A little more than a year ago I got the following missive from my father.
“Golly I never had any idea that our activities on camping trips had such a good influence on you. I enjoy all the complements you give me. It makes me feel that perhaps I was a better role model than I thought.”
I never responded to that e-mail. It made me uncomfortable, ashamed, and sad.
When I look at myself, I see a mosaic of so many of his pieces. How can he not see himself in me?
I worry. Can he really not know the parts of me that are him? The good and the bad? Does he not know how I value my “Mit-ness”?
I guess it’s possible, if you haven’t read my writing, to not know how much of an influence those family camping trips had on me. I guess at the time, it was difficult to tell I was enjoying them. I just chalk it up to part of being a kid – part of being a family – and not having the vocabulary – or desire to express what I was storing away inside.
As an angry lonely teenager (and who isn't one of those?), I would dream of the day I had my driver’s license so I could “get away” to the Feather River Canyon when dealing with family and school all became too much. That canyon, those granite walls, the rushing water pooling into WPA hydro-electric pools were my mental sanctuary.
I never took off for that haven once I got my license, but intellectually I’ve been there thousands of times seeking solace.
The need to “get away” started early. I’m not sure why. I have two very clear memories of “away”. One occurred up at Boy Scout camp near Boral Ridge. I spent hours and hours, over a long work weekend, in a huge field of wildflowers and grass playing “horse”. I’d gallop down unknown paths, looking at flowers, lady bugs and praying mantises’ (manti??) while the Sierra Nevada sky and back country clouds formed a canopy above. I’ve always been happy to be alone. It’s a valuable skill to posses when you’re eight years younger than your sibling and cousins.
I don’t know if the peace of being alone in the mountains, with one’s thoughts, holds the same lure for my Dad or not. But I know he’s a man who can appreciate the quiet and solitude and needs little distraction to keep him happy.
My other favorite “away” place was right in our own backyard. Of course, this was back in the day when school wasn’t year around and long before I had the obligations of a career. Then, the only challenge was to escape unnoticed from the house. Under the big mulberry tree I’d tilt the picnic table and benches on their sides to make a hideaway. It was complete with a “quilt-couch”, radio, glass of ice-tea, stack of Zane Gray books, and German Short-hair dog lolling beside me.
Both of my parents are readers, but I really think I got my devouring addiction from my father. When I was in the third grade he climbed into the rafters and brought down his teenage treasure trove of cowboy westerns. I remember him saying he wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy them or not as they were “boy” books, but since they were about horses and cowboys, I might as well give them a try.
Transported I was, immediately and irrevocably. I fell in love with silent men who hid big hearts. With horses that would die for duty and devotion. I longed for the smell of sage and a desert rainstorm. More than anything, I wanted to be the independent woman these men ended up falling in love with. Capable women who could run ranches, shoot a bear, and keep their saddle when high-spirited horses became startled.
After reading these books I had a whole different perspective of the fly-fishing country we traveled. Instead of staying back at the car, I’d wander the stream – matching the words I’d collected in my head with the images before me. “Deep pool of reflective sky”, “liquid snow falling in cascades of water”, “cinnamon mountains” … it’s hard to know where Zane Gray’s words stopped and mine began. Yet they were secret words, never mentioned out loud, merely stored away for future use.
I think it’s Zane Gray’s fault I fell so violently in love with Arizona. On my first trip, to settle a friend into her Scottsdale apartment, I felt like I was coming home as we left Palm Springs behind and crossed the Colorado River. Here was the other landscape of my childhood. The one I’d spent so many hours imagining – opening up right before me as the car sped down the yellow-striped blacktop.
Yet over the years – I always came back to California – and asked if we could return to the camping spots of my youth. Spots filled with memories and lessons learned from my father.
In Silversmithing, the artist leaves hallmarks on his work. When you get to know me, you can see my dad’s hallmarks. It is impossible for me to tell you, “what time it is, without telling you how a watch is made.”
Knowledge is power – and if you comb through my bookshelf, you’ll find numerous books on topics ranging from cooking, to fly-fishing, to geology, and other quirky interests. Although, truth be known, I am not nearly as thorough as he is, when a topic strikes my fancy.
On his bookshelves you won’t just find a book or two about trout, but a whole library about their habitat, feeding habits, an how to mimic their meals. The same holds true for photography, dog-training and gun-reloading, sour-dough cookery and Dutch ovens.
We share a similar temperament, a penchant for “sledge-hammer diplomacy”, being tenacious, hard-headed, immovable, verbose, and bestowing nicknames on things and people we love and hate.
We’re not a matched pair, my dad and I. But if you get us next to each other, you’ll see the connections. Connections that strengthen and bind all at the same time.
Not only were you a role model – but your indelible designs are imprinted on me – and my writing.
Happy (one day late) 77th birthday, Dad.
Thanks for teaching me so much without realizing it.