My husband and I have spent the last few days in Mammoth Lakes,California, amid tall pines, lakes and the towering peaks of the Eastern Sierra, a Father’s Day gift I secretly planned several months ago. It’s my first trip to Mammoth Lakes, but not John’s, and for him, the trip has been tinged with nostalgia as we’ve explored a place that once figured prominently in his childhood. Our trip re-kindled memories of countless summers spent in a small, two-story cabin, one built by his father in the late 1930′s on property leased from the U.S. Forest Service. The cabin was sold a long time ago, but it is still there, overlooking Twin Lakes and now occupied by another family. It’s much the same, although its exterior has been re-painted and, the roof no doubt replaced more than once in the past sixty years. John took me there to see it, lingering near the dirt road that led to the cabin, half-hoping to see the new owner and have a look inside. We took a few photographs and drove back to the village, and later, over lunch, John shared memories of his father I had ever heard before.
When I first met John’s father, he was well into his nineties. He had been a doctor, older than most fathers when my husband was born, and not as involved with his son as a younger father might have been. And yet, as we explored the places John remembered from long ago, I learned something about the man who was his father. It was his father who instilled a love of hiking mountain trails, who paused to say, “look at this!” and point out the flora and fauna growing along the mountain side, who told him the names of different types of pine trees or the birds and butterflies in the meadow, or who, when his young son became overly excited about something would quietly say, “just one step at a time, son. Just put one foot in front of the other,” instilling a patient quality that is so much a part of who John is now.
The man my husband remembers may have been much older, sometimes stern or distant, but there is little doubt that there are memories of him that speak to a kind and loving parent. “It doesn’t matter who my father was,” the poet Anne Sexton wrote, “it matters who I remember he was.” The memories John shared of his father were of a man I wish I had been able to know better, but never got the chance. His father died just shy of his 100th birthday, shortly after we married. Yet in these past few days, I feel as if his father has come to life somehow.
“Death steals everything except our stories,” Jim Harrison wrote in his poem, “Larson’s Holstein’s Bull” (In Search of Small Gods). The legacy of John’s father resides in the stories we’ve shared, even now, more than sixty years since his annual Mammoth Lake summer holidays. It’s a legacy that has also shaped the man who is my husband.
He wasn’t hard on us kids,
never struck us, took us to
doctors and dentists when needed.
He used to sing in the car
bought us root beers along the road.
He loved us with his deeds.
(From: “A Father’s Pain,” in A River Remains by Larry Smith)
It’s Father’s Day this Sunday. A time to honor and celebrate fathers everywhere, a time to remember who your father was to you. Our childhoods, our parents…always rich sources for poetry and stories. This week, try writing about fathers. Consider how your father influenced your life, whether the memories are painful, conflicted, or fond. What do you most remember about your father?
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
(From: “Father” in Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser)
Share the memories. Tell the stories. To fathers everywhere, best wishes for a very Happy Father’s Day.