Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Where hoppytoddle comes from

I bought a pretty little journal (It had rick-rack. I love rick-rack.) when Mini Me was just 1 year old, with every intention of writing all of these sweet little stories in it for her of all the wonderful things that happened to make her who she is. I didn't write in it until a year ago today, when she was over 2 years old.

My dad died on Sept. 19 of last year, unexpectedly. Every time I sit down to write in that book since then, I think of him, & I just haven't been able to write. That's a big reason why I started this blog. I wanted to tell somebody about him & still manage to get some of the stuff that seems so mundane down for her. I'm sorry this is so sad. I'm not always this depressing, I promise. Just bear with me.

His death was sudden & as unexpected as it could be for someone who was an alcoholic, smoked 2 packs a day, occasional Swisher Sweets, & who drove the route through the Upper Peninsula of MI so he could get pasties. He wasn't always a truck driver. When I was born he worked at the Penn Dixie plant on Little Traverse Bay south of Petoskey. My dad lost his job there when the land was sold to the state, because they were drilling so far down for the limestone it was having negative affects on the fish in Lake Michigan. The selling of that land to a developer years later, who blew the remnants of the bed into the lake to make a marina for Bay Harbor, was the final push I needed to change my major to Planning. In between, he worked in foundries, as a welder, a journeyman. He did have a college degree, but he always worked with his hands. It wasn't until he died that I figured out that he preferred to work with his hands so he could have his mind all to himself. He was always thinking.

My parents got divorced before I was 2 & when they did, my mom moved back downstate. She worked hard to make sure I got to see my dad. If it wasn't for my mom & my step-mother, we probably wouldn't have really known each other. It was just too hard for my dad to see me, be reminded of both my mom & the fact that he would not get to see me grow up, really. I suspect that the reason my mom pushed so hard was partially because she's a martyr, but also because she was secretly hoping I'd decide my dad was as awful as she thought he was. It backfired.

My dad drove to stay with me in my dorm room at Michigan State. When I went to the University of Detroit, he helped me move into the dorms there. He looked at the bulletholes in the dorm & told me I was becoming an architect in Saigon. He helped me move into my first apartment, a flat at Van Dyke & Lafayette. He didn't say anything, but I knew he was scared for me.

One of my favorite stories to tell about him was when I was in Architecture school, he welded my friend Jordan's shock plate for his 1980 CJ Jeep. I was staying in this house with like 7 guys & they couldn't believe I knew the difference between an XJ, TJ & CJ. When Jordan could not find, or more accurately, afford a new shock plate, I took one look at it & said, "Let's drive out to my dad's on Sunday. He'll fix it on the spot. Just bring your one hitter." They couldn't believe my dad would just do something like that for someone. I told them, you're not just anyone. You're my friends. Jordan had a super sweet girlfriend, that I think he married, so it wasn't about that. It was a bumpy ride on 94, but it was fun, as we told stories about our families. It took all of about 4 minutes for Jordan & my dad to find something to talk about. Dad welded the plate with the torch he kept in the barn. I went to pick blueberries & made blueberry bread while they worked. I grabbed some Squirt out of the fridge & headed out to the barn. Jordan & my dad were doing hits out of the one hitter. The bread didn't last very long. We all sat around the table in the barn and gabbed. I can't for the life of me remember what we talked about, just how I felt. See, I spent a lot of time feeling sad about how my dad wasn't what my mom needed him to be. That day I stepped back, looked up, & thanked God. Maybe my dad wasn't who my mom needed, neither for herself or for me, but I was so glad he was my dad. On the way home, Jordan told me he'd never see me the same way again. It wasn't that I had a dad who got stoned every once & a while, it was that I had a dad that I could just be myself around. It wasn't just that our love for each other was palpable; we actually liked each other, too.

Dad never felt like he could ever criticize my decisions. He felt like because he didn't raise me, he didn't get to have say. Even when I begged him for his opinion, he wouldn't give it to me. He did tell me things he didn't tell anyone else. Like how he spent weeks building a landing strip in Laos, only to have to hide in a bunker for 3 days while it was destroyed. Then he had to go out & bag the bodies of his buddies that had been laying there all that time. He told me about how he got a letter from his high school sweetheart his first week of boot camp telling him she was pregnant & going to marry someone else because she knew he was going to get killed. He told me that my mom was the love of his life & never had a bad thing to say about her, except that she was a little messy. This meant a lot to a child who had no memories of her parents loving each other.

