Back on Mother’s Day a few months ago, I did a post about my mom – with the help of my twin sister Katy, we came up with some of our favorite memories of our mom from childhood and I wrote them up, alongside some photos that Katy had scanned to make albums for Christmas. As Father’s Day began to creep up on me, I decided it was only fitting to give my dad the same treatment.
First, some brief history: Wikipedia tells me that the first Father’s Day celebration was held almost exactly 100 years ago, on July 19th of 1910. But it didn’t become an officially recognized holiday until 1972, despite various attempts from various people, including presidents and other politicians. Perhaps my favorite line from the Wiki article is “Where Mother’s Day was met with enthusiasm, Father’s Day was often met with laughter.”
Well, no more. Because there is nothing funny about Father’s Day, and there is absolutely nothing funny about this post.
Here go the memories! Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!
– The songs he sang to us at bedtime – I’m sure he sang us more than these two, but these are the ones that have always stuck in my mind: The BillBoard Song and The Fox. The Billboard Song (click to listen!) is a tune written by Nashville songwriters Cy Coben and Charles Grean and recorded by the band Homer and Jethro in the 1950s; it’s the tale of a man walking down the street after a storm who notices that all the billboards had their slogans jumbled, resulting in advertisements like so:
Smoke Coca-Cola cigarettes, drink Wrigley’s spearmint beer.
Ken-L-Ration dog food keeps your wife’s complexion clear.
Chew chocolate-covered mothballs, for they always satisfy.
Brush your teeth with Lifebouy Soap and watch the suds go by.
(Click for the full lyrics.) As you can imagine, this delighted me and my sister to no end, despite not knowing at least half the brands and slogans. The other song was The Fox, a classic folk song whose version I know best was done by the Smothers Brothers. It’s so old that no one knows who wrote it; the song’s Wikipedia Page claims that the earliest known version of the song dates back to a 15th century Middle English poem that is housed in the British Museum. Somehow, the grisly story of a wolf hunting down, killing & eating some geese was a comfort to us as were were drifting off into sleep. Check out the final lines, repeated twice for impact, that I’ll never forget my dad singing:
never had such a supper in their life
and the little ones chewed on the bones-o
– Alternating nights with my mom, he would read to us. Though he read us many books, the ones I remember best were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don’t remember how young we were when he started, but he deemed the first 40 pages or so of The Hobbit too boring so he simply skipped them and got right into it. It must have taken us months – maybe even over a year – to finish all four books, long and dense as they were. I’ll always remember the voices he did, and the slow knocking on the hardcover when a character knocked on a door. As with many people, Katy and I felt a very close and personal connection to those books, stemming from the fondness of having our dad read them to us, and when the movies came out we were excited but wary and cautious.
– Dad was the scorekeeper for most of my little League career, sitting with the team in the dugout and essentially acting as another coach, as a member of the team. He was especially reassuring to have on the bench when I started to pitch, since pitching was a stressful and draining (though ultimately incredibly fun and intense) endeavor. I would get soreness in my right arm sometimes when I pitched, and while my team was at bat he’d rub my arm until it felt better. He was relentlessly encouraging, positive, and knowledgeable, and was a vital part of my little league experience.
– As much time as he spent keeping score, he likely spent far more time playing catch with me down at the park (and, when we didn’t feel like walking down there, out on the front deck). My dad stuck with me as I tried out all sorts of pitches – curveballs, sliders, forkballs, screwballs, knuckle slurves, underhanded split-seam wiggleballs – and took more abuse than he probably let on. Catching with a regular glove, he’d bravely squat at home plate while I occasionally threw strikes and more than occasionally threw wild pitches at his toes. Things got a little better when he bought a cup and a mask and when I learned to control my breaking pitches a little better, but he was nothing short of heroic in the way he sat 45 feet (later 60 feet, 6 inches) away from a hurtling, unpredictable, rock-hard white pellet, over and over and over again for years.
– In 1st grade, he would occasionally do Katy’s hair for school, but he would tie her pigtails so tight she looked like Pipi Longstockings. Katy, being a gentle soul, bit her lip and didn’t say anything, and waited until she got to school before taking out the braids.
– Going out to eat Turkish food in Paris. Every other summer when our family went to France to stay with friends and later do a house-swap with a French family, Katy and I would accompany our Dad to the Turkish Quarter and go out to eat. My dad had spent two years in Turkey in the Peace Corps, and would chat with the restaurant guys in Turkish. He and I usually got lamb and beef doner plates from those giant rotating meat-sticks, and Katy usually got lahmacun, what we called “Turkish Pizza.” He taught us to count to 10 in Turkish, as well as phrases like teşekkür ederim (thank you) and nasilsiniz (how’s it going?).
