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.
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.