my dad turns 86 today! he is old and he knows it. he is a person of special character, and most certainly not the sort of fellow who thinks it’s cute when people say you’re only as old as you feel. he would say that he feels old, that things wear out with use. actually, he wouldn’t say it– he would think it instead. he doesn’t talk much.
my dad didn’t talk much ever, i don’t think, but he did read to me (usually by candlelight) every night when he put me down to sleep. always, it was poetry… either classic heavy hitters or dr. seuss, but not much in between. my father likes rhymes. limericks make him laugh a bit too loud. a poem must rhyme or it is not a poem; that’s my father’s take on things.
before i go any further with this, i will answer the obvious question: i am thirty-four years old, not sixty. my pops was oldish before he made me. there are advantages and disadvantages to this arrangement, as you might imagine, but the eye of the spirit level lies quite tilted toward the side of advantageous.
my father is a self-made man in the truest sense. he was orphaned young, during the depression. nobody handed him opportunities on a platter; he had to find his own, and so he did. he enlisted in the navy at sixteen, for the sake of education and travel. he worked hard & he was smart, so he moved through ranks with uncommon speed and became an officer. he was a deep sea diver, and really carved quite a remarkable career for himself. he would never say so, but that’s true.
by the end of vietnam, he thought it was time to go to the woods. he retired and fixed up an old stone house in new hampshire, and then he hiked the appalachian trail, four times. on the third go-round, he met a (much) younger woman who was just as crazy about walking in the woods that he was. she was a southern debutante hippie rebel who was surely the strangest match for him in every way, but he loved her because for some reason she reminded him of katharine hepburn. so after he’d known her for two weeks, he said to her, and i quote, i don’t suppose you’d want to marry an old geezer like me. they got married and started homesteading and then came me. the marriage did not last, but he has, and i have, and so has my mother, and there is still a lot of love between us all. we are still a family, deep and real and messy and strange, like families tend to be.
here are a few of the useful things my father taught me (he sets the bar high, folks): how to grind grain into flour. how to make a perfect popover. how to sew clothes. how to love poetry and words. how to develop photographs. how to build a loom and weave with it. how to divine for water. how to chop wood. how to build a sauna. how to make wine from rhubarb [editor’s note: not recommended]. how to use a root cellar. do not let that ladder touch the electric cables! barbie is stupid but i will buy you one anyway. this is how you squish a potato bug. this is how you fold an american flag. sleep in a tent with regularity. wars are pointless and are generally about religion and testicles. “snazzy” and “spiffy” are effective adjectives. be nice to your teachers. anyone can be your teacher if you seek to learn things (which you should). look people in the eye when you say hello. yes, say hello, even when you are feeling shy. say thank you when people do kind things, say it over and over. if you move your body around a lot and only eat when you’re hungry, you will not get fat. you are not a victim of anyone but yourself. be generous of your time and resources. trust… and when in doubt, ask the old-timers. let sleeping dogs lie. there’s little more fun than a squeaky wooden roller coaster. npr is good on sundays, and you should listen to it loud when you start to lose your hearing, and not give one fig if it happens to rupture your companion’s eardrums with a deafening click and clack. what other people think is none of your business! make friends with people who are different than you are. make friends with animals. the african queen is the greatest movie ever made. never hire someone to do something you can do yourself. you can do almost anything yourself. listening to opera makes you feel things deep inside, and it might make you cry, so let it. getting old is hard, even when you’re trying to be graceful. when you aren’t graceful anymore, just pretend you are, and others will believe it. sometimes you’ll fall down. get up again until you can’t.
that guy, my dad… he made himself, and then he made me, and i thank him over and over. and i thank you for reading this, too. send him a little secret love today, will you? he’ll feel it.