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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dear John...Dearest Daddy

I'm primed to watch the final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament, where at the moment Phil Mickelson is in the lead, and my favorite, Tiger Woods, has crashed and burned. Tiger shot nine over yesterday (as I write this he's thirteen over) and will not, as the commentators say, win. That's okay with me. The U.S. Open has been elusive for Phil, who has been a runner up in this tournament five times in 23 tries. I'm hoping he can pull this off for several reasons, not the least of which being that he's such a good dad. Today, as he chases this major, is Father's Day.

All the talk over the weekend about Mickelson's prowess at not golf, but fatherhood, reminds me of my own dad. Dad quit school in the eighth grade to work on his family's farm, and married my mother in 1948. They had a couple of kids, and Dad worked in a factory until he became disabled in his fifties. After that my mom supported the family and Dad became a house husband long before the job became trendy. Many a morning this gruff man came to my bedroom door to collect the laundry, complaining that much of it was strewn around on the floor. He cooked (although truthfully, not very well), zeroing in on certain dishes that he prepared over and over and over. To this day I can't eat cube steak with green peppers, which if memory serves he set on the kitchen table every day for an entire summer. 

If I had to define John Yasas by his sport, it would not be as golfer, but as fisherman. The family owned two small boats that John trailered to campsites all over New York State in search of the big catch. Before his ailing spine took him out of the work force, we camped and fished. Dad taught me the value of the dollar, or in my case as a kid, the nickel. He kept a worm farm in the basement and paid me five cents for every wiggler I picked out of the garden. On rainy nights, John would don boots and, with a big flashlight, venture out to collect nightcrawlers that would later reside in large wooden bins with screen covers downstairs. Sometimes I would creep to the cellar and stand over worm world, imagining this future fish bait looking up from their special John-created soil to their screen cage, plotting escape. Dad loved to fish and taught me well, explaining that worms have no feelings as I punctured their segments (probably untrue, but a necessary lie to get the kid to bait her own hook). When I think of my dad I see us on a sunny river bank, or in a little boat, or his stretching out with the net to snare a perch, my skinny legs dangling off a dock. I think of tents on campsites and evening fires with hot dogs and marshmallows. I think of waking early and being bundled into a life jacket, after which we would float on quiet lakes dragging fish lines at sunrise. I don't remember the conversations. What I remember is feeling safe. And I especially remember feeling loved, even though he never said the words.

When I was in high school I stopped camping with my parents. This made my mother sad. If it made John sad I couldn't say because he was not a man of obvious emotion. It became...uncool...to hang with the folks. In my teenage years he would ask me to join him in front of the television and Gunsmoke. I would decline, flouncing in a miniskirt through the living room en route to some now unimportant social event. College followed soon after and I was gone, sitting over quick cups of coffee with my father on visits home, sometimes engaging in tolerant conversations about his time in World War II. The snippets of conversation were just that: snippets. He spoke of sailing on The Queen Mary; of clean-up duty at a concentration camp. I don't know which camp, never thought to ask. I've got plenty of time to find this out I may have thought then, but honestly I don't remember thinking anything at all. He was just my dad, an old guy in his fifties talking about boring history, and I, of course, had important places to be with friends whose names I can't now recall.

Throughout my college career, preceded by uninspiring high school grades, my father prefaced every sentence relating to undergraduate school...every sentence... with, "Well, IF you graduate..." Having inherited his stubborn streak, I would inform him in lofty tones, "I WILL graduate!" After four years of this, as I stood arrogant in my cap and gown, Dad smirked at me twenty minutes before the ceremony and said, "Well, IF you graduate..." The photo of my parents and me at that moment shows John smiling and me frowning, I having realized I'd been psychologically hoodwinked into earning a Bachelor's degree. How I love him for that. A month after graduation, while I was sunbathing in the front yard, basking unemployed in my newly-acquired debt-free-thanks-to-my-parents college education, Dad approached and, inches from my face, shouted GET A JOB! How I love him even more for that.

John was not a perfect man, that much is certain. He had a temper and a shrieking, angry voice that could chill a hot day.  He held a grudge and was slow to forgive. Those who knew him from the outside saw a moody, solitary man. But for the few of us who broke through his walls, we saw kindness and generosity and a jolly, sardonic humor. His doors were always open to family in hard times; he was watchful over his children, and of those who became his responsibility. He was a smart, well-intentioned man who paid his bills and tended his home and lived a life without (I hope) too much regret. In the years since my childhood I have tried not to disappoint him, this man who taught me to be soft and strong, to pick my battles, to work hard and never give up, to know the difference between wrong and right and to fight for right even when doing so hurts. John always had my back, even when I didn't know it, and gave me that most precious parental gift that I could only appreciate decades later: roots and wings.

In 1979 my father was diagnosed with cancer. At Christmas that year he told me, "You know, your old man won't be around too much longer." As I drove away from the house to the airport, I knew I would never see him again. And I never did. Two years after I graduated from college, after I had moved to Arkansas to strike out on my own, far away from my parents and my hometown, on a Sunday in March, Dad passed away. He was 63 years old. I was 24.

I am now six years younger than John was on that Sunday when his grouchy, loving, sharp-edged, wise, infinitely interesting voice that I can no longer recall was stilled for good in a Syracuse hospital room. Thirty-three years later I think of him that last Christmas; I think of him smiling on college graduation day; I think of him watching Matt Dillon; I think of him tinkering with the engine on his boat, of his putting precious worm-earned nickels in a tiny hand, and of his hoisting up a happily squealing nine-year-old and threatening to toss her into the pond. I think of everything he taught me about what's important in life, which has nothing to do with money or power or politics or endless manufactured drama, but which has everything to do with a little girl sitting on a dock on a sunny morning, catching a fish with her father. Thirty-three years later, I think of him every day.

Dear John...Dearest Daddy...Happy Father's Day wherever you are. Thank you for trying so hard to make me whole in the short time we had together on this silly spinning planet. I still miss you so.

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About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum