Birthday Remembrance

Today would have been my father’s 90th birthday. I have been thinking about him a lot lately. He’s been gone eighteen years, and sometimes it still feels like it was just last week that we were talking about politics or children or careers, or playing cribbage.

Dad was a complicated man. If you had asked him “Are you complicated?” he would have said no. He would have said he was a simple man, with simple tastes and simple needs. His taste was simple alright: he always wanted the best of everything. He most definitely had champagne taste and a beer budget. It’s hard to fault him for that, since I fall into the same pattern.

But knowing him when I was a child, and getting to know him better as an adult, I can tell you for sure that he was simultaneously curious and bored. He loved both attention and solitude. There were people whom he adored, yet held at bay. He was often incorrigible and frequently irascible.

Dad on trumpet, second from the left in the back.

Dad on trumpet, second from the left in the back.

When he was a kid he was the adopted only child for seven years, until his bubbly baby sister was born. Even then, he was still spoiled rotten by his parents and his aunts and uncles. Exuding natural born charisma, he had no problem getting his way from most people most of the time. He was just a kid when he first became a band leader, playing the trumpet with a group of older boys that he assembled into a local dance band. He served in the Merchant Marine and then went to college to study architecture. He married a hometown girl and they had five children. Mom actually raised six children, when you count Dad into the mix. His constant boyish charm was engaging and irritating at the same time. He could be unreasonable and demanding with his family, and sweet as dripping honey with his friends, all within the same half hour.

My youngest sister, me, and Dad, sitting on the back steps.

My youngest sister, me, and Dad, sitting on the back steps.

Dad drank. He appeared to be a fun social drinker, but at home he was mean when he had been drinking. We tried hard to avoid confrontation at those times. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Then he quit drinking when he was diagnosed as diabetic. His doctor told him “if you drink, you’ll die.” So he gave up all alcohol cold turkey, and then frowned on everyone else who was having a drink. There’s nothing like a reformed drinker preaching the evils of alcohol.

Ironically, his diabetes both saved his life and claimed it. He learned to manage the disease pretty well and was quite healthy for several years. Those were good years for our father-daughter relationship. I learned to forgive him for the hard years when I was a challenging young adult and he was a perpetual teenager. He learned to respect my adult decisions. He was a very good grandfather to my children and my sisters’ children. Unfortunately he didn’t get to play that role long enough. When his diabetes took a turn for the worse he developed several complications including kidney failure, making his final months of life pretty rough.

Dad reading to my eldest daughter, 1992.

Dad reading to my eldest daughter, 1992.

I am grateful that we had a chance to become friends for a little while. Life mellowed him a bit, as it probably does with all of us. He would have been so proud of his children and grandchildren, even if it was hard for him to say it out loud when he had the chance. When we renovated our home, I considered lessons learned from Dad about the importance of functional spaces and lighting in a room. When our daughters studied music, I thought about how much Dad would have enjoyed their recitals and concerts. When I have made career moves I thought about the advice Dad would have given me, to think not just about the money, but about choosing a satisfying lifestyle. During our kids’ graduation ceremonies, I have thought about how Dad would be sporting a wide grin in celebration of their achievements.

In all likelihood, he never would have made it to age 90. Honestly, he was never that great at beating the odds. But in my constant role as middle child, I still find myself working to make my Dad proud.

I miss you, Dad. Happy birthday.