I'd started my first master's program that summer; a master's in Education. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I got the call: on a boulder in a field in New Hampshire. Above me, the full moon hanging low and round, and the air was sweet and heavy with the scent of blackberries and newly turned earth.
I flew home the next day. Home to the place that I still associated with that word. My childhood home: the 6 acres of hilly Northern California land where I'd broken my arm, become a teenager, and yelled fuck you at my father, then ran out the door and down the hard-packed path to the barn, to the hill beyond where I always went in sadness. I was 16 when that happened, and he was strict in an archaic sense of that word: he expected me home by 10pm until I graduated; thought women looked best in dresses; counted on my mother and sisters and me to cook and generally keep the place presentable. I don’t remember the fight, save for the fact that he followed me and said: what if I’d left and those had been the very last words you said? (He was leaving for a trip that afternoon.)
I am painting the wrong kind of picture. He was formidable and peculiar to be sure. He was stubborn, foolish, and sometimes clueless (particularly about teenage girls and their boyfriends.) But he was also wise, funny, astounding, tender, and proud of me.
He admitted this before he died: I have no idea why I was so strict with you three.
Maybe in part because his father was a Lutheran minister; because he was one of nine. His own childhood was marked by obedience and hard work; berry picking to make the family budget, a paper route with a too-big bike before the age of 9. As a result he parented peripherally, often illogically. He didn't have much of a model. I'm not sure if this is a reasonable excuse. Who would I be now, if I had had more freedoms then, less boundaries, more team sports, less time spent doing work to earn free time?
I resented him at 16, certainly, but only with the kind of fleeting resentment that most teenager have for their parents. It didn't last. And even through those rocky years, mostly, I adored him. Adored the way he could fix anything; and also the way we could talk.
He opened up the world to me, with his ideas. He shone the flashlight, and let me take the lead. He asked me questions, then listened, and let me feel my way to my own truth. Up late, we’d sink in deep into conversations about Aristotle, Goethe, Steiner, Da Vinci, Saint John. He encouraged me to take risks too, to climb tall trees; to lie at the edge of cliffs and look far down; to sit on the peak of the roof and watch the sky.
I quit the program: knowing the rest of my summer would be utterly unfathomable, uncharted, disorienting. I wasn’t wrong. I lost my north star, my childhood home, my sense of who I had valued myself most to be: my father’s daughter. I’d spent my teenage years bucking up against his antiquated parameters and steep expectations, sure, yet as a result I’d become someone who felt confident with words and tools because of all the hours, years, spent by his side in dialogue, in partnership, his shadow, his helper. He’d taught me to use a weed cutter and a chain saw; to operate the table saw; use a hatchet, an ax, a maul; to drive in nails with a hammer, straight and true.
I was with him when he died today, eight years ago, on my half birthday. I secretly loved that he died the 26th; a day that we could share. It felt then as it was our final link; a secret handshake; a promise that I meant everything to him the same way he meant everything to me.
How I wish it didn't happened that way at all. How I wish that he were alive still; that he could spend time with his first grandson, my Bean, who is so like him. That we could still spend nights up late, talking, or afternoons discussing the universe over Lipton tea and toast with cheese.
I look at Bean and see my father as a child. He has the same startling intellect; the same way with observation, with words, with plans. He understands numbers and machinery as effortlessly as if he came into this world knowing. And just like my dad, he’s exquisitely sensitive. Just the same: he’s smitten with hay fever; he wonders about god; he builds elaborate machines with Legos; he handles a carving knife with more grace and skill than most ten year olds, even though he’s only 5.
I wonder what grandchildren would have done for my father. Softened his edges, maybe? Let him slow down, linger, and enjoy without the intensity he brought to every interaction. Everything was a full-on discussion, an inquiry, a puzzle to be solved. Again, so like my son.
So like me too.
The things we take from our parents; the things we borrow, steal, keep unaware. The habits we hold on to, the ways we think, wonder, see the world. So much of who we are is shaped from what we received, or didn’t, from the people who raised us, who gave us love or failed in this enormous way.
I think of this now as I watch both my boys. My second, so like T. Sunshine, pure sunshine. Laughter always, smiles always. He’s action and play and physical finesse. He’s an athlete already, coordinated, sure footed, in love with games: with playing ball and peekaboo and hide and seek.
I didn’t mean to arrive here, at this wonderment at my sons. I meant to say: it’s my half birthday today. 32.5 and I'm at the brink of possibly going again to school, for the third time (remember, Sprout arrived on the scene unexpecedly the second time I enrolled?)
The past six months have been the best, and the hardest, and the most rewarding. I can only gape, wide-mouthed, at what the next six months will bring; nevermind the next eight years.
Who will I be when who I am now is my former self by nearly a decade? Tell me: who will you be?