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A gift from my father, twenty years gone

My father died 20 years ago today.

I was 12 years old when he died in a tractor accident. He was feeding the cows – moving a large round bale of hay with the front-end loader of the tractor, when the bale rolled on top of him and crushed his lungs. My life was forever changed, but that’s not why I’m writing today.

Being a new parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of parent I am and want to be. And lately, I’ve been thinking about the kind of parent my father was to me. I keep coming back to a strong memory of one of my last conversations with him.

This is the way I remember it:

My father died on a Wednesday. A few fresh inches of snow covered our farm, and that was enough to close school in our rural Kentucky county. I was lingering in my warm bed that morning, wondering what to do with an unexpected wide-open day. I listened to the sounds of my parents starting their day. The coffee maker gurgled above the familiar voice of the NPR correspondent. I gazed at the world map that was tacked above my bed. It depicted an earth that was beyond my imagination, so much bigger than our little snowed-in farm. In the living room, I heard my father pull on his outdoor gear.

But then, before he hurried out to the hungry cows, my father ducked into my room to say good morning to me. He sat down on the edge of my bed, and we studied the world map together. He had traveled around Europe as a teenager with his family, but he told me that one place he still wanted to go was Greece. Or maybe he had been there before, now I can’t remember. Either way, we agreed that we should go there together one day. He told me that we would find the most gracious people in Greece, that strangers would open their homes to us and serve us a meal. That was just how it was done there.

He left, and I closed my eyes again, imagining Greece with blue skies and baklava. It was so warm and unreal. The rest of the day was cold and way too real.

——————————

That is how I remember the morning of January 15, 1992. This past week, I have reveled in that memory. What a gift for a father to leave his daughter – a warm, final memory that I could carry with me, along with the certainty that he loved and cared for me. He cared enough to let go of his to-do list for a few minutes to join me on a Grecian beach. He gave me a meeting place, a place where I could go in my mind when I needed to picture him somewhere on all the days when he wasn’t in my world. He gave me a place where I could find him.

A few nights ago, I dug out my journal from that time, hoping to find more details about our Greece conversation. My journal entry was illuminating:

“My father and I had many conversations about traveling. The neat thing about these conversations was that we were equals. My father acted as if a grown-up was talking to him. I acted as if I was talking to one of my friends. A few days before my father died, we had a conversation about Greece. We both decided we wanted to go to Greece, especially the beaches.”

The 12-year-old me recorded events meticulously, and I since had moved things around in my mind. Two decades later, I was holding onto this beautiful memory about that morning, but the Greece conversation had happened several days before. Flipping back a few pages in the journal, I found the account of what my father had actually said to me that morning. He had asked me to carry in some firewood before going out sledding. Ah well. I had clearly clung to the memory that I wanted to keep, and it served me well. Our memories are selective for good reason.

What is more important to me about that journal entry is that it reveals something about my father’s parenting style. My father respected me as my own person and did not make me feel like “just a child.” He took time for real conversations with his young daughter. He spoke from his heart and listened well. He valued my thoughts, and I knew this.

When I talked to my mother on the phone tonight, I asked her to tell me more about the kind of parent my father was. She said one memory that stuck with her was that he would often drop whatever he was doing to sit down and play with me when I was a baby. He had no problem disregarding the to-do list and prioritizing playtime. My mom admitted that she struggled with this at times, because she was usually focused on getting things done. And you know what? I’m the same way. I hate to leave the kitchen a mess or the laundry to pile up, so BabyC spends a lot of time playing independently or “helping” me wipe up the floor around her high chair after meals or pushing the laundry basket around the house. I don’t feel guilty about this – I think independent play is important, as is preparing meals and doing laundry. But how often do I give her 100% of my attention? My father was good at this, from the time I was very young. I would like to be a little more like him.

My family - June 1980

This treasured memory of a conversation with my father is my reminder to, every once in a while, drop everything to be completely present with my daughter.

To put down my phone and close my computer.

To let my imagination go where hers wants to take us.

To be with her quietly or laugh with her loudly.

To open my lap and my heart.

