Thursday, July 14, 2011

A better Dad

I watched an older stand up performance of George Lopez recently and spent the whole time laughing at the stories from his childhood.  His antics of living in a low income home, making the most of what he had and finding simple happiness in some of the most basic parts of life was an awesome reminder of what brought me joy as a child.  Some of his stories I could relate to, and others were just down right funny!  This got me thinking about the type of childhood Reagan will have.  In George's advice he said just be the person you were growing up.

This prompted a conversation with Chet about the things we loved about our own childhoods, and therefore the things we wanted for Reagan, but also the things we wanted to change.  Despite very different backgrounds we oddly enough had the same complaint.  We both wished our Dad's had been around more.  Chet's Dad, as a result of divorce, shared custody so his role in Chet's life was sometimes absent or disproportionate to his mother's time with him.  For me, my Dad had a full-time job and started his own business which took all of his time.  Not to mention his smoking habit often kept him in the garage and out of the house. 
Neither of us will claim to have had perfect fathers.  In fact, my feelings about my Dad are somewhat mixed even to this day.  I loved him dearly and he also was somewhat of a disappointment to me at times.  He died when I was only 21 years old and I often feel extremely robbed of my time with him.  He could be a very selfish man who often felt if I wanted more time with him then I should be out working the farm with him or spending time in the shop (despite the sign that hung on the door declaring no girls allowed).  I did in fact spend a good amount of time working along side my family planting hundreds of sapling Christmas trees and completing chores on the farm but of course as a child I never valued those experiences.  Now I look back fondly thinking of all the friends and family who would come out to to farm and leave hours later after dozens of rows of trees on several acres were planted each year.  Back then I thought it was just a lot of dirty work, now I can see how amazing it was that everyone was willing to donate their time and energy to help us and how rare a group of friends like that can be.

Those same friends would come out for Rigger Pigger races, when they raced junk cars around a dirt section of our farm until the cars caught fire or someone was declared the winner and received a match box car mounted to a wooden plaque.  Christmas season to me as a child meant spending freezing cold hours outside selling or cutting down trees.  It was several years before we had steady business or a shed to work out of.  I hated this work most of the time, and I was glad when it snowed too much for customers to come out because then I could play instead of work.  Looking back now I recall many happy memories of playing with the tree shaker or racing my brother and sister to be the first to cut down and drag in a perfect tree.  Our whole family spent time together working and the business was something special to lots of people.  When we closed after Dad's death I knew a lot of people were sad not to have the farm to visit.

I was keenly aware, even as a young child, that time with Dad was precious and rare, and I can recall the times in detail when he brought home a new toy for us, or when he came to one of my tennis matches.  The day he showed  up at Wal-mart on his motorcycle to pick me up from my shift  I pretended to be so annoyed.  But that was one of the few times I ever rode with him and I secretly loved it!  I never told him that, and he didn't ask me to ride with him again.  Dad was so busy with his own life that he often had no idea what was going on with mine.  He didn't check on my grades, he couldn't tell you about my friends or activities, and he rarely realized all he was missing out on.  I didn't question the fact that he loved me, but I felt it was pretty clear there were a long list of things that came before me on his priority list.  Some of those things I don't begrudge him of, starting your own business takes a lot of time and energy and I know his long term plans were intended to give him more time at home.  Sadly those long range plans were never reached when a heart attack too his life too early.

There were times when I was sure I had the best Dad in the world.  Our farm was certainly a lot of work and upkeep but it also gave me the luxury of a swimming pool, trampoline, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and lots of room to run around.  Our house was the hang out place for our neighbors and friends because we had stuff to do!  Dad installed a light pole with a volleyball court and horse shoe pits, we would host large picnics and pig roasts, and I spent every day of the summer outside barefoot playing with our cats or exploring the land around us.  Snow days were filled with the diesel fumes of snowmobiles and tromping around the farm to find the biggest snow banks to jump into.  I loved the nights we hosted campfires and invited a large group of friends to roast marshmallows and sleep under the stars.  Those were always the events Dad put together and without his planning and ideas they never would be such cherished memories.  I had a huge two story barn to explore and play in, creating play rooms and letting my imagination go wild.  I looked forward to Halloween night when the entire neighborhood would meet at my farm for a hay wagon ride around the neighborhood that stopped at every house with the porch light on to trick or treat.  I could write a book about the adventures I had as a child playing outside and though some days were fraught with bee stings, poison ivy, and the horror of sharing friends with my little sister, the good days always outweighed the bad.

But I remember other details too.  I remember going to our summer beach trips with just Mom most of the time because Dad couldn't take off work or leave the farm.  I remember a 12 hour road trip lasting much, much longer because Dad had to stop to smoke every couple of hours.  I remember eating dinner without Dad because he wouldn't leave a project he was working on or wasn't home.  I remember going days without seeing Dad because our schedules were so different.  I remember missing him when he wasn't around, and that sting only got worse when he died and the reality of his loss really sunk in. 

One of my favorite things about my Dad was his charisma, the power he had to draw people to him.  This suited him well as business man, but anyone he met in everyday life could clearly see this too.  He was great with people, everyone liked him and he rarely went anywhere without making a friend.  Mom would roll her eyes as he charmed the ladies at the bank, all sorts of guys from his work would come out to the farm, and Dad was never short on friends.  But perhaps the most surprising thing about a man his size was his nature with children.  At first kids would shy away from him, he was both tall and round but somehow he would draw them in.  Tractor rides and play time with Dad was so fun!  And it wasn't just my siblings and I that got along so well with him as children, every child loved Dad.  I never said it out loud, I may not have even realized it till after it was too late but I thought my next golden time with my Dad would be the day I gave him grandchildren.  I thought when I started to have children would be the time we reconnected, and I looked forward to those days even though they were far off.  I knew how excited my Dad would be the day I got to tell him I was pregnant, and I know he would have been over the moon to have a grandson or granddaughter.  After his death I recall crying with my sister when we both talked about how sad it was that those memories would never get made.  We would never get the chance to see him glow as a grandfather and it was heartbreaking to loose that chance. 

I may not be able to give Reagan all the same memories I had as a child, but I am gonna try.  I am not going to worry about the money I spend on her clothing or the latest and greatest video games.  I won't worry about name brands or private lessons.  But I will always have a jar I can make into a firefly container, a fresh towel to wrap her in after time in the pool or sprinkler, a Popsicle to share on the porch, and games to play in the yard.  I will have pets for her to enjoy and show her the magic of all the adventures you can have playing outside!  I won't demand she wear shoes, I won't guard her every movement, and I won't keep her tucked inside.  And just as importantly, I want Chet to show her how to ride her bike and come to her dance recitals or sports games.  I want his hand to be there when she reaches and I want her to have a relationship with her Daddy that rivals any other man in her life.  I want her to create as many memories with him as she has with me.  I want her to run wild outside and also to be able to always find her Daddy.  I want her to know that she is Daddy's number one priority. Even though I had campfires, and four wheelers I didn't always have access to my Dad and I want Reagan to feel differently about her childhood.  So here's to learning from my past and trying to make life a little bit better for my own children.  I know I won't be perfect, and to be honest I didn't expect perfection from my father either but I can try to do things a little differently for my daughter.

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