One of my earliest memories is of my father taking me out of class early one afternoon. He had our Y Indian Guides gear with him and we drove over to the newspaper building in downtown Anchorage where someone stood me up on a chair in front of a wood-paneled wall and took our picture. If I ever knew why we did this I don’t remember it now, but I remember the day well because it’s one of only a few times I can recall he and I doing something where it was just the two of us. I have three older brothers, so most events were group events. I remember this day well, though: I remember the dark striped wood paneling; I remember him laughing and smiling; I remember feeling so important and practically famous to be in the newspaper.
A few years later we moved to Arizona. It was hot and foreign and I missed all my friends from Alaska, but my parents got me enrolled in Cub Scouts and I quickly made new friends, some of which I still am friends with 40 years later. I don’t remember my father being so much involved with Scouts, but my mother was our Den Leader and the meetings were at our house. When I moved up to Boy Scouts, Dad would drive us to our different hikes, but he had bad knees and didn’t usually hike and camp with us. He was often involved with other activities in the community: he was on a park design board that helped turn an abandoned field into a fantastic park and later in life became very active helping people recover from drug and alcohol addiction.
What I remember most about my father during these years were his plants. There were plants everywhere in our house, so it seemed. Rows of various houseplants on a bookshelf in the living room, tables of different cacti and succulents on the back patio, roses in a bed near the swimming pool, bulbs and carrots and radishes growing in the shade of a large Mexican Bird of Paradise in a planter wall along the back fence, grapes growing on a trellis over the patio, orange trees in the yards, and even watermelons in a bed near the roses. Everything seemed to need something different at separate times: watering, fertilizing, pruning, picking, moving into or out of the sun, covering in the winter if there was an unusual frost. You’d be excused for thinking we lived on a working farm, but it was just a standard quarter-acre or so lot in a standard residential neighborhood. As a teenager I used to think that my father had so many plants with so many different requirements just so my brother Tom and I would be so occupied with chores that we wouldn’t have time to get in trouble if he and Mom were away.
Sometime in my teenage years I noticed something about him, too: he took care of everyone else’s plants, whether they had asked him to or not. When visiting him at his office downtown, I would see him walk through the aisles of file cabinets and, if someone had a potted plant on top of it, stick his finger in it to gauge if it needed water. I remember seeing him at his desk rubbing the dirt off his thumb and forefinger. I’m not certain if he even realized he had done so. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what he did at his job, but I do know he kept a vigilant eye (or finger) on the plants there.
It’d be easy for me to place my father up on a pedestal today. He passed away when I was only 23 after a swift and sudden onset of leukemia. I struggled with that for many years – it’s easy to think that a boy no longer needs his father after becoming an adult, but that’s not true: a young man still needs his daddy to show him how to be a husband and a father as much as a young boy needs his pop to show him how to tie his shoes and ride a bike.
But this Father’s Day it occurs to me that it wouldn’t be wise to put my father on a pedestal. Giving him hero status would lift him into a sense of being infallible or perfect, but that’s not the lesson I’m sensing now, over 25 years after his passing.
My father was not perfect. He could get angry swiftly, swear like nobody’s business when playing cards, and had an embarrassing tendency to wear Bermuda shorts and knee-high black socks. He struggled to quit smoking and, until I was 12, apparently drank alcohol to a degree that he needed help quitting. From his experience with alcohol, I learned an important lesson: all of us, any of us, can always choose to change our approach on life. It’s not easy, for sure, but it’s possible and there are tons of people that will step up to help.
But what I’ve learned most from him is this: when caring for plants or animals or other people, it’s best to be honest and genuine. Each plant required special care and attention because it would only thrive if given what it truly needed and not what he thought it was “supposed” to have. A guide or plant tag could offer suggestions, but each living thing was unique and would respond in its own unique way to its environment. When caring for others we must provide what they need and not just what we want them to have.
As I raise my own sons, it serves me well to remember this: as much as I want them to follow a guide or pattern of behavior, I need to remind myself that they are unique and special and will beautifully thrive if I watch and listen and just be present and attentive. And as they grow, I can step back some and watch their roots spread and watch them stretch upward into marvelous young men.
So, thank you, Dad, for taking me out of school in 1974 and planting the seed of caring that has served me well my entire life. Thank you for being genuinely yourself, because the memories of you when you weren’t perfect remind me now, as a father, that I don’t always have to be perfect to raise kind and caring young men. And thank you for showing me that caring often means getting dirty.
And now I’m off to find some shorts and black socks.
Happy Father’s Day.