dad

Light/Socket

Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:

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It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:

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A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.

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Six Years Later: In Memory of My Father

Six years ago (almost to the hour as I type this), I was sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about to get on a plane to Boise. I know that, but only because I know the date and remember when that last direct flight left. At the time, I was skimming the surface of everything, because getting past the surface meant hurting and confusion. It had only been a few hours since I’d been sitting at my computer, swapping virtual crafting items on WoW with my brother, when he abruptly typed “you need to call home.” That was weird, and I asked some question about it. My brother re-iterated that I needed to call home. I did.

My dad was dead.

Aside from hugging my infant son a little harder than he liked, I sort of managed to hold things together for forty minutes until my wife got home from work. I needed to get back to Idaho more urgently than I had ever needed to get anywhere. I made phone calls and booked tickets. I remembered to find somebody to cover my music history sections. We packed in a hurry, and left in such a hurry that we forgot our dress clothes for the funeral. (Our landlord was kind enough to go get them the next morning and overnight them to Idaho.) Surface things. We got to Boise and…went to a hotel right next to the airport. As much as I wanted to be home, it was nearly midnight and the roads were icy. Nobody was in shape to come pick us up. We went out to the house the next morning when my brother and aunt came in.

I won’t rehash the next few days. People filled up the house. I made it through the eulogy without dissolving wholly into tears. My son—a week short of his first birthday—charmed everybody and reminded us all that life goes on. It did. Soon enough I was back in Minnesota trying to catch up on Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and teaching Renaissance polyphony. I cried. I worried about my mom. In the arbitrary way that songs get stuck to events in our heads, The Killers’ “Tranquilize” (featuring Lou Reed, who’s now dead too) stuck to me for the next few months.

We get good at the surface things. It is how we make it through our days—commutes, work, the dirty dishes in the sink. Looking past surfaces isn’t always the window to desolation it was that night six years ago, but I still miss my dad whenever I think of him. The first time I visited my mom’s house after she’d moved to Nebraska, I walked through it after everybody had gone to bed. And I cried and cried because there were pictures of my dad and some of his things, but there was nothing of him there. It was a house he had never set foot in, and he never would. The pictures were only there for the rest of us.

Both of my parents read to me, but it was my dad’s books that hooked me. I may have gotten the words from my mom, but my stories owe a lot to my dad. I tried his Louis Lamour westerns. The Hobbit really got me, though. He read it out loud over weeks of bedtimes when I was little. I read it myself around second grade and, the following summer, cajoled my grandmother to find me a copy of The Two Towers, since I had only brought The Fellowship of the Ring to California with me. From there it was off to the races bookstore, and soon after to the keyboard to try my hand at my own stories. My reading habits were more like my mom’s: I read fast and often skip around (habits that carry over to my writing). My dad didn’t read like that. He read slowly and meticulously. He always read the end last. He digested books.

Years later I’m still working on digesting his absence. I feel it a little every time I have to drag my family out of bed in the morning (I was just as hard to get out of bed when I was a kid). I feel it when I cook something I’ve never cooked before, or when I’m trying to explain something that I picked up in years of watching him at home and at the restaurant. Tonight I walked my sister-in-law through roasting pork loin and potatoes, and a pan of brussels sprouts. We tested the doneness with our fingers, and I had to dig for an explanation that was clearer than “it feels done.” I think he would have appreciated it.

I also think he would have liked to come visit us here. It’s easy for me to imagine taking my dad downtown and sampling food trucks before catching some live music. I can almost hear him in our living room, holding forth a little too loudly on something he’d seen on Food Network. I remember him reading Green Eggs and Ham to his infant grandson and know his granddaughter would have charmed him to pieces. I know how enthusiastic he’d be for the stories I’m working on.

Mostly, though, I just miss him. I just miss him.