It’s Father’s Day, and I miss my dad. This is my seventeenth Father’s Day without him, and while each year gets a little easier, I still miss him. He would not want me to sit around and mope. So I won’t. I’ll go to yoga and then to brunch with a friend to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I’ll work in the garden and read my book. But first I need to write a bit. About my dad.
My dad was my hero. Born in Philadelphia in 1922 to a drop dead handsome Irish drunk and a tough as nails mother who worked as a janitor to pay the rent, my father put himself through college after serving with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War ll. He was a journalist, then a diplomat, and then a journalist again.
My father loved words. In his brief retirement he wrote short stories and sent them off to journals and publications that sent back kind rejection letters. He was the Spokesman at the State Department during the Vietnam War. In that job he had to choose his words carefully. He read and he wrote a lot, in his work and at home. I believe his knowledge and love of words helped him as a diplomat when he was stationed in hot spots like Athens and Nicosia. His skills as a diplomat probably helped him as the only male in a house full of females.
I don’t know how he learned to be a father. He didn’t see much of his own. But he was a natural.
He and my mother introduced me to the world. By the time I was 13, we had lived in four countries and traveled extensively in seven others. I learned perspective early because of the childhood my father helped to give me. Thanks to my father, I learned how to navigate foreign countries and situations, how to sit next to senators at dinner and carry on conversations, how to curtsy and shake hands with dignitaries- sometimes at midnight when they were coming off a plane after a long trip.
I learned how to sit patiently outside the Secretary of State’s office on Saturday mornings while my father was in meetings behind closed doors. During those waits I learned to occupy my brain, to sit still and be internal.
From my father I learned what comfortable silence is. We often spent weekend days together in his car, doing errands; sometimes we talked and other times we were quiet. But the quiet was never awkward. My father taught me how to be good company in a quiet way.
My father shared books with me. Books written by Hemingway and Reynolds Price and Eudora Welty. I introduced him to Wallace Stegner, and he made it his mission to find a first edition copy of Crossing To Safety, which I now have. My father had an amazing library. I think he owned everything John Updike ever wrote, and while I’m not a huge Updike fan, I cherish his collection, which now sits on several shelves in my home. My father’s seventy-fourth birthday was four days before he died. He was ill, and in bed, and in pain, and hardly speaking. I gave him a book- Undaunted Courage– though I knew he’d never read it.
My father taught me how to make chicken salad for Sunday supper, and potato salad, and shrimp salad, and how to make a Saturday afternoon sandwich with care. He introduced me to fresh, local food and farmer’s markets long before they were the rage. He took us, on rare and special occasions, to good restaurants.
My father was a wonderful conversationalist. He knew when to speak and how to listen. He asked hard questions and waited patiently for answers. And even if the answers weren’t what he wanted, he responded with care.
My family ate dinner in the dining room almost every night. We ate on china and used the silver. Sometimes my father invited interesting guests to dinner. I will never forget the evening with Nien Cheng at our table, recounting her extraordinary experiences during the Cultural Revolution and her bravery and grit while in prison. We never answered a ringing phone during dinner, and my sister and I were not permitted to begin our teenage evenings on weekend or summer nights until dinner was over and we had finished cleaning the dishes. I think my father’s secret plan was to make boys wait on the stairs or in the living room so that he could size them up.
My father loved baseball and newspapers and good movies and PBS and Sophia Loren. He had a not so secret crush on the queen of Thailand. He bought his suits at Brooks Brothers, before Brooks Brothers appeared in every mall in the country. He didn’t own lots of clothes, but he owned good clothes.
My father was a gentleman. Always. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a gentleman.
My father wrote wonderful letters. My favorite trips to the mail room in college were the ones when I’d discover an envelope with his handwriting waiting for me. I have every single one.
My father was of another era, for sure. A time when people who disagreed politically had the decency to hear one another out. I don’t know what he would think about blogs and cell phones and Benghazi and Bergdahl. I wish he were here so I could ask him. I miss my dad.
This photo was taken four weeks before my father died. My first child had just been born and my dad made the trip to be at her christening even though he was quite ill.