What a gift. It is mine to give, every day.

30 Comments
  1. Sarah #

    What a lovely post! Thank you for sharing. What you say resonates with our family dynamics. I am around the kids a lot, so I do need to get things done at the same time (often trying to involve them too, yes, but not giving them the 100% attention to do what they want, as you say). But my husband is much more like your father. Perhaps those who are away several hours a day and spend less contact time with kids, spend the time they are around more focussed.

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Hi Sarah – I think there is something to that. The same thing happens in our family as well. My husband only gets to see BabyC for an hour or two each day, so he is more likely to sit down to play with her without distractions (and he is less likely to be concerned about what we are having for dinner, I will add). I think that a little goes a long way, though. A few minutes here and a few minutes there of 100% attention are good for us both. I’m also trying to be really present during times like meals, bath time, nursing, and diaper changes. I can’t clean the house at the same time as those daily activities, so I might as well make that time really count, right?!

      Like

      January 18, 2012
  2. karl #

    Alice,
    I remember that day very well. It was a foreboding feeling, like a heavy dark cloud covered the whole community. I could feel it and see it in everyone, especially my mom and dad.
    I remember the world map and pictures on your wall of faces from far away. Those images made me dream too. Thanks for sharing.
    karl

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Thanks for reading and for your comment, Karl. We did have a lot of maps in our house, didn’t we!? I think a lot of us had big dreams and have followed them widely, but Sawdridge Creek sure has a special place in my heart.

      My mom emailed me last night to say that my story reminded her that Richard had just gotten a passport not long before he died. She can’t remember if he was actually planning a trip anytime soon (and she can’t imagine how they would have had the money for it), but he must have had some adventure in mind:)

      Like

      January 18, 2012
  3. how fabulous that you have that journal still, and what a great reminder to carpe diem, eff the to do list, and stop to smell the kiddies each day

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Yes! eff the to do list! I’ve got to learn to do that more often!

      Like

      January 18, 2012
  4. I cried as I remembered that day.. What a beautiful recollection of that time with your father. The community was really never the same after that. Your dad had a great way of gathering together all kinds of friends from all different groups. Once he was gone, it seemed everyone drifted back into their little cliques. It was good to know a little more about Richard. His spirit still wanders around here I hope.

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • I wonder if Richard ever thought much about his parenting style? I think he treated his kids like he treated everyone. I love hearing more about my dad from those who knew him as adults. My mom says that he could have a deep conversation with anyone, that he was always interested in people and what they had to say. I know it was hard to get him to leave a good party sometimes!

      Like

      January 18, 2012
  5. Alice, this is so beautiful and brought tears to my eyes… I love the lesson you took from this about making a little more time to play with your daughter.

    I just want to mention that paying 100% attention from time to time while she is playing independently can actually encourage more healthy independent play. Paying attention to your daughter’s play, sitting quietly and responding rather than playing “with” her, is just as connection-building and validating for your daughter, but it doesn’t have to require much energy on your part…just attention and enjoyment of the things your daughter is choosing to do (even if it’s sitting on your lap and doing “nothing”). This is the kind of “playing together” we teach at RIE. It is all about responding, acknowledging and encouraging, but not doing things that take over and turn it into *us* playing (which is very easy to do, since we are so powerful to our children). Play remains “hers” this way and your daughter receives the message that she is interesting on her own terms — her choices and ideas are completely enough… Maybe you already know and do this…just wanted to encourage you, because for me, it makes playing together so much more fun. 🙂

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Janet, the type of play that you describe is what I *try* to do, and I have you to thank for this. When I read your writing about this, it made so much sense to me and was also a relief. If I try to “lead” the play, I find that I quickly run out of things to do and become bored. I’ve noticed that this is because I try to play with baby toys the way I think they should be played with, and it turns out that baby toys are just not that entertaining for adults:) It is much more interesting to respectfully watch BabyC playing and see what she comes up with! So when I say that I want to give BabyC a little more 100% time, I mean that I want to take the time to quit trying to multitask and just sit on the floor with her and see where it takes us. I also love the RIE philosophy of being completely present with our babies as we feed them, diaper them, and bathe them. That is more of a mental exercise for me – to try to clear away the muddle in my brain and just focus on her. Oh yeah, and try to leave my phone in another room when we breastfeed:) Thanks for your lovely comment, Janet.

