Last night I worked on a project with my son that stirred up many memories for me.
Both the boys have joined Boy Scouts following the reversal of the organization’s position on gays in scouting. When told prior that while they could certainly join if they wished it meant that my husband and I would not be able to participate in it with them; they had opted out. These days both my husband and I are involved in their activities, albeit my position being one of a ‘behind the scenes’ nature while my husband is an active Den Leader for one of the boys.
The Pinewood Derby is an annual event for Scouts. They fashion a ‘race car’ out of a block of wood, attaching wheels, applying paint, and further decorating it to their liking. The cars are then pitted against others in a downhill race on a track. This event began back in 1953, and continues to this day.
The origin of the derby lies with a cub master named Don Murphy, a life-long model maker who, desiring to create a new father-son activity for scouts that were too young to participate in the Soapbox Derby and actually pilot a home-made car themselves. The derby has, for 63 years now, been a fun and safe project for dads and their scouting sons to engage in together.
Just last week I located a Pinewood Derby car that I had myself made when I was a Boy Scout some 40 years ago. I showed it to the boys as we each worked with one of them to make their own cars more aerodynamic and streamlined before they got painted. The boys came up with their own designs, stood safely by as we cut the blocks down for them to match the design, and then aided in sanding them to prep them for the next step.
All the while, working with the boys and in particular with my younger son, my mind wandered back to my own childhood and my own days in Scouting, and making a car to enter into the Pinewood Derby.
I recall the careful attention paid to design and detail in trying to come up with a car that might stand a chance of winning. I recall the thrill of anticipation waiting my turn to place my car on the wooden track and watch it travel downhill against another entry. I recall the roar of the crowd cheering on their preferred entrant as they surrounded the track and yelped and hollered their encouragement from the sidelines. I recall the disappointment when I didn’t win, despite my best efforts.
What I don’t recall, out of all the memories that I have of four decades ago – was my father working on the car with me.
I have only a handful of memories of doing things with my dad as a child. My dad was a man who liked to hunt and fish, and who enjoyed long, meandering drives along the back roads of Maine. Dad wasn’t a sportsman, nor a music enthusiast. He didn’t play chess, or garden (beyond a quickly aborted attempt to plant vegetables in our back yard one year). He didn’t have a ‘shop’ set up in the basement for woodworking or furniture upholstering. He ‘collected’ nothing but new friends on his CB radio on the basement where he’d spend hours alone in the orange glow of the analog dial, talking with faceless strangers. He didn’t build models or snap photographs, didn’t play cards or board games, and read nothing more than the daily newspaper.
When I was a young boy, I accompanied him, on occasion, to rivers and streams with a fishing pole, wanting to participate in something he enjoyed – wanting his attention and approval. Wanting his love. Wanting to somehow break into that odd, mysterious world that captivated him and drew him out into the woods time and time again, year after year, whether he came home empty-handed or not and find out what was so alluring to him about it, why it held such appeal.
I never did find that out.
I also never did find something, an activity or interest, that Dad and I shared. At a very young age I learned to love reading (and later writing) and could be found at any given moment with my nose in a book. That’s still the best place to look for me. As I approached my teens, I added singing and theater to my roster of interests, which continues to this day (albeit with an extended break from theater once kids came along). Even though I would, beyond the depletion of my interest in fishing (I never did go hunting with Dad), accompany Dad on his outings, my own fishing pole supplanted by a book or comic to read while Dad cast his baited line into the water. Sometimes we simply sat at water’s edge for a long while. Sometimes we sat in a boat of some sort, out on the water, nothing breaking the silence that seemed to envelop us, nor breaking the surface of the water itself. Drifting together; and yet drifting further apart.
For many years I resented this about my dad; that outside of a few unsuccessful fishing outings and his occasional appearances at events or ceremonies, I became an adult with a very meager assortment of memories to choose from of good times spent with my dad while growing up. For many years I blamed him for this. I took it as a sign that he wasn’t interested in making memories with me and spending time with me. And for a long time I hated him for it. I used to think it meant he didn’t ‘love’ me. But as I become more self-aware and more introspective, I wonder sometimes if he didn’t know how to love ‘me’ – the offbeat, quirky, alternative lifestyle book-worm son he simply didn’t know how to relate to. I can’t fault him for that. Some days I don’t know how the hell to deal with me, either.
Now, being a father myself, I often find myself in a position of my kids wanting my time and attention, even when it’s coming between me and a good book, or me and a nap, or me and a chore I need to finish or an errand I need to run. I try to balance simply dropping whatever I’m doing and doing what the kids want to do and trying to instill a little patience in them by saying ‘I have just two more pages in this chapter, and then I’m all yours’, and teaching them to take care of themselves as adults by saying , ‘I really need a quiet hour, let’s do this later on’. I recognize that one day not only will I wish they were around to ask me to do things together, but that they also will one day reflect upon the things we did together and (hopefully) recall them with more fondness and more frequency than I am able to do when thinking about my own experience. We go hiking, we watch television together, we read together, we sit and talk, we go outside and toss a ball – I won’t say it’s all the time, every single day, but I also would not refer to it as being ‘rare’. I can’t honestly say that I have any days that I cannot pull out even one good ‘moment’ that we shared together – be it as simple as a laugh or a ‘remember when you_____’ conversation together that makes us smile. I don’t have memories like that of my dad. And now that he’s gone, for nearly a year, I find myself only able to have memories of him.
Fortunately, before he died I had a decade of good, solid communication with him. He was a widower, residing in an assisted living facility after a stroke and the onset of dementia. I visited him as often as time and life with young children would allow. We’d sit either in his room or outside in the yard of the facility and simply talk to one another. I expressed many hurts from growing up, he expressed many regrets for things he did and didn’t do as my father. He told me that despite all of it, there was never a day that he didn’t love me, laying to rest something that had haunted me most of my days.
I was never so happy to be proven wrong.
In my bedroom there is a small box. It contains the few physical effects that Dad left behind. A pair of glasses in a fraying leather case, a comb, a pen, a small notebook where he recorded phone numbers of those he frequently called, a ruler he kept in a drawer near his bed. A small wooden ‘plaque’ that was made to honor his service in the army. I have photos of him set out, not that I think I’d ever forget his face. There are only a few photographs of us together. None of them show us at parks or concerts or sporting events. They are all just ‘photos’. Photos of a man and his son who took many, many years to figure out how to say ‘I love you’ to one another in a meaningful way. Photos of a man and his son who never had much in common other than their last name. Photos of a man and a son who rarely ever ‘shared’ experiences like working on a race car together in the basement after dinner, talking about what shape to cut it and what color to paint it and how cool it would be if the car won the race.
Last night as I worked on just such a car with my own son, I had pangs of regret that while I could make this memory with my child, my dad didn’t leave a similar one behind for me. I went to bed, a few hours later, tossing over days gone by in my head and all the things we ‘didn’t do together’. All the ball games and hot dogs and driving lessons and campfires that we didn’t share.
And while several of those ‘not to be’ experiences rolled out of my eyes and down my cheek last night before I went to sleep while thinking about my dad, missing him as I miss him each and every day now, I can still smile today with the realization I reached upon waking this morning and looking at his photograph – one taken less than a year before his death.
All in all, I know that before he died, my dad and I shared what is for me the most important experience with one another that we could.