When I was a child, I thought my father was invincible. He wasn’t a man of large stature, quite the contrary, in fact. On his best days, he may have been 5’9”, but his gregarious personality always gave him at least another five inches in height. His lopsided grin would light up a room and his outlandish stories were larger than life. My father didn’t walk as a typical man. He pranced about in a way everyone just knew he loved life. My dad was a landscape architect in Los Angeles. He kept a lot of high-end clients and big name Hollywood-type jobs, but he would joke that he was just a fieldworker when he surveyed sites for large commercial projects. His olive skin would bake to a golden bronze for the duration of our Southern Californian summers, making him the envy of middle-aged men his age; they were slaves to their indoor cubicles while my father wandered endless properties of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can remember very concrete characteristics about my dad, like his soft, feathery, sand-colored hair and his gray-blue eyes, stormy as the Pacific Ocean on overcast winter days.
My mom said she fell in love with my father for his sense of humor, and my earliest memories of him are all punctuated with silliness. He was the one to give us horseback rides through the orange shag carpet, runaway wagon rides down the steep hill behind our house, wrestle us to the floor—tickling us until we begged, “Uncle”, and the one to create nonsense in the kitchen for the sake of entertainment while we ate our meals up at the counter. My dad loved the attentive audience, I am sure of it, but as a kid, I was certain we were the center of his world. He had four kids, but my father tended to each of us as though we were his only.
He had a size 9 shoe and wore an impeccable manicure, though he never did his nails. I remember thinking he had thoughtful hands. They were never idle, and distinctly purposeful in their actions, both work and play. He always wrote in capital block letters, meticulous as a typewriter. I think it was all of his years over a drafting table that made him seem like he was artistically sketching, even if just jotting down measurements of something around the house that needed fixing. I still associate the smell of Sharpie pens with him because I dare say my father knew few other writing utensils.
My father loved fast cars. He favored Porsches and fancied the shiny sports cars of the streets of Los Angeles. He was a pilot, and he loved to be airborne. I think there he was free– free from the stress of his day job and demands of a young family. Yet, my father loved to share these passions with his loved ones, too. We were often invited to accompany him on speedy rides through the long, winding canyons I still associate with home. He took us flying, too, though my mother never liked small aircraft; she was consumed by claustrophobia.
I remember my father’s mannerisms, like crumpling up his face while eating food so spicy, his eyes would bleed tears of protest. “Tom!” my mother would scold him, “why do you insist on using so much horseradish/salsa/jalapeno sauce/red pepper/Tabasco?” The offending condiment was subject to change, depending on the dish de jour, but was always abused to excess. He absolutely loved Mexican food and made no apologies for his laughter over said suffering at the dinner table.
I think of him sitting at that dining room table, poring over the morning newspaper, with his forehead cradled in one hand, while the other casually balanced an unraveling cigarette. Those were the days when smoking was still widely practiced and highly acceptable even indoors. Even in California. I can vividly picture the looming cloud of tobacco exhaust scribbled around his head with the morning sunlight streaming through our oversized picture window. For as foul as the thought of that habit is to me now, smoking was somehow synonymous with my father, and I likened the smell of it in his hair and clothes with an immortal man. It was masculine. Familiar. Comforting.
Turned out my father wasn’t immortal at all. He was very much human. He died unexpectedly of heart disease at 54 years young. A track star in adolescence, and while not the portrait of health, my dad wasn’t exactly the heart attack victim profile. He was never even slightly overweight, though his often eighty-hour workweek didn’t agree with his blood pressure. His sudden death in sleep was shocking and left me void of acceptance and understanding for a very long time. I was twenty-three when he died, but overnight I found myself feeling like a lost child.
My father wasn’t a perfect man. He made many mistakes and I hated him for the years that followed my parents’ divorce. In life, it’s so easy to keep a record of wrongs against people, but when they die, it seems we manage to only remember their really beautiful qualities. I think knowing what I know now about life and love and marriage and mistakes, it’s so much easier to forgive a man I wanted to forget for so long and instead keep the precious few memories I have of him to honor all of the things he did right.
As an adult, I find so many of the memories of my father have faded. It was never something I intended to happen…they just sort of got away from me as new experiences began to occupy the forefront of my brain and the older ones were slowly filed into the dark, less assessable compartments. It was too painful to think that my father had lost his bulletproof status and easier to just think of him as invisible, somewhere out in the frayed periphery of my past life.
It’s been fifteen years since my father passed away, and I still cannot bring myself to rummage through old photos of him. It’s actually only very recently that I can willingly retrieve some of the memories I have of him from my childhood. Somehow the pictures of him in my head are less painful than those on paper. Perhaps I still want to immortalize him in my own way, not as the camera depicted him. I don’t think of his soft, sandy hair slowly giving way to gray or his weather-worn face wearing any wrinkles. Photos would betray the vibrant picture I keep of my youthful father in my head.
I know that one day I will want to go through the old photo albums for a more authentic story of my father and I will be willing to share the photographs of the grandfather my children came up shy of meeting by only a handful of years. I will use those pictures to illustrate the hilarity of him picnicking with us on the beach in Malibu, making pistachio pudding as he danced on the avocado green linoleum kitchen floor, and building intricate clubhouses in our wooded backyard. And if my kids ever ask, I am going to tell them to take an abundance of pictures of their own father, because we know no man lives forever, and the details of his life—no matter how noble or insignificant—inevitably erode over time.