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  6. Sharon #

    Alice, this made me cry. I didn’t know that you lost your father at young age, I’m sorry for your loss!

    Thanks for sharing this with me. I needed this reminder.

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Thank you Sharon. I think we all need this reminder from time to time. It is HARD to do!

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  7. Alice this is a beautiful & very thought provoking post – thanks for sharing such a personal story.

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Thanks for reading, Kierna. It felt good to share it:)

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  8. talia #

    i remember this. i remember you, and a few other friends lost parents in middle school, and how the thought was completely overwhelming and beyond my comprehension. what a great memory you have, no matter what the order of the conversations you had with him were. thanks for sharing such a strong story!
    talia

    Like

    January 16, 2012
    • Talia, it was beyond comprehension for all of us. Thanks for reading. It is wonderful to have all of these comments from old friends!

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  9. Jayda Siggers #

    Beautiful! I lost my Dad 2 years ago (horse accident) and have not had the courage, yet, to write about it. I love how you pulled such a positive lesson form a devastating situation.

    Like

    January 17, 2012
    • Thank you, Jayda, and I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I have had 2 decades to build the courage to write about my father. Being a parent is really what has pulled these memories up for me.

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  10. Roxie #

    Oh Alice – what a beautiful rendering of the kind of person Richard was and the dynamics of your family. I remember him well. Actually, my clearest memory of Richard is of him dancing in our living room at Peaks Mill. I guess it was a party my parents were having but I remember Richard, amidst others, dancing with what seemed to me to be absolute and complete abandon. I remember thinking something like “Wow. I’d like to feel like that.” I actually have some really nice pictures of him (some of him dancing) that I’d love to share with you. Your family meant alot to mine and I’m so glad to see you doing so well. Your writing is truly beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.
    -Roxie Hurt

    Like

    January 18, 2012
    • Roxie, I have strong memories of Richard dancing! And of being a kid at a party trying to pull him away so I could go home and go to bed! He was either dancing or deep in conversation or BOTH! I wish I had inherited some of his wild abandon and dancing style. And I would love to see the photos! If they are digitized, you can email them to me (scienceofmom at gmail com) or send me an email and I’ll send you my mailing address. Hope you are doing well. It has been years since I’ve seen you. Hearing from old friends is one of the great benefits of putting my writing on the interwebs:)

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  11. Charlotte Green #

    I thank you, too, Alice, for writing your story and stirring up memories for those of us who knew and loved Richard, your father and my husband. Thanks to each of you who shared your memories. It is wonderful knowing that so many people are thinking about him this week and that his gift of twenty years ago is inspiring parents today.
    Charlotte Green

    Like

    January 19, 2012
    • I hesitated before posting this, because it felt so personal. I’m glad that I shared it, though. I loved sharing these memories with old friends who knew Richard and those that didn’t. I loved stirring memories in others, and I loved the outpouring of support that I feel here and on Facebook. I’m glad that I didn’t just let the anniversary go by without really giving it some thought and recognition. I do believe that other parents who have read this will carry some of his spirit with them, and that is a wonderful thought.

      Like

      January 19, 2012
  12. Frank Sawyer #

    Thanks Alice for sharing your memories. My clearest memory of the events was hearing ” Amazing Grace” at the gravesite and being overwhelmed with emotion. We all miss Richard..

    Frank

    Like

    January 20, 2012
    • You’re welcome, Frank. Thank you for reading and missing him with me. I remember “Amazing Grace,” too. I also remember that whole service being very healing, because I felt so much love from all of the friends and family that came to celebrate his life and grieve together. It meant a lot to me then and now.

      Like

      January 20, 2012
  13. Miranda Anderson #

    I did not know this about your family Alice. Thank you so much for sharing this very touching and very personal story. You also seem to share the qualities that your dad possessed because as a friend I can say that you also always listen and are a true friend 100% of the time. Thanks for reminding me to take a moment with my family too.

