Take time to get to know your father

Friday, June 19, 2009

My father was 70 years old when he broke 25 targets straight shooting a round of skeet. He had been practicing for years, not to excel at skeet, but to improve his ability to kill birds out hunting. The certificate he got from Williams Gun Club in Flint, Mich. after achieving that perfect round of skeet, is one of the few mementos I have from a man who was, and remains, something of a mystery to me.

Overhearing conversations here in Marshall County, I realize that a lot of you are very close to your parents, seeing or talking to them nearly every day. Even so, as you prepare to celebrate Fathers Day with gifts and a special meal, think about what you really know about your father: his life before you existed, his interests, his opinions. Don't leave it too late to fill in the blanks the way I did - you'll regret it.

My childhood was dominated by my mother - she was the one who took me on trips, wrote me letters, and generally bossed me around. My father just got the unpleasant jobs, like retrieving and burying the body of the dog who got run over, or flying to London to check out the Englishman I impulsively married when I was 21.

My father quietly continued with his hobbies: wing shooting, fly fishing, reading, writing, thinking...He tied his own trout flies and re-loaded his own shotgun shells. (Target shooting quickly gets expensive if you don't do this.) He would have loved the Weather Channel, but would probably have watched it with the sound muted so that he could form his own opinions of what the weather would be - he was something of an expert on this, and even had a portable barometer to carry on fishing trips, being firmly of the opinion that barometric pressure had a big influence on how fish behaved.

I wish now that I had paid more attention to him; spent more time with him; even exchanged letters with him. I don't have a single sample of his writing, either hand-written or typed. I have no idea what he thought about politics, what party he supported, or even if he voted.

My excuse is, of course, that I was away: away at school, away at college, living overseas. I was 35, and living in Spain, when he died of lung cancer, after a lifetime of heavy smoking.

I know little about my father, and what I state as fact may be no more than family legend. He was born in Madison, Wis. His own father died when he was three years old: victim of an accident when the young horse he was breaking to drive was frightened by a train.

He attended journalism school at the University of Wisconsin, but left before graduating to take a reporter's job at the Flint Journal. My mother was a Vassar student home for the holidays when they met at a New Year's Eve party, and they were married in the fall of 1929 - right before the stock market crashed.

My parents had two children right away, my brother and sister, and, so far, the story is one of a typical young couple. Then my sister got sick with an inoperable (in those days) brain tumor. I was two years old when she died at age 17.

My parents never mentioned her. I didn't even know I'd had a sister until my best friend told me. Surprisingly, when I asked my brother's widow, I found he had never talked about his sister either.

I think the whole dynamic of my parents' life changed with my sister's death. They stopped being a typical couple who went to church, went to parties, gave parties, had lots of friends. When I knew them, they had almost no friends, never went to church, were not active in the civic life of Flint, even though they would have had the time to participate in many organizations. Why - and how - they stayed together remains a mystery to me. At times they didn't even seem fond of one another. How did my father get through the rest of his life? What was he thinking? What did he wish he'd done different? Now I'll never know.