Saturday, June 14, 2008

Father's Day

The weekend following Friday the 13th has been filled with kind and genuine remembrances of NBC’s Tim Russert who died suddenly, at work and surrounded by colleagues, following a family vacation to Italy to celebrate his son’s graduation from university. I, too, respected and appreciated what this talented man has contributed to our nation through his directness, ethics and opinions. I could relate to the pain and astonishment that a young person can feel upon losing their parent in such a sudden and distressing fashion because I’ve been there myself. The media coverage, though I haven’t seen much more than a smidgen of it, got the memory wheels in my mind to turning as a Friday of bad news rolled into a Saturday morning of e-mails reminding me of the approach of Father’s Day. I’ve had a few years to get through a Father’s Day without the benefit of my father but this will be the first for Tim Russert’s son to be without him. It’s going to be a difficult one.

My father was the son of an immigrant and homesteader. He lost his father when he was 12, from a sudden heart attack. His father, Rayder, died in the front yard as he returned home from the butcher shop he owned in Parshall, North Dakota. My grandparents had moved to town from the farm. They had homesteaded in Raub where my grandmother had delivered four sons, of whom the youngest was my father, Jon. A fortuitous remarriage to a “bachelor Norwegian farmer” saved my grandmother from losing the farm and gave my father a wonderful stepfather in Hans Monson. My father went on to Carleton College before attending what is now the University of Northern Iowa. he enlisted, having padded his age by a year, in the Navy at the outset of World War II. He spent his Navy days on a medical ship in the Great Lakes due to a double nuisance of flat feet and a tendon injury from boyhood football. He wasn’t so much a risk not to be taken in to the service during the war, so I’m sure his remaining stateside was a relief to my grandmother Mary. Her other son, Mickey, had been reported as lost in the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle was able to escape through Russia to return to the Midwest and open the first drive-in movie theater in Austin, Minnesota. Eventually my uncle moved south to Arizona and my father made his way to California in the mid-1950s to teach high school chemistry and physics in the land of milk, oranges and honey that was Woodlake.

Zipping forward to another decade, my father was in his twenty-fifth year of teaching at Woodlake High School when I had finished eighth grade and was heading for high school. Both my parents taught at my high school and I was destined to have one or both for a teacher. I was being a typical surly, overly independent teen as that school year wrapped. I was trying to spread my wings in the incoming freshman fashion; sassing my parents, teetering on the edge of curfew, drifting defiantly between sullen and more sullen. I was a migraine walking about my parents’ house. We took a long vacation to Carmel to celebrate the ending of the school year, in the new convertible my parents had purchased that spring. My father had always wanted a convertible and he enjoyed it in a town he adored, even with sourpuss me in the back seat.

We returned home and went back to life in the summer for a family of teachers. Both my parents worked on projects that they’d not had time for during the school year. My sister and I swam in the backyard pool. I went to ball games and flirted with boys. I don’t remember a great amount of detail about those days following our return from vacation other than having a particularly nasty spat with my father, most likely about not being home before dark. I do know I never said I was sorry for being a jerk. One afternoon he moved a heavy bookcase, even though I was in the house and could have been of some help. He spent the rest of the afternoon taking Alka-Seltzer for what he thought was indigestion. I came home from a ball game and he had gone to bed early. I started a bath, could hear my mother going into their bedroom to check on him. I soon heard strange breathing patterns and her return to the bedroom saying “Jon.....Jon?” and then yelling for me. I got out into a towel, ran into the bedroom and found him collapsed. He’d had a massive heart attack and was dying. I yelled for my mother to call the ambulance, which arrived with past students of his as the EMTs. He was transported to the hospital in Visalia, but was never revived. He would have been 60 on that next New Year’s Eve. Some of what happened that night is relatively clear while much of it seems to be a different life lived by another family entirely. I guess that may be the effects of twenty-five years and trying harder than not to dwell on it all.

I have been trying to think about the meaning of Father’s Day as it applies to my husband and father of my children. As my son grows I cherish what is to come for him and his father but I struggle to put aside melancholy that tries to surge, especially when the news of a son’s loss of his father on this particular weekend began to overtake the television. Tim Russert has successfully put into his book Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons those many words I wish I could verbalize every day of the year to my father. I would especially like my father to hear from me that I’ve somehow managed to get over my teenage jerkiness. I wish he could have known me as an adult and I could have shown him my children. He would certainly have enjoyed their energy and the sass that is now starting to come my way. He’d be the first to laugh and say that he remembered what it was like.

As I woke this morning, I looked at the small, damaged picture I have of my father as a three year old with a shock of blonde hair and I saw my son. I’d like to think that the missing of my father might have diminished over the twenty-five years that he’s been gone. I wish I could tell Tim Russert’s son it is possible to overcome the shock, but I don’t know that I can. I will hope that the memories of their last weeks together will outweigh the grief.

Even with missing my father greatly, I found a little gift in the last couple of weeks. My mother was here visiting and having headaches with the gardener back home. She had to find, via telephone, a new gardener. As it turns out, the new gardener is a former student of my parents. He had recently emigrated to California from Mexico when he came to the high school. He didn’t have the money to attend the Junior Prom. My father paid for him to go. He still remembered Mr. Justad and was, I think, happy to help out my mother. I’d never heard that story before and I’m happy to know that my father may have made a small difference in someone else’s life. I know I’m grateful for the time my father was in my life and I hope I can share with my children some of the spirit that was his.