Sunday, February 3, 2008

Happy Birthday Dad!

Today my dad turns 72, and I've been around for half of his life (a bit more, if you count time in utero, which perhaps should count double in my case, but that's another story).

I know lots of people praise their dads for all kinds of things, and I doubt there is a single category of praise my dad hasn't earned in his time daddying. Last year's card (also written at the last minute, like this one) listed 71 of my happy dad-related memories for him, and it was not the least struggle to come up with them. In fact, in many of the cases the memories were routine events which I experienced many times in my childhood, but for the purpose of the card these memories got one line each.

This birthday I want to remember the ways my dad took me outside. One of my earliest memories is of walking through the arboretum woods near our house, back when those woods were just semi-wild land belonging to the university nearby. Sometimes we took the path to a playground on the other side, sometimes we walked to the corn field which is now flower beds and meadow.

Later, we jogged together through the woods, in matching blue jogging suits. The path had become a "parcourse", with stops along the way for various stationary exercises. I remember laughing with great glee at dad doing jumping jacks - I have no idea what was so ridiculous about the concept - and him grinning wryly back, knowing I was making fun of him and accepting it simply as one of many ways I could have fun in his presence. Later, when I rode the horse my parents got for me, he pretended to be a bad guy, and then let me chase him - me on horseback, and him on foot. He managed somehow to maintain his role as comforting, safe, Dad, while at the same time being completely willing to make a fool of himself in play with me.

In our yard, we raked leaves together - or rather, he raked big piles of leaves and I jumped on them. He is the only adult I've ever known who seemed to fully and happily accept that leaf piles were to jump on. My mom tolerated it grimly, my grandmother spanked me for it, but my dad acted as if the whole reason for raking was for me to enjoy the results. This fall, when my husband raked leaves for our daughters and their cousins, then stacked straw bales next to them, I thought happily of Dad.

Dad isn't a botanist, or a gardener. His knowledge of plants comes from experiences as a Boy Scout in Kingsport, Tennessee and from a single field botany course taken at Middle Tennessee State. When I took botany in college, he gave me his own Gray's Manual of Botany, complete with his margin notes, and when I got married his gift to us was a Peterson's Bird Guide. When I was small, he admired violets and clover with me, and when we hiked together as adults we have admired ironweed, goldenrod, and trillium. He knows just enough about plants to show loving and genuine admiration for my own, fairly meager, plant identification skills. My gifts to him, in thanks, have included his favorite cardinal flowers and a wild petunia native to Kentucky, both of which have thrived in their places with him.

Dad doesn't walk far these days, and a trip to the arboretum with him is a rare and wonderful treat sometimes when I visit. He doesn't do jumping jacks for my daughters, though if he did I'm sure they would laugh, and he would grin wryly for them while he did them, just as he did for me.

What Dad does do these days is get down on to his granddaughters' level. He plays with them, with dolls, with blocks, with marbles, just as he did with me. No game is too silly, or girly, or too inconvenient for him. With me, he was able to take me outside and get sweaty and dirty, to throw and catch and admire the flowers (no matter how small); now he is more indoors, but he is still fully willing to be part of the mess of childhood.

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday!


marji said...

Nancy, I have tears stinging my eyes after reading your touching birthday card to your dad. The ending is so strong as it shows how he still chooses to engage with the girls just the way they are. This is a gift to them as much as it is to him, I'm sure.

Ser said...

What a lovely birthday ode to your dad, Nancy! I also remember outdoor time--walking, running, hiking and camping--as some of my fondest dad memories. I think because there was no telephone (before the days of the cell!) and no distractions.