Yep, that’s me. I’m the oldest of four (girl-boy-girl-boy), and early on I identified strongly with my outgoing, intellectual dad. He gathered information and experience omnivorously and can still talk a blue streak and actually listen to your responses interleaved with his monologue on almost any topic you can name. Today, I will need to set aside an hour at least to call him and listen. I notice that most of his stories these days go far back in time to when he was still proving himself to the world. 🙂
Oh, and he did a lot of proving. Short synopsis: Born in 1930 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to my Nana and Grandpa. Lived in the middle class of that time (Grandpa was a salesman for Nabisco) with the restrictions of the Depression and subsequent World War imprinting him with the desire to make good and provide better for his own family, to make a mark on life in general, to persist, no matter the odds, in exercising his great intellect and ability to lead others.
Dad worked his way through college (reinforcing again that you have to work hard and smart and do it yourself), and then joined the new United States Air Force in 1952. This is where most of the stories he tells begin and end: with his greatest achievement, his military career. Because of his nearsightedness, he started behind others who had wings on their jackets and had to work harder and smarter to progress. He did have some great adventures and worked hard and smart to go from a lieutenant working on missile design in New Mexico through a stint supervising forward communications specialists in Vietnam (lots of cool stories about this time frame) to a two-star general helping to oversee the Defense Department’s communications systems from the Pentagon. Not bad for the scrawny kid from New Hampshire who got bullied for having a German name during WWII.
But that career trajectory doesn’t even scratch the surface in a lot of ways. We kids found out at my parents’ 50th anniversary in 2003 that he’d actually sewn an entire formal gown for my mom for an event(!). Dad always fixed his own vehicles and is a decent woodworker and draftsman as well. Oh, and he taught me how to ballroom dance. 🙂 Of course he knows electricity, but also baseball, politics, comparative mythology, and since 1983, animal husbandry. Yep, not to be outdone by the military career, when Dad retired from that in 1983, he turned the 240-year-old farmhouse he’d bought in New Hampshire into a Black Angus cattle operation. Soon, we were regaled with stories of calf birth, fence-mending techniques, and discoveries of colonial paneling under Victorian wall paper in the old house. Dad’s mind roams everywhere.
So, as you can see, Dad fed my mind all kinds of things growing up, way beyond the mathematics and electrical engineering knowledge he originally specialized in. He and I would sit at the dinner table long after my mom and siblings had departed, where I would listen to his stories and ideas. His mind is the reason I have a broad view of religion and mythology, the reason I have a truly open mind, which sometimes drives those around me nuts because I will look at every angle of an issue and challenge you with the argument from the other side. That’s what Dad does.
Yep, I looked up at his lanky six-foot frame and was awed by all that intellectual power, all the connections he could make between subjects and ideas. In adopting his method of thinking, I have been able to capture and connect a lot of different types of knowledge, although my family and friends sometimes find it hard to follow my mental multitasking.
This is not an intellectualism that leaves much room for emotional connection, for quiet and empathic listening. I’ve had to work hard on modifying some of the mental and conversational habits I picked up from Dad.
I always thought that this mind education was pretty much the only gift that Dad really had going; it was hard to get below the surface to touch any emotions (we weren’t a hugging family, for example, and my dad, being sometimes too smart, is also very impatient with slower minds and doesn’t “get” little children very well—we got yelled at fairly often). I did miss having more hugs as a child. Really did. But there are other ways to show the depth of one’s heart, I found out. Mostly, it’s still about stories. Here are two:
I still remember being in the basement of our house in northern Virginia (remember, Dad worked at the Pentagon twice), about the time I got married the first time in 1981; the subject of marriage was on both of our minds. Dad was talking about why he’d married my mom. He knew right away that she was the one for him, but he didn’t dwell on the feelings that that created inside of him. To him, marriage is more than just looking into each other’s eyes, it’s more about looking together in the same direction (he may have picked that saying up from somewhere). It was his own motivation, though. He could see, and so could Mom, that they had complementary goals in life, that they sought the same kinds of fulfillment, that they would work well together most of the time to manage life’s changes and create a positive legacy for their children.
That stuck with me, although I didn’t manage to keep that first marriage going for life, my first husband and I did create a solid foundation for our children, even with the upheaval of a divorce in the process. And we worked well together after the end of our intimate relationship to continue supporting our children. I get that sense of responsibility ultimately from my dad.
And then, there’s that moment when a person surprises you by allowing just a little vulnerability and empathy because, you know, it’s really, really important sometimes. In 1978, I received a call that tumbled my life into pieces on the ground, a call from my boyfriend’s family that he had just been killed in a small plane crash. All of twenty-two years old was Tom. My companion for three years in college and probably would have been my husband if things had turned out differently.
I screamed, I stomped, I said “no” a whole lot. My mom, bless her, tried to calm me down. And Dad? No, he didn’t walk away to avoid the emotions. He told Mom to let me be, that this is what I had to do. Then I was told by someone that I could go to view Tom’s body after they’d recovered it from the woods where the plane went down. Dad offered to go with me. In the car, he asked if he could light a cigarette (he’d been hiding his smoking from us for the past 25 years, I guess). I said that was OK with me. I don’t remember much of anything he said, if he did talk that time; what I remember is his protective and loving presence, his understanding of this loss from experiences in his own life. That was the moment when I actually felt his heart.
This is Dad’s legacy to me. I am still Daddy’s Girl.