– Popcorn. Our papa loves popcorn like few men ever have, so much so that my most entrenched image of him from my childhood is him sitting cross-legged in the rocking chair in the living room, book in one hand and popcorn bowl in the other. Salted, no butter, and never microwaved, he makes a mean bowl of popcorn, and has a pot used only for that express purpose. He taught me his method, and before long I was making the stuff too. For A’s games I’d make up a couple batches, throw ’em in a big paper bag, and bring it along with us, a tradition that I’ve kept with Drew over the years.
– Some days when we were sick or had a day off, we’d go spend the day in the back of my mom’s French classes – and other days we’d go to my dad’s office. He worked in downtown San Francisco at a nonprofit environmental lawfirm called The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund – now called Earthjustice – and, as you can imagine, it was filled with fantastic people and exciting things to do. For example, computer games; printing on a laser printer, going out for lunch; and running around or taking naps on the couch. My primary memories involve writing my little poems on the old green-screened computers, and playing games with the keyboard.
– Playing music with my Dad, a memory that will keep growing well into the future. A fine alto sax player, he (and my mom) encouraged me to take up guitar in high school; I did, became obsessed, and music making has been an essential part of my life since. From time to time we get together, he gets out his sax and I get out my guitar, and we play songs from the Beatles, the Band, Simon & Garfunkel, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and sometimes my own. We used to play open mics together at a great Berkeley folk venue called The Freight and Salvage; among the tunes we played were Hallelujah (the Buckley version), The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band, an M. Ward tune called Sad Song, and many others. He’s a great musician, singer, harmonizer, and is always the first to pull out a guitar at any gathering of friends; I tend to be the same.
Here is an instrumental I recorded not long ago, a guitar piece with my dad’s lovely sax floating around making lovely melodies (click to play):
– Katy has a memory that I don’t have about singing a “donkey song” with Dad when she had a cold – here is what she remembers: “I don’t remember the donkey song except that he would be blow drying my hair and singing, and when the donkey noise part came, I would sing it with my horse cold voice.”
– Playing Royalty with him. Royalty is a very obscure word game* that uses red and black, playing-card sized cards with letters on them; the object is to spell words from your hand, as well as to add letters to words on the table by adding letters. Its many similarities to Scrabble include letter distribution, a “challenge” system (that we never used), and a bonus for using all seven letters in your hand. We’ve had an ongoing rivalry, albeit a friendly one which allows dictionary usage and encourages high scores by both players. We experienced a huge moment several years ago where, for the first time ever, we scored a combined 1,000 points, a feat we weren’t even sure was possible. We wrote to Guinness, but they were curiously uninterested.
Also, many years prior, we’d play checkers – and I would always lose. Frustrated but determined, I kept playing and playing until the glorious day I beat my Dad at checkers – still one of the defining feats of my youth. As an adult, I’m really glad he didn’t let me win until I really earned it. He didn’t engaged in “tough love” very often, and perhaps this doesn’t even qualify, but I have nothing but fond memories of checkers, so it must have worked. And made me a better person. Or something.
*As the nerdy child I was, I engaged in a brief correspondence with the creator of the Royalty game, a man named S.J. Miller. In fact, we still have the first letter I wrote him, as he wrote his response on my paper – it was a question regarding a possible loophole in the rules that I’d noticed, and he wrote back a thoughtful and encouraging note that praised my word-building talents. The story later took an odd twist when, after a couple of exchanges, he finally wrote back and accused me of being a bitter man playing a prank on him by pretending to be a child. We no longer have any of the letters, and so I’ll never know what drove him to think that; but I like to think he was embittered by years and years of trying to sell his little game. Well, I don’t like to think that. But it helps explain why he would accuse a dorky little boy of such a thing. I think the real bitter man… was him.
– Our family Friend Ann threw (and still throws) an annual Labor Day party at her house up on the Russian River; she lives in a beautiful house that has a balcony upstairs with several beds that are outdoors but covered by an overhanging roof. Katy and I would generally end up there after a long day of playing and eating in the sun, and Katy remembers pretending to be asleep when it was time to go home so our dad would carry her to the car. I’m guessing that he probably knew, but he never admitted it.