When we are kids we look at our parents shirts, or their legs. Sometimes we look at their hands, especially if they’re holding ours. We notice the knuckles and the lines running under the cuffs and into ages ago. We simply don’t spend a lot of time looking up. Maybe it hurt our necks, or perhaps the brightness from the sky or the sun or the fluorescent lights in the store ceilings deflected our attention, or maybe the vague sense of repetition kept us from bending back our heads too far.
I can tell you most of the details of my father’s eyes and face in his later years. I can describe with precision the curves in his chin, the rollback of his neck, his deep eyes and his pronounced forehead bearing the lines of nearly a century. Without a glance toward a picture I know the sunspots on Dad’s face; the doctor’s mark; the slight, tight curve of his upper lip and the forward position of his reading glasses as he sat in his chair and leaned toward the light so he could read the paper.
But I don’t know much about the determined look of his younger days, when I was a toddler, and even a young man. I never noticed the intensity of his eyes when leaving for work, or the joy in his eyes watching his favorite teams win when he brought us to baseball games. I can’t describe the pain or pleasure of life when he still had life in his eyes. I didn’t pay attention.
I never asked my dad what he did for a living. I mean I know what his occupation was, but I never inquired about his day, about what took place. Part of me was too busy growing up or playing with friends, and part of me didn’t want to bother him after he had been doing it all day. But those are adult responses when I wonder why I didn’t ask, and the truth is I probably didn’t care. He did his thing and I did mine. His thing made my thing possible but even that was too complicated to contemplate. So when we talked we talked about baseball, or golf.
We got a long absolutely fine. We just didn’t talk because of our circles. My circles crossed paths with friends, sometimes with siblings, often with my mother. His circles crossed paths with colleagues, my mother (rarely at the same time as me, except for dinner and weekends), neighbors. This was old school; this was adults being one generation and the kids being another, between them one of the biggest abyss’s in American history. It was no big deal, at least not in our home. But I never asked him about his day, what he did all day.
I just figured I wouldn’t understand or if I did ask he’d give a quick, often funny response. I think you have to be a parent to understand what kind of child you were. You need a basis of comparison that goes beyond the parent-child relationships of cousins or friends. It has to be later, years later, when you understand what he would have wanted you to ask, what he wished you had shown interest in, how close—or not close—you were. Turns out we were so much closer than I knew but I never asked.
When I was a teenager, two days a week I got to keep my Dad’s car for the day. The trade off was I had to bring him to the parking lot where he met a colleague by seven thirty in the morning. He never lectured me about what I could and couldn’t do that day, where I could and couldn’t go.
We’d get to the donut shop early on purpose, and he’d have coffee and a plain donut and I’d have juice and a chocolate one, because we liked routine because routine keeps things simple and keeps things from changing too quickly. Like our routine for years at bedtime where I’d say good night and he’d say to sleep tight, and while I really never knew what that meant, to sleep tight, I couldn’t imagine going to bed without hearing him saying it. He’d tell me not to let the bed bugs bite which somehow seemed creepy but again, to not hear it meant certain devouring by whatever it was he was talking about. I can still see him in the doorway, the hallway light on. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” he’d say, and so they wouldn’t.
At the donut shop he’d watch the news on the television above the counter and eventually we left for the parking lot where his colleague would pull in just as we did, always. Their timing was phenomenal. He’d say to have a great day and to pick him up at five, and I’d drive off before he had a chance to walk to the other car. Maybe I was late, or maybe I was afraid someone I knew would see me, shattering the illusion it was my car and not my dad’s.
But I liked that routine. It became Scotch in his later years, like clockwork, but it was the same thing. We’d sit with the television on and know the other was there, which was in itself the purpose of the routine to begin with.
Yes, in later years on Tuesday nights we drank Scotch. Dad always like J & B, an inexpensive blend he probably first drank and therefore a taste to which he grew accustomed. On occasions he drank Chivas, and a few times he had a bottle of Edradour in the house. Routine is important and on Tuesday nights I’d get there about nine and was no sooner in the door when he’d say, jokingly, “My coaster seems to be empty,” or something similar with a laugh and a welcoming smile. I’d put my things down and say I’d get some, and he’d say he was just joking and he didn’t mind getting it at all, which he always enjoyed. He would walk in the kitchen and I could hear the cabinet and the ice and the heavy bottle he put back in the cabinet, never leaving it on the counter for more because we never had more. He’d return steadily and slowly and hand me my glass and we’d raise them to toast and he’d say, “Well,” nodding his head politely, and I’d interrupt and say, “to your health,” to which he would again nod and with his deep voice reply, “and to yours.” Then we’d watch baseball, not really talking much. It was late. He sipped his Scotch.
