I started thinking about this set because two events happened to intersect in my life. The first was that I didn’t have wi-fi set up on my kindle at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, so I couldn’t download my loans from the library for a little while. To pass the time until I found the network password, I read the first chapter of Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” In the opening of the book, he talks about his conception of God the Father, and how it related to his memories of his own absent father. The language and imagery sparked my imagination.
The second event is that we just ended a week long trip to watch the house and dog for the Aunt and Uncle, and then visit my family in the Ozarks. This will be the first time I’ve seen my parents in almost a year, but I started a project in March to record some of dad’s stories for posterity. With the visit being so close, I wanted to mimic Miller’s idea and write about my own family.
My dad was a phone man for the first eighteen years of my life, first for AT&T, then in business for himself. As a kid, I remember thinking that whatever he did must have been very hard work. He was deeply tanned from years of working on telephone poles, and I was convinced all that sun must have burned most of his hair off. He carried a massive tool belt, and it seemed like all the things he carried around his waist had been made from missing material elsewhere on his outfit: the elbows of his striped, button-up shirts were always threadbare, his jeans never had both knees for long, and the steel that reinforced his boots’ toes always gleamed through. It never seemed like his clothes were shabby or in need of repair, but like he preferred them that way. His day-to-day attitude made him who he was in more than just clothes. As a kid, Dad’s adopted father had chickens, and the swagger of those bantam roosters rubbed off. As a scout leader he was always assured, whether we were splicing rope or stuck behind a trailer that jackknifed on an icy road. Even when he was in rehab from his stroke, he would strut around in his bright stocking cap, crowing and checking up on all the hens in the ward.
They say smells are the strongest sensory trigger for memory, and I think there’s some truth to that. The combination of coffee, sweat, and cigarette smoke leaking into my room meant Dad was home for the day, and it was usually followed by the smell of light beer when I wandered into the living room. If I could stand the flavor, I would probably keep Natural Light in the fridge for the memories it inspires.
He started the business when I was young, and the weird hours of phone technicians combined with the long hours a new business needs meant I don’t remember him being around too terribly much. When he was around, he was exhausted a lot of the time from ten hour days. There wasn’t much time for horseplay, but he made it count when he could. I remember playing with a little cocktail sword for hours one night, and he played “dead” for what felt like half an hour after I “stabbed” him. Once I was in the Boy Scouts, he found ways to get away from the business more often. He was at meetings most weeks, camp outs every month, and at least one summer camp every year.
That was when I really got to know Dad, not as a man who had to work long hours and came home frustrated that the house wasn’t clean enough, but as a man who was under too much stress while still trying his best. In late night talks around the campfire or on anchor watch, he told me about how he thought the world worked, and how our family fit into it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have a best friends kind of relationship, but I don’t think we need that. We’re father and son, and that seems to work pretty well for us.
Next time: how family relationships affect conceptions of God.