Tag Archive for: Dad

My dad loved cars. He loved old cars, classic cars, any car he ever owned. He loved washing and waxing them, tinkering in the engine, driving. Everything about them.

He taught me how to change the oil and air filters in my car. How to change a tire and check the air pressure and how to calculate my gas mileage. He was often disgusted at the state of the inside of my car, and he was positively purple the night I drove my car off a cliff in the pouring rain by accident.

I loved that car. It was a 1979 Datsun 210 hatchback and I could fit more people in there than you’d think. After I drove it off the cliff, he had it towed to town and ultimately to his place, 140 miles away, and even though it wasn’t worth it, he found someone who could put it back together for me. I drove it for several more years and took really good care of it.

The car I had after the Datsun finally died was maybe the worst car I’ve ever had. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy a car that was made the first year the car company ever existed. Give them time to work the kinks out. I was proud of it because it was the first car I bought all by myself, but it was a 1986 Hyundai Excel and it was a piece of junk. It only took a couple years before fifth gear didn’t work. A month or two more and fourth gear died. I still drove it to and from work because my commute on I-405 was so slow that I didn’t really need to get beyond third gear. But when the transmission dropped reverse, I started to worry. I got by for a while, parking on hills and only parallel parking in huge spots where I could go head-in.

The next car I had that I really, really loved was also the first truly brand new car I owned – my Ford Ranger King Cab. Fire engine red, four-wheel drive, five speed. My then-husband thought I was nuts. He grew up on a farm, driving combine and nothing but trucks, so when we moved to Seattle and he got a job at a tech firm, he couldn’t wait to buy himself a little Honda Civic. He turned his back on trucks forever – distancing himself from his days as a farm boy.

I loved that truck. I sat up higher than most cars on the road and driving a manual transmission was always my preference. We could use it to haul the second-hand furniture we bought for the house, or dirt for the yard. Groceries sat in the king cab, safe from rainy days. I felt powerful in that truck. And I was sad when I had to say goodbye to it because I got pregnant and the king cab was no place for a baby’s car seat. After Baby 1 and Baby 2 came a Volvo and a minivan. Sigh.

But when the minivan had outlived it’s usefulness, I got Sparky. Sparky was a 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and he was such a great car. Big enough to haul six kids, or five plus the dog, and not a gas guzzler at all. Sparky became known as the Party Bus when my girls were in middle school and I drove through Woodinville, Kirkland, Bellevue and Mercer Island, picking up girls along the way to take to school in Seattle. Sparky’s glove compartment was always full of pretzels, granola bars, fruit and napkins for the long ride to and from school. I took a car load of girls to Astoria for the weekend on a field trip, sat in a ferry line for six and a half hours with my daughters and two pups, and listened to countless hours of kid music in that car.

When I bought my electric car last year, Sparky became the girls’ car – solid, cheap to insure and drive, and a bit gutless. And last Friday, Sparky took one for the team, absorbing the impact of another car t-boning him, and protecting my girl and her boyfriend. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive, and it’s time to say goodbye.

As I cleaned him out today, grabbing a blanket and a pack of gum, a coffee mug and the registration papers, I saw the old metal First Aid kit beneath the driver’s seat. Dad gave me that battered box, full of everything I might need should I get in to an accident – band-aids, gauze, alcohol wipes, scissors, flares, a space blanket, and more – when I got that Datsun 210 back in 1987. It has sat in every car I’ve ever owned and been used many times when kids cut or scratched themselves or simply needed something for their headache. I slid it out and settled it in to the rental car I’m driving for now and felt the tears come.

I am so grateful that Lola and her boyfriend are ok and that Sparky cushioned the blow. I am so sad to see him go and while it feels silly to cry over a car, it’s also true that there are so many memories that are conjured up when I think about him. So much laughter, road trips, rides with stinky dogs. I guess maybe I inherited some of Dad’s love of cars, even if I haven’t changed my own oil in a couple decades.

I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of “been there, done that” when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an “ok, I’ve got this, I know what to expect” kind of way.


Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren’t certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.

But Alzheimer’s or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn’t having some diseased cells cut away. She isn’t calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.

This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too – the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.

Mom’s slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won’t get a signal that tells me I’ve seen the last one. I didn’t get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn’t matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I’m hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don’t want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn’t speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.

