This is my father.
He passed away 21 years ago on July 29. The news came in a long-distance phone call from Florida as I sat at my desk grading final papers at the end of the summer semester. My younger sister Liz stammered softly into the receiver, “He’s gone.”
I think of him every year at this time, given my tendency to focus on dates, track anniversaries of different sorts, and to mark other events in time. This tracking of dates and turning points, I believe, is an effort at self-understanding, a desire to understand how events have impacted my life and my relationships.
The father-daughter relationship is probably only second in complexity to the mother-daughter relationship. And while I might wish my connection with my father had been just a little bit different, more emotionally close, I will suggest that he loved me in his own way, and in the best way he knew how. I have come to this conclusion over time.
The illustration above was created by one of my father’s co-workers in a Miami advertising agency. Like any good caricature, it captures, with the requisite exaggeration, the outstanding qualities of its subject. The moppy head of red hair, the ill-fitted shirt covering his thin frame, the stooped posture over the drawing table, the weary eyes and ever-present cigarette, were all Walt Kerwin. I love this drawing because it so clearly represents who he was.
And since the 21st anniversary of his passing is just about here, and he is on my mind, I thought I would share with you how he shaped my childhood … and how his legacy is evident in my life now.
He was a tall, slender, quiet, rather shy man. He was an artist and a professional photographer. He was a master advertiser. He was a World War II veteran and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He was a swimmer and a tennis player. He was creativity personified. He could build anything. He liked a good drink, which bruised him in a number of ways. He quit cold turkey. I remember that day.
I miss him.
Here are my most vivid memories of this man.
Shoulder rides during my youngest years. I remember feeling so high, if a little unstable, lacing my fingers under his chin and hooking my legs around his back, my body loping and swooping with each long-legged step down the hallway toward the kitchen.
He taught all his children how to swim. Good God, the patience. I remember the smell of his skin in the pool and loving to skim my palm back and forth along the top of his crew cut. He was a trooper, because in the early days of those swimming lessons I swallowed a fair amount of water… only to up-chuck it later in the session. He was particularly patient during one post-chocolate ice cream session when I couldn’t keep it down. This was probably one of our quicker exits from the hotel pool during a trip to Florida. His shoulder rides in the water only served to spawn my love for chicken fights — two against two or the one-on-one inner tube version. I can’t recall laughing so hard and long under other circumstances … a dangerous past time when under water.
He developed a nightly story and prayer ritual with my sister Liz and me before we went to sleep. We fought over whose bed he would sit on while he held our hands as we lay on our sides facing each other. He gracefully accepted our announcement one evening that he needn’t participate in this activity anymore, as we had determined we had outgrown it. My face flushes every time I remember this.
If teaching six children how to swim wasn’t enough, he taught us all to ride bikes as well. Sensing I was on the threshold for two-wheeler balance, he wordlessly removed his grip from the seat of the bike, standing and watching as I peddled along the street, leaving him behind. There is a positive correlation, of course, between the adult hand-removal and the child’s sudden clue into the solitary bike action, followed by the requisite wobbling and fall. In all subsequent efforts, as I improved in my balance, he’d whisper,
“Now you’re talkin’!” I loved hearing that. I share this anecdote in my child development classes as a great example of scaffolding the learning process.
He continued this tradition many years later when he bought a bike for his granddaughter, my niece Laura, and fitted it with training wheels, contributing to her introduction to bike-riding as well. I’m not sure who delighted in this past-time more — him or her.
My father loved his camera, and was never without an instrument at the ready. He took countless pictures of us as children, especially at holidays. During one Christmas season in Atlanta, he balanced the tripod in the living room, set a timer on the camera, and directed us to run to the sofa and quickly take a seat before the camera snapped our image. There are hilarious shots of us from the back, catching us mid-run in our holiday finest, lurching toward the couch in several failed attempts to beat the timer. We did finally succeed, though we appear a bit stiff-smiled and winded in the final shots.
