Happy Birthday, Dad

My dad would have been 90 today, had he lived.

My dad and I stand on a pier together at a summer camp in Massachusetts, circa 1952.

The trouble is, I have few memories of my dad who died 61 years ago.

The photo above is as surprising to me as it is to you.  How warm was the day? Who took the picture? And wherever were they standing, since it looks like we’re out at the end of a pier?  We look happy though; I like that we were both smiling.

I had only two years with my dad. And then I had sporadic visits, I’m told, over the next three years. The photo above was during one of those visits. Then he moved to Canada where he died two years later when the small plane he was navigating crashed into the side of a mountain.

From those five years, I have four distinct memories of my father, all of which will be in this next memoir.  In one he’s sleeping; in one he’s talking to my mother; in one he’s talking to my grandmother; and in one, only one, is he talking to me. That’s it.

I also have the memory of learning of his death when I was seven, another of what I was doing the day he died, and a few memories of his funeral. Snippets of scenes, really.

But I have no sense of him as a person, a personality. Was he a force to contend with as I’d like to believe? Or was he a bit of a milquetoast?  Perhaps some of each?  Was he smart? Was he kind? How would I have experienced his spiritual side? How would I have known when he was afraid? What did his voice sound like?

Everything I know of him is second hand: hand-me-down memories, second-hand stories, other people’s tales.  Only those four memories; only that one conversation.  A half-dozen photographs and a few postcards he wrote me (aged two) when he traveled.

In some ways, it was easier having so few memories, for he became a blank slate onto which I could draw my ideal father. Of course he’d be smart; and kind; and generous; and funny. Had he lived, he’d have made me laugh, often.  Every visit, I was convinced, he’d have left me laughing. And there’d be many visits. He’d also have been free with advice to me as I maneuvered my way though life; advice that I’d eagerly — gratefully — absorb. And he’d be a great dancer.

And then I remember . . .

Sometimes, there are things in life that we will never know.

It took me over forty years to learn that not everything gets to have an explanation. To sit with not knowing has become less of a challenge over the years, but that’s all — just less of the challenge it’s always been.

Still, I wish my dad could have known just how much I’d miss him.  And that his leaving changed my life in ways no one will never ever really know.

So, today I’ll just say what I’ve never said before. Happy Birthday, Dad. I still miss you.

How about you? What is your “I just don’t know” challenge? 


For a quick refresher on my take on “Sitting in Ambiguity,” I give you this link.

11 Responses

  1. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    How very sad that you lost your father so young and have lived with this gaping void all your life. I admire your transformation of him to a blank slate. Your blank slate father has a “what if” flavor, and that’s something I do know something about.

    I clearly recall a day about forty years ago when I was pondering what life would have been like if I’d waited and things worked out for me to marry (any of three names, or maybe someone I never met). Suddenly it struck me: it would not have been better, just different. Life was good, life was enough, as it was. That day I realized the futility of “what if” thinking. I decided it can only serve me if I look for things that could have been better and work to make them happen in “what did.”

    I still think that way now and then, but it’s more like looking for the plot for a new story than a way my life could be better.
    Sharon Lippincott recently posted…Collaboration: The Easiest Way to Write Your LifestoryMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes, Sharon. I abandoned that “what if” thinking years ago. Still, it’s important I believe to honor the losses we’ve experienced. I recall a therapist I once had, decades ago now, who suggested I sit in a park and watch fathers interacting with their daughters. It was a sweet afternoon.

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Oh my–Janet–today is my dad’s birthday, too!
    It’s funny that earlier this morning before I saw your post, I looked at the calendar and realized it. He would have been 98. I miss him.

    I feel the sadness in your post that you didn’t get to know you father. How sad that he died when you were so young. You both do look very happy in the photo though. If you are anything like him, then he was smart and not a milquetoast! 🙂 Do you know any of his family? As you said, there are things you will never know. I wish I had asked my grandfathers, great aunts, and my dad more about their lives. All those stories gone now.

    My niece, who is like my baby sister, never knew her dad. My father was like her father, and then my husband, too. A few years ago, she discovered her father’s family, but he had already died. Weirdly, some of them live very close to her in PA., and so she now has a sort of other family.
    Merril Smith recently posted…Yecheilyah’s First Annual Poetry Contest – Grand Prize Winner!My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Well, Happy Birthday to your dad too, Merril. I love these points of serendipity. I actually remember my father’s second wife from his funeral and was able to locate a half sister I have (I have an even younger half brother) back in 1993. But Linda Susan (or was it Susan Linda?) didn’t want to pursue a relationship nor was she willing to put me in contact again with her mother, whom I had hoped could fill me in a bit more. More will be revealed in about 18 months. 🙂

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Your statement gave me cause for pause: ” In some ways, it was easier having so few memories, for he became a blank slate onto which I could draw my ideal father.” So poignant, pregnant with mystery. I guess we’ll have to wait to hear what your father said to you in that one flash of memory.

    Questions about my own father are at the centerpiece of my memoir manuscript. I can’t say more, at least not now. Daddy would have been 102 this year.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Dolly Parton Stands by Her ManMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — This snippet alone has primed the desire-pump for me to read your next memoir!
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Comfort ZoneMy Profile

  5. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – another lovely, thought-provoking post. Interesting, in that I just finished re-reading “The Secret Lives of Bees” with my oldest daughter, which hits upon some of these themes (“Bees” deals with a girl’s loss of her mother, around the same age – a wonderful book). As I believe you know, both my parents are still alive and present in some ways in my life, although this doesn’t foreclose many burning “I just don’t know” questions, which I’m slowly beginning to understand and accept I’ll never fully get answered. In many ways, we really are the authors of our own lives, and sometimes even the best narratives leave some questions unresolved.
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…I Used To Think It Was Funny: Before the Right Wing Media Supplanted Moderate-Conservativism, Created an Ideological Monopoly, and Became a De-facto Propaganda Arm for the Extreme Right’s AgendaMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Tim. I LOVED The Secret Life of Bees. I saw the movie too, but of course the book was even better. How great you can read it with your daughter. I have, as you may have guessed, a special place in my heart for fathers of girls. I’m not sure they always appreciate how very important they are, you are, in their lives.

      You wrote, “we really are the authors of our own lives” and I couldn’t agree more. The meaning we give to the “facts” of our lives is where the real power lies, even when we aren’t certain which facts are important.

      Thanks for adding your voice to the chorus here.

      Janet Givens recently posted…Happy Birthday, DadMy Profile

  6. Dina
    | Reply

    Dear Janet,
    Your thoughts had touched my soul. While reading it, I realized how similar we are… I nearly know nothing about my father either… And the older I get, the more questions I have concerning my puzzled past….

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