There were a lot of things about my dad that were hard to deal with. He had a gift for saying the absolute worst thing at the absolute worst time. He was not right in the way that someone with PSTD is, combined with a healthy dose of OCD. He had a combustible temper combined with remarkable shooting skills. Many times I was somewhere with him & had to quietly beg for him not to reach under the seat of his truck for his gun because he had witnessed something that he didn't know any other way to handle. There were also many times I wished he had witnessed something that someone did to me. When I was about eleven there was an incident where I gave him an ultimatum that I didn't ever want him to drink around me again. He stuck to it until I was of drinking age, & even then, he never really got drunk.

He would come stay with me at the little house I lived in in Plymouth in my last years at EMU. He would bring some Black Label, or Bell's if he was trying to be fancy. He'd sit at my kitchen table, which had been a wedding gift to he & my mom, while I cooked and baked. We would talk & eat. Walk my dogs. Drink some beer. Talk some more. He'd ask me to explain things I studied in school like situational ethics & how trusses work. We'd listen to Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, The Dead, Jessie Colter, Jimi Hendrix. When I was just about to graduate, he saw a list on my fridge that I'd made of things that I was going to buy for myself when I got a real job. He picked the most expensive thing on the list & drove to Sears to buy me a brand new 32-inch televison that very day. His only concession was that I not tell my step-mother.

I would leave parties at ungodly hours, drive the 2 hours to his house, & we'd go fishing in the north channel of Lake St. Clair. By sunrise, I'd have caught something & fall asleep in the bow. He'd do things like put vodka in my coffee while I was sleeping.

When I met my husband & moved to Florida, I killed a part of my dad. His own dad died about a month after we moved down here & he was left with no one else to fish with. We talked every Saturday afternoon, unless something special was going on. He would call occasionally during the week too, & in his messages he would always tell my husband he loved him too. Pretty amazing for someone from stoic Finnish stock. The song we danced to at my wedding was "The Promise" by Tracy Chapman. I always thought I'd move back to MI before he passed.

I can't tell you how much I miss picking up the phone & hearing him say "Hoppytoddle!?" like some teenage Beatles fan. I want to tell him Mini Me has his giggle. Those moments, of seeing her beautiful face make that sound that pierces my heart, are the very definition of bittersweet. I went through pictures looking for ones to take with me to his funeral and didn't find very many of just him. As I dug through the boxes, I realised just how many pictures there were that he took of me. And they are all my favorite ones, because when you look at them you can see how he saw me. He made me feel beautiful just because of who I am, not because of who made me, but because of what I made of myself.

In the last year I've realized some things about my dad that I never would have when he was here. My mom is currently furious with me for planning to move out of Florida. She moved down here all of 3 months after we did & she is in the process of packing my bags for the kind of enormous guilt trip only an Irish Catholic can orchestrate. My dad said so many times that my family was me & my husband now, that he loved us, that he missed us, but we had to live our lives. It is amazing to me that a man who was so challenged in so many other ways in regards to relationships, seemed to manage to let both my husband & I know that he loved us immensely, missed us terribly, but never made us feel guilty about moving away. When we went to visit him the last time, I didn't have to say a word about not smoking in his own house. Then man who lived on bacon, bread, cookies & coffee had stocked his fridge with every single organic thing they had at the little country store by his house for Mini Me. There was always a little Squirt "pop" for me, too.

More than anything, my dad taught my husband how to love me, & how a father should love his daughter. When I pulled in the driveway, he would stand outside the barn with his hands in his bibbers, smiling ear to ear, just waiting for me to come hug him. He would bend his knees up & down like a little excited kid. That man knew everything single evil, stupid, thoughtless thing I ever did, & he still found a way to make me feel like I was the best thing that ever happened to him. He taught me one of life's hardest lessons: that relationships are work, & that if you love someone, you have to love all of them, not just the fun stuff. He never took me to the doctor when I was sick, or ran me to dance class. I think he only paid like $500 towards my college tuition. But he changed the oil on my car every time I came to see him. He helped me change the alternator on my car over the phone between my shifts waiting tables. He never told me to be quiet when we were fishing because I would scare away the fish. What we had to say to each other was always more important. He celebrated my achievements as my own with absolute glee, understanding the difference between being proud of me & admiring me. He made sure to tell me the latter. His only wish for me was that I would have everything I ever wanted.

& now, most days, what I really want the most is his voice on the other end of the phone.

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