This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom’s Self that are still fully intact – her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband – I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn’t know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can’t tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her – she doesn’t know these people, why am I talking about them? We can’t reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn’t coming to my girls’ high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.

I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can’t this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now – loose and unfinished.

There is an autographed, glossy, 8×10 photo of Bill Cosby on
my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it
has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV
with my kids.
Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved
Bill Cosby.  Much of my childhood
was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters
split up into different households.  My parents hated each other, but in the years before their
divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the
shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry
tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent
hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying
desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line
about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There
were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s
syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we
listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight
in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or
somber meal just to see everyone crack up.
After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues.
He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my
mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with
shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people,
coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars
and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but
when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I
was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For
much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.
 Mom had a lot
of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their
split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the
accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was
disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of
my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly
easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him,
certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions
purely superficial.  I didn’t trust
him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.
When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed.
I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would
have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that
route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But
as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my
child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of
cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles
all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect
them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to
when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I
decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the
history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and
grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious
antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and
feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included
Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him  – playing Heart and Soul together on the
piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up
to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.
But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel
myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I
figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his
second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one
hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we
would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and
flipping around.
Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he
could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would
say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could
I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he
made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get
it. I totally would have done the same thing.”
The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that
moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was
simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the
perfect parent any more than I would.
Yeah, but did he do
his best?
the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.
The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.
When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I
didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me
or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any
of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to
make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.
And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults,
we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an
acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults
was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud
of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.
We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke
on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he
never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the
floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy
songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and
irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed
at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More
than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their
tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because
of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that,
I only saw the cheating and lying.
My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung
cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy
at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed
at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby.
As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his
pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled
down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to
pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is
trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence
of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.
Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that
my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs
as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for
them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o
adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8×10 on the
mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked
away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop
listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that
still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it
and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with
the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy
routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and
sexually assaulting young women? 
Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things
with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because
the musician is not someone I wish to support.  The misogynist characters who build their reputations on
objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not
welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song
came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the
“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but
he is a really good rapper.”
In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I
suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have
before.  It wouldn’t surprise me to
find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things
but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me
wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response.
If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts
against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never
again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.
Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In
the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music
that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has
been claimed that there
were indications
in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to
drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember
thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish
Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.
I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out
Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh
penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo. 

This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn’t find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn’t have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way – Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows – time stopped.  I don’t remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn’t read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don’t recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us “Froggie Went-A-Courtin'” and “Greensleeves” and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn’t show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I’m both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad’s pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we’ve never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don’t understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.

Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

Today is my dad’s birthday. I said that to someone who hasn’t known me for long and she brightened, “Oh? How old is he?”

“Well,” I paused and closed my eyes, “he died five years ago, but he would have been 70 today.”

Later, I thought about whether or not I should have phrased things differently. Maybe it’s not his birthday anymore. But it is. My entire life, Dad’s birthday was on October 11. It still is his birthday. To me, it always will be.  And as the child who was always vying for his attention and praise, I reveled in sharing a birthday month with my Poppy. Like it was some special, exclusive club we belonged to and our privileges couldn’t be revoked. I mean, you can’t change your birthday, right?

Last week I started thinking about how the UN has declared October 11 “Day of the Girl.” Wondered what that means cosmically – that my dad, who was a macho, manly-man of the first order shared his birthday with such a designation.  And while I remember him being a chauvinist, it is tempered with the knowledge that he was a product of his generation and upbringing.  While he resisted my efforts to do ‘boy’ things like play soccer, he ultimately came around and taught me how to wax a car and change the oil, he supported my desire to go to medical school and married more than one bra-burning feminist (not my mother).  By the time I was a mother, he was firmly in the camp that believed that my girls could accomplish anything and ought to be afforded the opportunity to try.

And then, just fifteen minutes ago as I filled out a fax cover sheet (who requires fax communication anymore, people? Honestly, let’s just go to email, can we?) I realized that the full date today is 10/11/12. To me, the numbers speak of a moving forward, an inexorable march of progress.

I know that these are completely random observations, but I can’t help feeling that there is some congruence, some magic about today.  Maybe it’s my way of conjuring up my dad once again and finding ways to honor him and his growth curve.  He truly went from being one of the most rigid, wounded souls I have ever known to a loving acceptance of himself and the people in his life in the span of the 35 years I knew him.

