Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My father, the icon

Four days ago was the anniversary of my father’s death.  And it just so happened that I saw my cousin four days ago and mentioned that 28 years had passed since Daddy died.  I mentioned it more in passing than anything – more in a “wow, can you believe how old we are” kind of way.  My cousin asked how old Daddy was when he died.  “Forty-eight” I said.  And it struck me, even as I said it in a room full of people all hovering around that age, how truly young he was when he died from massive heart attack.  My cousin’s response was immediate.  “He was only 48 and already an icon,” he said.  “An icon.”  I repeated the word because it struck me as so odd.  My father was never an icon to me, I thought.  He was just my father.  But on further reflection, I realize that isn’t true at all. 

A dead father, particularly to a girl of a young age, is inherently iconic.  Having a dead father at the age of 14 defines who you are in every room you enter for the rest of highschool.   But the notion that my father had been an icon to others, to my cousin, was fascinating.  

There is certainly a romanticized version of Dead Father.  He had an incredible passion for nature, particularly the mountains.  Skiing was a favorite sport and he traversed any mountain with extraordinary grace.  He could fix anything, built gorgeous furniture and was, when he died, in the middle of building our vacation home in Lake Tahoe by himself.   Daddy loved to fly and a typical weekend outing would find us piling into his shared Cessna and taking a day trip to Vacaville or the central valley for lunch so he could log hours and satisfy his everpresent wanderlust.   And of course he adored his daughters.  Each of us, if pulled aside, would tell you in secret, “I was his favorite.”  It was the great gift of his excellent parenting that led us each to believe that we held the prime real estate in his heart.    

There is also the less romantic version of Daddy.  He was moody, could be short-tempered and wildly intolerant.  He was incredibly shy, easily embarrassed and incapable of full expressing himself.  He suffered from emotional repression in a way that I still believe hastened his death at such a young age.  I don’t remember my father ever telling me he loved me and yet I knew he did.  He was a classic Type A personality – a perfectionist who never suffered fools and let nothing slide.  He wrote passionate letters to the President during the oil crisis of the 70s and would leave the room if someone told an off-color joke that had a hint of racism, sexism or anti-semitism.  He was an ardent atheist and refused to partake in even the most secular of religious holiday ritual.  His atheism was so rabid, in fact, that it led him to what I believe was his most ill-conceived and unintentionally selfish decision.  According to my mother, my father had left very specific instruction in the event of his death.  He had instructed her that no funeral was to be held in his honor.  No memorial service.  No official remembrance.  He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread in the Rockies.  What he didn’t realize, probably couldn’t understand at such a young age, was that these rituals are for the living, not the dead.  And that his directives left us with no script, no boundaries, no calendar by which to grieve.  The Jewish tradition dictates that we bury our dead very shortly after they pass, that we mourn for a year before setting the headstone and that we remember the anniversary of the death with yarzeit.  But my father was a staunch atheist whose great disdain for organized religion never allowed him to consider the virtue of its structures.  His belief in atheism was ironically as ardent as any fundamentalist of any modern religion.  He was dedicated to his beliefs as he was to his family. 

Daddy was a man to be admired, but not a man who was always easy.  We did, for the most part, what HE wanted to do.  We fulfilled HIS fantasies of vacation and leisure time.  It never occurred to me until long after his death that my mother might have interests that differed from his.  It never occurred to me that her idea of a good time might not be camping or skiing or spending two weeks driving across the country with three kids in the back of a Kingswood station wagon just so we could see the terrain and visit every national park west of the Colorado River.  It never occurred to me, until years after Daddy was gone, that Mom much preferred shopping to hiking.  That she enjoyed theater and eating out and dancing.  I never knew she liked parties and didn’t like skiing.  It never occurred to me that he, my dead father – the icon – took up such an extraordinary amount of space in all of our lives. 

And so it struck me, after this casual comment made by my cousin, that I did not choose Sig Other in spite of my upbringing or in defiance of it.  In fact, the choice of Sig Other makes perfect sense.  Sig Other is nothing like Dead Father in almost every way.  Sig Other is communicative and social and says things that would have made my father want to disappear into his shy cave.  Sig Other’s connection to his Jewish identity would have, quite frankly, freaked Dead Father out.  But Sig Other is iconic.  Sig Other takes up a lot of space.  And Sig Other’s whims and tastes and desires drive a large part of our family time.  Unlike my mother, I know how not to disappear inside Sig Other’s bigness.   I know where he ends and I begin.  I have the great gift of generational wisdom, which allows me to understand that my husband will love me even if I don’t share every one of his hobbies or beliefs.  But finally, I can look at Sig Other and understand why I was drawn to him and how that choice makes sense in the context of my childhood. 


1 comment:

Miss Whistle said...

Dear Mrs L,

This is yet another beautiful post.

The death of a parent, even 28 years on, is as significant a date in one's life as almost nothing else. Isn't it funny how you always remember that day?

"Unlike my mother, I know how not to disappear inside Sig Other’s bigness" -- I understand this profoundly and I'm glad that you notice such things. Perhaps that is what makes you such a wonderful writer.


Miss W x