocked down and hurt. He knew he couldn’t protect me from it, so instead, he prepared me for it.
This became a thing between the two of us for several years. He, with a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye and never, ever with anger, holding his middle finger high for only his middle daughter to see. Over the years, I learned to laugh at him, at myself, and I learned that some things are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.
There is a story about my Dad that we tell and retell in all it’s absurdity and hilarity. The story goes like this:
My dad was driving from his hometown back to our hometown after a visit with his Mom. The drive between the two towns, which he made on a weekly basis, took about 45 minutes. The miles between the towns were mostly country miles on a two-lane state route. On this particular day, my Dad veered his car with the curves of the road, no doubt just enough over the speed limit, until he happened upon a highway patrol car that seemed to in no hurry to get anywhere fast. For a bit, as the story goes, my Dad stayed behind the patrol car until, impatience entered the picture and my Dad decided the patrolman was going a little too slow for his liking.
At this point, my dad turns on his blinker, veers around the patrol car, flips his blinker back on to make his way in front of the patrol car (Remember, this is a two-lane country road.) and continues his drive–no doubt classic rock playing on the radio.
As my dad takes his place in front of the officer and glances in his rearview mirror he immediately notices bright flashing lights. My dad, a (mostly) law-abiding citizen, eases his car onto the birm and waits. A few moments later, a laughing uniformed officer in a wide brim hat approaches my dad’s window and comments, well, that’s never happened to me before.
My dad simply shrugs his shoulders and accepts his ticket from the officer and finishes his drive home. (In front of the officer, of course.)
I’ve talked about it before, but I can’t talk about my Dad without mentioning Wednesday’s.
We were busy, like most families during my adolescent years. My brother, sister, and I were each in sports. Practices dominated weeknights. My dad worked. My mom stayed home. Like most families, the rush of life steals away time. It was during this busy season when my Dad gathered us together and declared we would begin what became known as “Wednesday’s”.
My dad explained that Wednesday’s would not be mandatory–my first introduction to the word ‘mandatory’–but all who wanted, were welcome. In order to give my Mom a night off from making a meal, and in order to slow down and catch up in the middle of the week, we would spend Wednesday evenings gathered around a table at a restaurant.
On the outside it looks like no big deal. A family of five, gathered around a table. The tables were not fancy. Quite casual, actually. The food on our plates was good, although no articles were being written about it. The table was an accessory, as was the food.
The thing about Wednesday’s? It was the conversation. Around the table on Wednesday’s we learned about each others days, lives, stories. We laughed and we shared. Sitting around those tables, I learned endless lessons about life.
Without ever saying I word, I watched as my Dad made sure to learn the name of the men and women who waited our tables. I watched and learned as he spoke kindly and with respect to all who came to our table. Over the years, the waiters learned our names, welcomed us with smiles, and was curious when one of us was missing.
On Wednesday’s I learned from passing statements like, “It just isn’t that hard to be happy”. Or, “to be a lady or gentleman never goes out of style.” My brother learned to hold the door for the girls and the girls learned to say thank you when he did. We lingered during these dinners. Early bedtimes were traded for the joy of a little more time around the table and one more refill. Around the table we learned of my parents childhood stories and we wondered at the future that awaited us.
Wednesday’s were safe. There were grounding. They were honest and fun.
Wednesday’s were as sacred as a prayer and steeple on a Sunday morning.
There was a time during my college years, when life felt bleak. When life was bleak. It was as scary and dark as anything I’d ever experienced and have ever experienced since. There was a time when I wasn’t sure I would ever find my way out–when I wondered if I would ever find the light on the other side of the darkness.
I felt like I was drowning. I couldn’t find my way out.
And then, something happened. On a Wednesday evening my dad drove toward me. He got in his car, he drove the miles, and he met me for dinner. We sat together at a table We talked. He listened. I listened.
And then next Wednesday, he drove toward me again.
And again the next Wednesday.
And slowly, very slowly, I began to see light again. Around a table, alongside my Dad, Wednesday after Wednesday, I began to live again.
I share these stories today because they are stories worth telling, stories worth sharing. I carry a part of you around with me every moment of every day of my life. I am so proud to be your daughter. So proud to have had the privilege to call you Dad. I have learned so much simply by watching you. Watching the way you so easily welcome and accept others. I’ve learned by seeing your consistent, faithful, and honest walk through life. I’ve learned by watching you navigate hardship with courage and a strong dose of humor.
Dad, you taught me, very early, not to take life, or myself too seriously. And while your method may have been unconventional, the lesson I will never forgot. Dad, you taught me that happiness wouldn’t be found in a booked flight or a six figure salary. By your example, I learned to find joy in my own backyard, under my own roof, in the clink of glasses, and an honest days work.
Dad, I remember when you told me that the favorite sound of most people is the sound of their own name. Learn the names, you told me. Say the names. When Mom died and I couldn’t see how we would all get through it, you told me, ‘take one step at a time and before you know it, you’ll look back and be surprised at how far you’ve come.’ This is among some of the best advice I’ve ever received–not only for grief, but for life. When we were young, Dad, you made it very clear that you were not there to be our friend–that job was reserved for our friends. You’re role, on the other hand, was the one that only you could play–you were our dad. I’m so grateful, Dad, that you didn’t trade the hardship of fatherhood for the ease of being our friend.
But Dad? I’m also grateful that, when the time was right, you became also our friend.
Happy 70th Birthday, Dad.