I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad lately. My stepfather, I mean, who died peacefully two years ago, shortly after passing his 103rd birthday. He was alert and clear-minded until the very end of his life, and a loving and supportive parent to me from the time I was seven, after my own father died suddenly from heart disease.
Dad was born on December 2, 1911. His birthday snuck up on me every year, and when it did, I was hit with the double-whammy of scrambling to acknowledge the day and realizing that the sprint through the holiday season had begun in earnest. Even though he’s gone now, seeing the date on my calendar triggers a small spasm of anxiety and anticipation, tinged these days with sadness and gratitude.
My Dad saw a lot of change during his long life. When he was a small boy, the old soldiers in his hometown parades wore the gray uniforms of the Confederacy — imagine that!
He survived a bout with the deadly Spanish Flu in 1918. He remembered the day, that same year, when all the church bells in town started ringing and his mother came out onto the porch, weeping and repeating, “The war is over! The war is over!” It was Armistice Day, the precursor to what we now call Veterans Day.
During the Great Depression, Dad helped establish the first Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which laid out the foundations of what is now Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. He married his high school sweetheart, served gallantly in the Pacific during WW2 and then joined his father’s architectural firm.
He raised three children of his own, and, after the death of his first wife, married my widowed mother and took on the ticklish task of co-parenting my older brother and me. Our merged family was not exactly the Brady Bunch. There were plenty of hard times and some real potholes over the years. But Dad always did his best to guide me through my brambly youth and into a responsible adulthood.
My growing-up years presented him with lots of challenges, both at home and in the larger world. We clashed over the Vietnam war, hippies, marijuana, the sexual revolution, civil rights, women’s lib and rock ‘n roll. Over time, he came to grudging terms with these huge shifts in our shared culture — even, eventually, the unimaginable affront of women being allowed to join Rotary and the openly gay couple that bought the house next door.
In later years, after I grew up and moved away, our relationship strengthened and sweetened. He became more of a whole person to me. We developed a warm friendship and a more loving and supportive father-daughter relationship. After my mother died, when he was an old man living alone in Virginia and I was a busy wife and mother in Maine, we spoke on the phone several times a week. I visited him two or three times a year, often with my husband and children, whom he adored.
He was unfailingly cheerful, never complaining, always interested in my life. He was intrigued with my work in nursing and journalism and frequently told me how proud my mother would have been.
When my 30-year marriage fell apart, Dad was 100 percent in my corner without ever being judgemental of me or mean-spirited toward my ex. He disapproved of divorce, but understood that I needed extra support and kindness as I moved forward on my own.
When I made the tough decision to accept a new job and relocate to coastal Maine, leaving behind the home and community where I had lived for many years, he applauded my courage and bought me a new bicycle to replace the old yard-sale beater I’d ridden for years.
“I never had a chance to buy you a bicycle when you were little,” he said. “Let me do it now.” He was 100 years old.
All these kindly memories and many others have come drifting back to me this week, triggered by seeing his birthday on the calendar. He would have turned 105 this year, and I would have once again been scratching my head for what to give him to mark the occasion.
“What do you need?,” I used to ask him in the days leading up to his birthday. “What can I get you?”
His response was always the same.
“Nothing at all, Darlin’. It just means so much to have you call.”
I knew he meant it, and now, as a mother with two grown sons, I know it better with each passing year. I miss my Dad, and wish I could tell him one more time how grateful I am to have had him in my life.