But I preferred to pour the Scotch. I hate Scotch. When I poured the Scotch and he sat in his recliner, everything was the same but instead of Scotch in my glass I would pour water. His eyes had faded in those last few years and he wouldn’t have noticed the tint of my drink. And anyway, it wasn’t about the Scotch. We sat together a long time and he would turn once and say, “Boy that is good, isn’t it?” and I’d agree. Sometimes I felt guilty and would pour some for myself as well, but usually only when it was the Chivas or Edradour or another fine single malt. It always made me tired, but he always would be the first to head upstairs to bed. Then I’d sit quietly for a while glad to be able to sit in peace, but the next day at work, or walking across a parking lot, I’d wish he had stayed up longer even just to sit quietly. I’d be sorry he went to bed and promise myself that the next Tuesday while drinking Scotch I’d make more conversation, talk more about the game or about my day or anything really, since he wouldn’t have minded. But the following Tuesday would come and like clockwork I’d be exhausted and silent and he would get tired and go to bed.
He aged well, my father, and sitting with him on Tuesday nights was the purest time I had during those days. When I hear ice in a glass I can hear his voice and sometimes I can turn it into a laugh, but usually even that fades to a slow, soft sigh.
A few years after Dad retired I’d bring his toddler grandson to the mall to meet him and walk around. Nothing could distract him from walking around at the top of three generations. Dad’s smile exploded with happiness when he watched his young grandson grow more excited as we approached the toy store, or when we stopped for ice cream and Dad would pretend to lick some of my son’s cone. The two of them would laugh hysterically until my son offered him an actual lick, always refused with a string of thank you’s.
Once my son and I walked around alone and then saw Dad sitting on a bench, taking a break. His face lit up, of course, when this small boy ran up to him. I always wished that had happened more often. We did meet him many times to walk the mall, but it always felt more exciting when it wasn’t something he was expecting, as if an ordinary day of routine was suddenly cracked wide open by this small but exciting surprise. I can’t think about that too much, about not doing that more.
I think the spontaneity of unexpected meetings made it more like his youth, or even mine, when siblings or cousins and countless friends lived within a few blocks of where they all grew up. Visiting was normal, and running into each other at the grocer or the hardware store, or later the mall, was an ordinary occurrence. I believe Dad missed those times, and seeing his grandson that afternoon was a beautiful mixture of possibility and recollection.
The three of us spent a lot of time walking around various locations together. The food store between our houses, the cul-de-sac at the end of Dad’s block, to the river at the back of his property where they’d hold hands and be equally thrilled by whatever nature they discovered together. Once we went to a golf extravaganza and my son and I watched Dad in his glory putting balls and swinging drivers. He told his grandson to pick out a dozen golf balls for himself as Grandpa’s treat from six or eight huge crates of various balls. Dad explained the difference between the ones which said “100” on the side and those which said “90” while his grandson dug deeper for another ball with Garfield on the side. They had separate agendas but one memorable afternoon. Golf was at the heart of many times together.
But when we met Dad at the mall, I would hang back as we walked, so it felt to both of them like they were alone. They discovered the stores together and Dad always allowed his grandson to pull him into the ones he wanted, namely the toy store or the bookstore. Dad bought more than a few books on those visits.
Somewhere in my attic is a box of books from those days. I am glad we kept them, but I have no idea why, and I have no intention of looking in the box. Someday, perhaps, but not soon. At some point my son will take those books with him—I am sure of it. If he has children, and I sit somewhere to read to my own grandchild, I’ll picture some inconceivable moment in the past when my father and my son laughed hard together turning the pages, and I’ll think about the passing of time and the persistence of memory.
I’ll remember donuts and orange juice. I’ll remember the time he took me to Jolly Rogers Amusement Park on Long Island when I was a child—just the two of us—and he let me have whatever I wanted to eat. I’ll remember the Scotch, his deep voice, the subtle laugh.
My memory is not nearly as strong as it was even not so long ago, but I’ll remember forever my son and my Dad on a putting green the last time he ever held a club in his hand. Dad sank a twenty-two-foot putt, and he didn’t smile so much as smirk, as if to say, “Of course it went in,” and then laugh out loud at the joy of the sound of the ball in the cup.