    Like

    January 26, 2012
    • Thanks for your sweet comment, Miranda. It is not something that I talk about much, but my dad has been on my mind lately. It somehow felt really good to share this story here and know that he might influence others even all these years later. Miss you:)

      Like

      January 26, 2012
  14. Clay Thompson #

    Alice, I remember that day. My memory is of walking to your house and coming to see Jordan. It was a long walk and I can see Sawdridge Creek meandering along highway 127. It was bitter cold, a sharp contrast to my favorite memories of noodling for fish under the rock ledges when the summer tobacco irrigation would lower the creek across the street from your house. I could only think that I needed to show up and see Jordan (as he was my connection to your family). I was struggling to figure out what to say to him that might help. In the end I decided just being there would have to suffice. I have definitely recreated parts of that memory, but it still conjures up an amazing amount of emotion. My wife just walked in and asked me what I was crying about.

    We are always striving to be in the moment with our girls. At the top of my work to-do list I have written “Breathe – Children say what they wish was true”. It helps me to take it easy on a very imaginative 5 yr old and to remember to pay attention to my breathing (my way of being in the moment).

    Karl sent me over your blog and I have enjoyed reading it and re-connecting. You will have to let me know if you are ever venturing out west. We would love to have you spend some time in Boulder.

    Clay

    Like

    February 7, 2012
    • Hi Clay,
      Thanks so much for your comment and sharing your memory. I remember that one of the hardest parts of losing my dad was the feeling that other kids avoided me, because they didn’t know what to say. On the other side, some kids thought that I should be crying and talking about my grief all the time. I really needed friends to just be with me, like you were with Jordan. And my closest friends were amazing at that. I remember Kirky spent the first few nights with me after Richard died, and that was the best support anyone could give me, even though I’m sure she had no idea what to say.

      I love thinking of old friends being parents now. We live in Oregon now, and we’d love to come East to Colorado one of these days. We’ll let you know if we come your way – it would be fun to see you again and meet your family.
      Alice

      Like

      February 10, 2012
  15. Heather Carpenter Bielby #

    Thanks for sharing this! I remember my parents telling me about your father and how upset it made me. My heart really hurt for you and your family and the loss of such a kind, down to earth man. (I also remember him being a guy with a great sense of humor and making me laugh often as well) My memory of my childhood and younger years has became really became sketchy as I’ve gotten older. But what I do remember makes me often reflect of how blessed I was to have moved to Sawdridge Creek Rd and to grow up there. At the time it was a complete culture shock for me, I felt uprooted from the city to the middle of nowhere. I have to admit I was a closed minded bratty little girl and felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. But your family, as well as other families in our little road and in our tiny community of Monterey were always welcoming. I remember your mom watching us (bless her heart, my brother and I probably made her believe all red headed children were all evil brats) the first summer and getting to help your dad out in the greenhouse and learning/seeing much about farm life from your father and your family. It brings a smile to my face when I think of the memories of us kids playing in the woods, the creek and being introduced to a world I was clueless of. I remember getting into the hot tub your dad made and walking home with steam rolling off of us in the winter and I remember the maps! 🙂 To this day when I go to my parents house I do make an effort to take my children to show them the world I grew up in and fell completely in love with. Which brings me to really say thank you for sharing this Alice and the memory of your father prioritizing you and your brother! It brings to light something about myself. I feel I’m a person who tends to get caught up in the day to day hustle and at times think I tend to place more priority of what needs to be done then simply taking a break to simple play or be silly with my boys. I want my boys when they are older to look back at their childhood and see that spending time with each other is more important than a clean kitchen. Thanks for sharing your inspiring memories of a great man and father Alice! Reminiscing today has brought smiles and warmth to my heart! I pray these memories do the same for you and your family!

    Like

    January 17, 2016
    • Thank you, Heather! What a lovely comment, and so well-said. So many good memories on that piece of land! Enjoy your kiddos:)

      Like

      January 17, 2016

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