Happy birthday, Poppy.

Photo of my father as a baby sitting with his father and mother.

It’s Memorial Day and I’m thinking about my dad. He died several years ago on May 2, but Memorial Day conjures up complicated emotions for me because he was such a proud Marine.  From the time of my first memories, I somehow knew this about my father, despite the fact that he had been retired for many years prior to my birth.

He wore his Marine Corps ring as proudly as his thick head of hair and flew the US flag outside every house he ever lived in.  He had military lapel pins and his behavior bore more permanent traces of his indoctrination – a penchant for tidiness and a concomitant disdain for clutter, a commitment to regular physical exercise, a lack of patience for laziness and a stark fear of things he couldn’t control.  This fear didn’t look like fear on my father, though, it looked like rigid boundaries, sharp edges and short leashes.  It looked as though he had everything figured out and he wanted to avoid wasting time by telling us all how to do it, everything, Life.

I don’t know how old I was when I learned he had been in Vietnam and there were so many stories running through our lives as our family imploded, it was hard to find reality among the golden threads woven in to catch our attention.  In some stories he was a helicopter pilot, in others he flew planes.  There were always model planes around the house and Dad had a jumpsuit in his closet he referred to as his “flight suit.”  After the divorce when Mom’s bitter hurt led her to discredit him at every turn in order to craft a world for us where there were winners and losers, Right and Wrong (and she was the “Right,”) she scornfully told us that he had been a mechanic – he had never flown planes or choppers. That he was a pathological liar.  I was so angry at his leaving that I sopped up every story and let myself choose her side.

As a young mother, I read Tracy Kidder’s book “My Detachment” about his tour of duty in Vietnam and I recall being physically struck with heartache at what so many young men of my father’s generation experienced. My father and I had recently begun creating a new relationship founded in our present-day lives where we were both there because we wanted to be, not because I needed him and he had to be there. After I finished the book, I wrote him a letter full of what I hoped would come off as compassion and love.  He had never talked about his experiences in the war and he didn’t seem to have any ties to people he had served with. While he identified as a Marine, it was in a fairly generic sense and he didn’t appreciate inquiries about the details of his service in Vietnam.  In my letter, I said that I understood why he didn’t want to revisit those memories and I didn’t want him to talk about them, but I hoped he knew how badly I felt for the kid he was – newly married, newly graduated from college with a fresh start ahead of him thanks to his ROTC enrollment – suddenly yanked a world away to a jungle where his job was to kill other young men.  Where his life was not his own, but was dependent on being in the right place at the right time, with land mines exploding around him and his team members dying right in front of him, not knowing if he would ever get the chance to meet the child his wife carried in her belly.  I can’t imagine what that does to someone.

He never answered my letter.

I don’t think I expected him to, but I wanted him to know that I felt like it explained a lot.  That coming home to a world that was pretty much the way it had been when he left – with friends meeting for coffee and driving to the grocery store and sleeping on mattresses with clean sheets – and trying to find a way to cope with the memories must have been torture.

He died at the age of 65 from a very aggressive form of lung cancer. This man who had exercised nearly every day of his life, never smoked a cigarette and barely drank alcohol. A man who ate the healthiest foods he could find and didn’t drink coffee and had no risk factors for lung cancer.  A man who likely inhaled copious amounts of Agent Orange as it was dropped onto the Vietnamese jungles.

About 18 months after he died his wife gave me some boxes she found in the closet in his office.  They contained slide carousels full of photos and an ancient slide projector I recognized instantly.  There were boxes and boxes of slides, labeled meticulously, and when I got home I set up the projector on the kitchen table and began clicking through the carousels – watching my parents with their 1960s polyester outfits visit places like Cape Canaveral and Disneyland. Looking at shots of birthdays and Christmas celebrations I hadn’t seen since the 1970s.  And then I got to a carousel labeled, simply, “Vietnam.”  I am fairly certain I didn’t take a breath as I dislodged the old carousel and fitted this one on to the projector.  I know I convinced Bubba to take the girls upstairs for a bath.  And then I advanced the first slide.  And there was my father, in his camo greens digging a trench with a group of other boys on a beach.  Click. Tents and cots. Click. Photos of three crew-cut, farmer-tanned teenagers grinning for the camera and flexing their biceps.  Click. My father standing on a paved airstrip next to a US Marine helicopter in his flight suit. A series of shots showed six soldiers loading in to the helicopter, one by one, with their parachutes strapped to their backs.  And then the chopper lifted a few feet off the ground.  I pictured my father standing behind the camera, taking shot after shot as the chopper flew higher and higher.  A few photos later, the chopper was a largeish speck in the blue sky, floating above the ocean and, barely discernable, a somewhat smaller speck on the opposite side of the photo.  Click. the tiny speck gets closer. Click. Still closer. Click. By now it is clear that one speck is chasing the other one. Click. A smoke trail appears in the shot as if someone were drawing a chalk line between the two specks. Click. The helicopter explodes into flames.

