I taught a high school class this morning in the Denver suburbs. It’s homecoming week and the whole school was decked out in black and gold. In the middle of all this manufactured enthusiasm, I told the students to pay attention to those things that truly light a fire in them, to be aware of the ideas and themes that resonate as they read and write and move through the world.
It took me a long time to learn this and to apply it to my own writing. I spent many years trying to write things I thought people wanted to read or trying to write about BIG IMPORTANT themes. Finally, I settled down and realized that I can only write about a few things: family, the south, religion, hypocrisy, and how childhood never leaves you. This last thing may be the most important. My adult characters are constantly dealing with the nagging, unfinished business of youth. It colors how they feel about the events of the world. It affects how they react in certain situations. It explains, though not excuses, their bad behavior and bad decisions. It drives benevolent action too.
In real life we can’t always trace a hard line from one childhood event to the decisions we make as adults. Maybe that level of cause and effect is only for fiction, but the line is there. I believe this.
This morning, one of the students asked if there were a particular event from my own childhood that I could point to as having a significant influence on my life today. There are many, of course. I’m sure that’s true for everyone. As I searched for the right one to share, I discarded several anecdotes because they centered around my father. My father recently fell ill. I didn’t trust myself to talk about him without breaking down and I am not so old that I’m willing to cry in front of a bunch of high schoolers on the cusp of the biggest football game of the year. My own memories of high school are sharp enough to avoid that.
After I left the school, I found a message from my mother. “Call me,” she said. I knew what she would tell me. My father died this morning. He died while I was scrambling through my memory banks for some story I could share that didn’t contain him. It’s a great testament to my father that it was so hard to find one.
When my father first became ill, I was on a weekend trip with some lifelong friends. Several of them came by the hospital to visit my father one evening. At this point, we fully expected him to recover. He laughed and joked around with my girlfriends, just as he’d done when we were getting ready to go out in high school. He was always saying how funny they were, and how smart, and how pretty. “They haven’t changed a bit,” he said the next day. And these women talked about how much they always loved my father, how easy he was talk to, and how he always seemed genuinely interested in what they had to say. Most fathers, the implication was clear, aren’t like that.
I don’t know about most fathers, but mine really did care an awful lot about the day-to-day dealings of my young life. He cared about dance recitals and school plays. He cared about my grades and what I was reading. He noticed when I got a hair cut or wore a new outfit. And he did all of these things while working his ass off as an ironworker from sunup to sundown practically every day of his life.
Here’s one example:
In high school, I was rabidly involved in our class play/musical production each year. It was called Colonel’s Classics and it consisted of each class writing, producing, and acting in a musical over three nights. We competed in front of an audience and judges to put on the best class production each year. It was fun. It was competitive. It was entertaining. Daddy loved it. He built set pieces for us, including a three-tiered plywood and tissue paper-stuffed chicken wire cake sturdy enough to hold five people for a wedding-themed grand finale.
We performed the exact same play each night and many parents came to only one night of the performances. It’s hard to imagine anyone sitting through those amateur productions more than once, buy my parents did. Both of them would come every night if there was any way to make it. One year, Daddy was working a job in another town. The commute was long and the days were longer. He told me he might not make it to one of the performances. It was fine, I said. And it was. Even back then, I knew most fathers weren’t showing up for three consecutive nights of bad high school theater. The play that year began with me alone on the stage. I played an ambitious young woman hoping to make it big on Broadway. I entered the stage holding an old suitcase and marveling at the thrill of being on a stage, any stage. Just as I was getting ready to break into my off-tune solo, the back doors of the high school auditorium opened and let a shaft of light into the otherwise dark room. There was my father, standing and waiting for his eyes to adjust, still wearing his denim work clothes, still wearing his steel-toed boots, and grinning because he’d made it just in time.
So there is one event from my childhood, one that still resonates with me as an adult. I grew up with a father who cared enough to show up even when it didn’t seem important to me. He cared about my success even when he didn’t always understand what I was chasing. Sometimes he cared more than I did. Even when we came to define success in different ways, I never regretted succeeding on his terms. It was such a pleasure to see him grin or to hear the excitement and pride in his voice. It wasn’t always easy to get that reaction from him. He wasn’t indiscriminate in his praise. He would tell me if I fell short, or if he thought I did. He didn’t give out compliments for effort.
And all of this drives who I am today. It inspires my work ethic, my desire to succeed, my absolute refusal to give up on something just because it’s hard. I’ve spent my whole life working to provoke that grin from my father, and hoping to make him proud of me.
And I can’t believe I won’t keep doing it, even now.