I would have to rate the too early death of my father as the single most influential, definitive happening of my life. I was eight and it was just after the Great War, as they now call it, and one early evening as I was innocently and blissfully playing across the street with the Burgess kids, my mother called for me to come home. She was crying.
When she said that my father was ill and she was going to be flying to New Orleans where his ship had docked, it didn’t really register at first. I felt I should cry too, but I had to play/force and really scrunch up my eyes to get a drop or two. There was no reality in even the idea of danger at that point in my existence. I was fearless on my rollerskates, figure eight-ing backwards all down the alley. We used our Roy Rogers’ cap guns hopping fences all throughout the adjoining backyards – shooting and dying, shooting and dying. Such fun. The bluffs along the ocean were our personal invincible trails, even though the grownups said they could collapse and swallow us alive.
My mother was gone that Christmas and I stayed at home in California with Grandma Marie while mother flew first to New Orleans in time to say goodbye and then took the train with his body back to North Dakota for the burial. At my Sunday school pageant I carried on and everyone said what a brave little girl I was. The neighbors gave me extra presents – I remember the doll highchair with the decal of Little Red Riding Hood like it was yesterday. And the day she returned through the white picket gate, I recall running down the steps to throw my arms around her and theatrically announce – “Please, I don’t want another Daddy.” In fact I remember that Christmas more clearly and in greater detail than perhaps any other in my lifetime yet I do not remember, and I have repeatedly struggled to recall, the moment when someone told me that my father was dead. Funny how our mind can block what is too terrible to recall.
After that I convinced myself for some time that he was not really dead but had just been lost at sea and he would find his way back some day. In fact, my main daydream was scripted so that I would be playing on the Horace Mann Elementary school yard and hear someone calling my name and I would look up and there he would be on the other side of the fence and it had been a wonderful adventure story that could eventually be made into a movie – but not with Shirley Temple in the lead.
And I had some experience with Shirley Temple, but not in the form of the talented young actress but rather in the drink that was named in her honor. My parents, you see, were a rather glamorous couple who liked to get dressed to the nines (my father OWNED a tuxedo, in fact) and go out to trendy supper clubs around the L.A. area.
And they always took me! Well, for the dinner part at least and then I would be back home and tucked into bed with Grandma Marie while they went back to dance past midnight. And that is why I drank so many Shirley Temples. I worry somewhat about all the red food dye I must have consumed at an early age, for Maraschino Cherries weren’t monitored in those days. But I had a wonderful go of it – piano bar musicians signaling my entrance with something silly like “Mary had a Little Lamb” (even I had more sophisticated tastes in those days) and being outfitted in black patent Mary Janes in the winter and white leather in the summer. And having my father think I really was his little princess.
In the summer he and I would go every night to Freed’s Drug Store and have an ice cream cone and I would usually get a comic book – probably Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck. But one evening he waited in the car and sent me inside for our chocolate cones, admonishing me NOT to get a comic that time. As I waited for the double dips I fingered the new lineup on the magazine stand and was consumed by longing – I had to have the latest edition. I was overwhelmed by desire to possess the comic. And when I returned with the cones to the car, my father said nothing about the acquisition and we sat and licked the ice cream as I paged through the story. When he was through with his cone, he gave me some more money, just enough for one ice cream, and casually instructed me to get him a second treat. And I sat in mortification as he slowly and carefully ate his second cone. I was his little princess, but he made me think long and hard about the person he would want me to be.
If his death was the single most definitive time of my life and if that event then led to lifetime longings, it was also part and parcel of the most blessed.
Happy Father’s Day in my heart.