I sat down hard. My father filmed his fellow soldiers as their helicopter was blown out of the sky on an impossibly blue day.  Soldiers he had eaten with, built camp with, trained with, laughed with.  He watched them die. And he probably had to go up in a helicopter himself the next day.

Whether or not he believed in the reason he was there, I don’t know. I suspect he never really got much chance to think about it. He did what he was asked to do.

When he was alive, I didn’t make any special effort to honor my father on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day.  My sole effort to appreciate his tour(s) of duty lay in that letter I wrote to him.  While I disagree with war as a solution to anything, I believe in supporting the individual human beings who serve in the military and I wish I had found a way to let my Dad know I am proud of him.  I am proud of his service in the Marine Corps.  I think he might be watching somewhere now, though, and I hope he can hear me playing Taps for him.

Eve discovered grapefruit about a year ago. She was helping me unpack our weekly CSA box and as she pulled two pockmarked peach-colored fruits out of the box she exclaimed, “These oranges are huge, Mom!” My brain flooded.

At first, I was astonished to realize that she was eleven years old and had never eaten (or seen) a grapefruit. I had a moment of shame before my own memories of grapefruit rushed in to wash it away.
My mom standing at the kitchen counter, small curved-blade knife in hand, cutting in to each segment of a halved grapefruit to release it from the thick casing separating it from its neighbor. This knife was created specially for this purpose, down in to the segment she plunged it and with a curve of her wrist, she expertly pivoted it in a teardrop shape before lifting the blade and moving on to the next segment, turning the fruit slightly like the minute hand on a clock so that her hand was always in the same spot. She would place each half-grapefruit in a shallow bowl, dust the tops with sugar and hand them to us on Saturday mornings. I hated it. The bitterness assaulted my mouth and made it water uncontrollably until I thought I’d drool. The sickly-sweet sugar sitting on top of the bitter flavor made me shudder. I soldiered on, seated next to my father who ate his with the kind of pleasure generally reserved for things related to cars and soccer. He ate quickly, sometimes groaning with pleasure, and then grabbed the fruit in his freckled hand and squeezed it over his spoon to catch every drop of the juice. Squeezed it over and over again until it looked like a deflated football, the segment casings glistening white like the skeleton of the fruit. It was his favorite weekend breakfast. I would eat as much as I could and hope for a distraction as I tossed the rest so I wouldn’t get busted for wasting food.
I had to use these grapefruits. And I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce Eve to something new. I remembered seeing something on a cooking show about sprinkling brown sugar on the top of a grapefruit half and putting it under the broiler for a few minutes to caramelize it. Eve ate both halves and asked if I would do the other one for her, too. I considered for a moment showing her my father’s trick for getting the juice, but using my hands in the same way he had used his was too painful to consider. Instead I described how to get the juice out. She squeezed it into her bowl to mix with some of the brown sugar bits and asked for a straw.
In the last few weeks I have rediscovered grapefruit. This week two enormous Texas Ruby Reds showed up in our CSA box and Eve was out of town with her classmates for four days. I used a small paring knife to free the flesh of the grapefruit and stuck it under the broiler with some brown sugar. As I ate the segments, warm and crunchy on top with brown sugar, cool at the core, I lamented my technique and considered buying a grapefruit knife. Too much flesh left behind clinging to the skin. I didn’t cut closely enough in my effort to avoid the bitterness of the pulp.
When I had eaten every last segment I lifted the fruit and squeezed the juice into my spoon, noting how my hands have freckled and aged over the years and look a little like his did. Tasting the bittersweet, sitting in the quiet, I shared breakfast with Dad.