My father could build just about anything. He constructed a tiny tree house in our backyard, a sandbox, a swing, and he made a pair of stilts for Liz and me from scraps of wood left over from a work project. We loved showing them off. That was an integral element of the cool factor with neighborhood friends.
He took many business trips to the Caribbean to carry out advertising assignments for his firm. He always sent post cards and brought home gifts every time. We were so greedy, barely giving him a chance to enter the house before chiming predictably, “What did you bring us????”
His creativity was humorous and charming. At Easter he drew sophisticated cartoon faces on the eggs for our annual yard hunt. At Christmas one year he constructed a small rotating Christmas tree from miscellaneous objects. He suspended it from the ceiling, and it made a humming sound as it slowly twirled.
One year he spray-painted a pair of his shoes green for a St. Patrick’s Day office party. My mother admonished him not to wear them … though I believe he probably stashed them in the car after changing back to another pair of shoes.
When I was in high school, he helped me build a life-size can of Raid bug spray as a float for a half-time show during a home-coming football game. The theme was “Raid the Raiders, ” a missive to the opposing team. I crawled inside the giant tube and pressed the lever on a fire extinguisher to emit white spray at appropriate intervals. I felt especially with-it, walking methodically along the running track that surrounded the football field. He took my initial idea and improved on it delightfully. He may have enjoyed it even more than I.
And he taught me how to drive, too. Are you getting this picture? This man taught six children to swim, ride bikes, and to drive motorized vehicles. How he survived these tasks alone I will never know. I am personally responsible for causing him some anxiety at the start of my own lessons in the school parking lot. I blame it on the recently-developed power-brake system in most cars of that era, though. In my first effort to use the brake system, I placed my foot firmly on the pedal, only to have my father throw his head back against the head rest, slam the heals of his hands on the dashboard, pump-brake against the floor boards with his foot, and shriek that I had all but sent him through the windshield. I thought the lesson was over. But he soldiered on. Later, he taught me how to parallel park at the end of our street. He positioned two cemented pots several feet apart, complete with colorful orange flags as visual markers. I can state with confidence that I am one fine parallel parker as a result of this tutorial, and to this day I line up the center of the hood with a static point in the distance, as taught.
Later in life, my father bought a motor boat, which became a source of pride and joy for him. He loved racing around on Biscayne Bay and motoring us through the Port of Miami. At the start of Christmas break of my junior year in high school, we arranged to have him and my sister Mary Dee pick me up at the sea wall at school. No dock. No pier. He just slowed the boat down, gently lined it up against the wall, and I jumped in as thought this was a daily activity. I was Super Student that day. Enormously cool.
When Hurricane Andrew struck south Florida, he stoically hunkered down in the house, located just outside the anticipated flood area for this devastating storm. He was fine, unhurt, and later sent all of us a series of carefully assembled photos documenting the storm’s aftermath. In one photo he showed how grass and leaves had actually forced through the tiny squares on the screen door in the front of the house, only to stick to the wooden door in scattered microscopic bits. That’s how powerful the winds were that day in August 1992.
He bought a green Corvette, too. I think he loved that car almost as much as he loved the boat. Yet he had little opportunity to drive it, as he died the following year.
Important things my father left me: an appreciation for fine-point black felt tip pens; the charm of limericks, both clean and bawdy; the usefulness of a ready supply of white paper for drawing or a necessary project; the fun of a naughty joke; the benefits of list-making; the wonder of people-watching; a well-cared for yard and home; a love for coffee; a tendency toward fastidiousness; the benefits of overly-planned road trips; the value of re-filling the gas tank get when it dips to a quarter full; the pay-off in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before departure-time; a love of cartoons, and a gene here and there for drawing; the soothing qualities of swimming; a de-fault position for caution; and the telling of a good story.
I’m glad he was in my life as long as he was, with all the accompanying complexities of our relationship.
So … how did your father shape your life?