I was doing some vital, long-forgotten yard-work in 1995 when my neighbor Beth yelled across the street, “Happy Father’s Day!”
It took me a minute to realize she was talking to me. Aidan was already a day or two over-due, so officially the greeting was premature. But I smiled and realized that she was right. I was in the club. And someday, if I did things right, my kids would dread that holiday, as much as I did. Jim Walsh was impossible to buy for and it didn’t help that his birthday fell on June 28th, so we needed to double our futile efforts as soon as school got out.
I have taxing memories of Saturday odysseys through the sporting goods and office-supply aisles of K-Mart trying to find something, anything, for my dad. And when I was wrapping up the golf-score clicker, the “World’s Greatest Dad” trophy, the back-scratcher, or the book of coupons promising to mow the lawn it all felt a little disingenuous–long before I’d starting using that word at parties.
I always suspected I was just not being creative enough or was simply too lazy to think of the right gift. But my dad’s lack-of-need was also his greatest trait quickly exhibited in my daughter Abby–utter satisfaction with the “Now”–who was laughing beside him or which niece or nephew was wrestling with him on the floor.
Even at the age of four in the neighborhood sandbox, Abby would hate to leave her new “best friends.” She even famously mourned a used-Kleenex, hating to see any participant in the day’s activities leave the party.
An improv commercial from 1988 at a party at my parents’ place demonstrates his love of good friends and good laughs (even with his infamously bad puns):
As we were expecting Kid 1 of 2, people enjoyed dire forecasts aimed at Patrice’s belly. They’d shake their sage heads, smile and warn “You’d better go to all the movies you can now. It’s going to be years until you two get out again!”
But my dad laughed when we told him, “Yeah, they told us the same thing. But I couldn’t wait to get home and see you guys. There was nowhere else we wanted to be.” Now, maybe my mom felt different at the time, trapped all day as our warden.
But I knew what he meant after just a week into fatherhood as I was taking a 4 AM walk around the block with a screaming Aidan-in-sling who was eventually rocked to sleep by the rhythm of our stroll. I honestly felt that I could keep on walking that way for a year straight, absorbing that moment with just us and a few birds. The smell of early mornings like that remind me of my dad getting me up for golf or just to meeting him on the dock up north.
A student once told me, “Everyone knows you don’t yell at kids, Mr. Walsh.” (I smiled, at first, at this excellent class-management report.)
“You just take them out to the hall and talk to them so long that they feel like crap and don’t want to do it again.”
Ouch. I was suddenly back in my parents’ kitchen, on the phone, as a teenager, having just walked in from the garage.
“I can’t make it to the movies.”
“What, are you cleaning the garage again?” my buddy Steve would acutely ask.
Of my dad’s many gifts, being a handyman and keeping an organized garage were far down the list–right after scratch-golfer and opera-singer. (His toolbox was the silverware drawer where a handy butter-knife would take care of half his projects–even if the tool was forgotten on the lawn during a Tigers big-inning to be found months later.)
On regular Saturday mornings, I’d find him in the garage with pursed lips, hands on his hips staring at the crowded shelves of miscellaneous tools and six-foot stack of newspapers on the floor. I’d tuck away the lawn mower hoping that he wouldn’t see me.
“Thanks for mowing, Kev.”
“Sure.” Here it came–the question…
“What do you have going on this afternoon?”
I’d take a deep breath, “Um, I was going to go to the movies with Steve and Greg.”
I knew most of my friends’ dads would have vetoed that plan: “Sorry, kid, you’re staying here until we clean this mess up!”
But my dad’s tactics were different as he would, unintentionally, lob the passive-aggressive-guilt grenade.
“Oh…Great!…Have a good time.”
The magnitude of feeling that I’d disappoint him drove me in to the phone and the cancellation of another movie. The two of us would bump around all afternoon trying our best to shove the piles around and even taking the newspapers to a local paper-drive, but a month later it would look the same. In retrospect, the pouting, non-movie-goer had had fun conversations and even enjoyed the ballgame on the beat-up radio.
My mom called me on my hypocrisy once when I was arguing with her about the criminal injustice of me taking out the garbage; she wondered why I didn’t argue with my dad. And the answer was simple, “He’s not around much, Mom.”
That was the paradox. He wasn’t around–but he always was. As a salesman, most Tuesday and Wednesday nights of my life my dad was on the road and checked in with us by phone before bedtime.
His voice over the phone was so warm, reassuring and our conversations so real that I never really noticed his absence. But when he was home, it was a special occasion and we’d inadvertently be extra-nice–like he was a guest. It wasn’t fair to my mom, I realized and try to remember that when our kids are being tough on Patrice!
His constant presence in all of our lives, even sixteen years after his death, makes us all share dreams we’ve just had of dad. One was so vivid a few months ago that I remember hugging him (in the hallway of my high school, for some reason) and feeling his five o’clock shadow against my cheek and smelling Old Spice.
Abby is a favorite babysitter in our neighborhood. One mom told me the other day, “My kids love her. My daughter thinks says she’s sweet, but she’s also tough enough to keep the boys in-check.” (I suspect it’s with the same garage-tactics used on me, but I chose not to investigate.)
And I had to invoke my inner-Jim last week, when my newly-licensed son took the car to drop off job-applications at 7 PM and returned home at 11:30 PM–picking up the phone only once in 4 hours and not responding to texts such as, “Very worried. Please call!”
When the headlights moved across our living room wall and he walked inside to a stereotypical parent trapped somewhere between crying, screaming or embracing the wanderer, I took a deep breath and thought of my dad’s sense of “now” and put the clip back in the guilt-grenade. I looked down at our living room floor and remembered wrestling with Aidan there and it helped me get through the conversation that followed.