If he’d lived, my dad would’ve celebrated his 87th birthday this week. He’s been gone for 25 years and I realized this morning I’ve lived more than 1/3 of my life without him and yet he’s never far from my head, heart, and thoughts. Recalling his characteristic good humor in the face of life’s high hurdles gives me courage when I need it, patience when I’m running on empty.
A few months ago, I wrote about how deeply I benefitted from his pointed guidance in my growing up years, particularly when I was under stress. Take a peek…it’s sweet and will help you understand why I feel so very blessed to share DNA with him…my all-time favorite human.
This year as his birthday rolls around, I’m musing once again about the gifts that keep on giving – loving life lessons from my papa. It’s a short list of four things and in celebration of him, I think they’re worth sharing:
- Laugh at Yourself First, Agnes Gooch: I was a quirky, awkward, and uncoordinated kid. I liked books more than people and left to my own devices, I’d hide in the metaphorical (okay, sometimes literal) shrubs, just to be a voyeur. I didn’t understand it for years, but whenever Dad saw me hesitate and hide, he’d call me his favorite “Agnes Gooch” and cajole me out of my funk. Mom enjoyed shaming me for mistakes, for being overly introspective. Dad? He’d turn on the charm to yank me forward, remind me I was worthy. “When in doubt” he’d say, “Laugh off what bothers you…and move on, Agnes Gooch.” I was too little to understand Agnes was an actual character. The first time I saw the Rosalind Russell version of “Auntie Mame” I understood dad’s wisdom…really understood it…for the first time. Agnes Gooch? Yes, often, that was me!
- Service First: Dad was famous for telling me to ‘be the helper’. He had a keen awareness of the importance of kindness, and I think that trait amplified with my disabled sister Lisa’s arrival and mom’s mental health issues. He often looked at me as the capable one in the bunch, his compadre in the face of loony business. I realize now it was part of our bonding, daddy-daughter glue. I knew the look – he didn’t need to speak – my cue to step in, step up – either with mom and Lisa or with strangers in need. Because of his routine of buying an extra sandwich to share with homeless folks, I do the same thing today when I’m out and about and I see people in need. It feels natural but it’s because of him.
- Love the Ones Who Are Different: Dad looked out for the underdogs and his best friend in high school was a dear man, named “Slats”. I never knew his given name, but it didn’t matter. “Slats” was a term of affection, a nickname dad gave him because Slats was long and lean…he could disappear, Dad said, if he turned sideways. Which explained why Dad was forever feeding his buddy…Slats with the high metabolism, the original ‘bottomless pit’. Over the years, I learned why he and my father referred to each other as ‘brothers’. Slats was abandoned as a kid because of his birth defect. His left arm didn’t develop in utero and throughout his childhood and adolescence, he wore a sling to disguise the deformity. Dad knew Slats was a terrific baseball player – despite his disability. He saw it when they played catch…as if his right arm made up for what his left lacked. Slats said dad was the one who encouraged him to play and ‘screw the looky-loos’ by ditching the sling…to be himself. He was the best (only?) one-armed pitcher their high school ever saw. Years later, dad helped Slats navigate bigotry with employment prejudice…just as any big brother should.
- Two Strikes – Not Three: Dad was a ‘trust your gut’ kind of guy. If he liked you, he liked you. If he didn’t, he might pause to see if you were worthy…withholding judgment…but unlike his beloved baseball where you get three strikes before you’re ‘out’? No, no. Two strikes only in his book – that’s all you get. Off the field, out of his life, no looking back. I realize now he did that to protect himself. As I grew older, I understood who the people were who hurt him, alienated him. Always the ones who are closest – they can strike where it hurts the most and you never see it coming. Despite how loving and caring he was, he taught me you can be both – kind to others AND to yourself. You shouldn’t choose one over the other.
Four things…gifts that resonate over the years. Thank you so much for reading. I’m sending hugs and smiles to you…from me and my papa.