Friday, June 15, 2012

Things My Father Taught Me

My dad, like all good fathers, taught me a great many useful things. Some of the lessons were the large-scale kind, of course--the ones passed along mainly by example, such as being honest and considerate, respecting others, not taking more than your share, always doing your best work, responsibility, and the like. I certainly don't really remember Dad telling me those things, though, or informing  me outright how to live an honorable life.

It's the small bits of information that I remember him passing along--recalling not only the advice but also the setting and the timbre of his voice, the sorts of things that you'd think would stick in your mind if someone were imparting words of eternal wisdom rather than a snippet of a suggestion.

Most of them are things that sound silly when described, but like photographs they stir up memories and let them unspool, revealing their contents again and again like the fragments of movies that they are.

Silly things like teaching me how to make scrambled eggs, how to keep tumbling them in the pan with a spatula and take them out when they still had a sheen to them. Teaching me how to make a superior paper airplane by notching the wings and weighing down the nose. Showing me how to hammer a nail, start a car with a flooded engine, and peer along the edge of a board to judge how straight and flat is is. Instructing me in how to make a fist if I needed to defend myself, making sure I knew to keep my thumb outside my fingers and not tucked inside them lest I sock someone and in the process break my thumb. (I remember being impressed that I had such potential power, though now I know it's highly unlikely I'd ever exert enough force to sprain my thumb, let alone break it.)

Most vivid is my memory of Dad teaching me how to find Polaris, the North Star.

We stepped into the front yard on a balmy summer night, the kind of night when the air feels silken. Fireflies flashed silently in the grass, the shrubs, the sky. Dad pointed out the shape of the Big Dipper, wheeling slowly through space scooping up stars. He traced the line between the two stars forming one side of the dipper and then extended that line so that it pointed to Polaris and explained how the distance between the two dipper stars, when multiplied about five times, was equivalent to the distance to Polaris.

That's about where he lost me. As soon as he pointed out the pole star, my head was wobbling like a bobblehead toy's as I tried to relocate the Big Dipper. Then, we'd sort out the Big Dipper again, track the stars to Polaris, and immediately I'd lose the dipper again.

He must have felt a bit desperate after a while, and I was getting exasperated and saying things like "how am I supposed to find the stupid North Star if I can't find the stupid Big Dipper?" Because suddenly he squatted down to my level and said, "Look. See the corner of the roof?"

I looked up. Yes, there was the corner of the roof. I nodded.

"OK. So now look just a little bit to the right of that corner, and up a bit. You see that star? That's the North Star."

"I see it! I see it!" I squealed triumphantly.

Pleased, Dad said, "OK. So now you know that you can always find the North Star. It'll always just be off that corner of the house."

I was extremely pleased to know this, that this star was fixed in space, at least for a while, adjacent to our roof.

Dad paused for a few seconds. Then he added, "So. In the future, if you're ever lost in the front yard, you'll be able to find your way home using the North Star."

I think one reason I remember this little scene so vividly is that, even though I was only little, I fully appreciated the the absurdity of my ever getting lost in the front yard of our suburban home or looking at my house to orient myself to the North Star so I could find my house.

I can still see Dad, his head thrown back, eyes squinting, a broad grin on his face as he shared a deep, rumbling laugh. I laughed with him, somehow knowing that this was a different kind of laughter than the sort tickled out of you by somebody doing something funny. It was shared laughter, the kind of laughter we'd enjoy many more times over the decades to come.

In writing this blog entry, I didn't set out to equate my Dad with the North Star, but as I savor this memory of him I realize that he was (is) indeed pole star in my life. Missing him this year and a half since his passing is very much like looking up at that corner of the house again and again even though I know he won't be in that fixed place just to the right and up a little bit.

Sometimes I feel terrible that I can't remember more. What happened to all the conversations we had? Why can't I recall all the words? I felt a bit relieved when I read Joan Didion's account of losing her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, and came across a passage in which she despaired at not remembering the content of all their many talks. If Didion couldn't remember, either, then perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on myself.

One tidbit of Dad's advice, however, came with an artifact attached. He was working in the basement one day, building something (he was always building something), and chatting with me as I hung around. Then he chuckled at something in the palm of his hand before tossing it to me. It was a yellow square of wood, about an inch square, from the end of a yardstick.

"Know what that is?" he said. "That's a one-inch fixer-upper." If one failed to observe the rule "measure twice, cut once" and found that a project wasn't fitting together properly, it might need something like a shim stuck into it to make it right. The technical term for this item, he observed, was a one-inch fixer-upper.

I never seem to have a one-inch fixer-upper when I need one, but I still do have that one-inch fixer-upper. It appears randomly (unlike the North Star, it does not appear to be fixed in space) when I am tidying a closet or sorting a drawer or moving things in the basement. "So that's where it went," I'll think before losing it once again. But every time it appears, it's as if Dad is winking and sharing a laugh with me again.


  1. A lovely piece, Christina. It made me think of the many wonderful outdoor times I had with my father - he loved taking walks and we had some of our best talks then. I really like your father's smile and I wonder what treasure he'd just spotted through those binoculars! Was he a birdwatcher? Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Fred. No, Dad wasn't a birdwatcher, he left that to me, but this pic was taken on the California coast, where he and my mom lived for two years in the 1980s when he moved there to work on a special project for Grumman Aerospace. He brought the binocs along because there were lots of interesting boats out on the water. He was laughing because cropped out of this picture is a sign about 'beware of rattlesnakes' and i think we were joking about what if he were to get bitten by a rattler while i was making him pose for a picture next to the warning sign.