A Daughter’s Memoir
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The last time I saw my father was September 1998. I had flown down to Las Vegas to visit my parents on a rather routine “just checking in” basis, as we all do. However, this time I decided to spend some quality time with my Dad and have a real, uninterrupted by TV, conversation with him. Here’s how the memoir began:
The Northwest airplane touched down at McCarran airport at 6 p.m.
The temperature continued to hover close to the century mark as the silhouette of desert palms hung motionless in the whiskey-colored sunset above the Las Vegas Strip. Soon the blackness of night would blur the reality of day and reveal the fantasy of neon and hope that comes with darkness, alcohol and the seductive touch of Lady Luck.
The tiny house is located in the shade of the tall neon-topped concrete-and-glass forest that lines the famous boulevard. It is similar to other houses in the neighborhood. They are all post World War II, square, two bedroom-one bath, neglected stucco homes where the front yard is a mass of white concrete or green-painted white stones faintly reminiscent of grass. It is an example of the practicality of concrete lawns and the savings that comes without the expense of grass seed and water. Keeping a lawn green in the desert can be expensive, and this neighborhood is very cost conscious. Another practically of a concrete front yard is the extra parking space that it allows for the large illegal immigrant population. There is a law in the city that homeowners cannot park unlicensed vehicles on public streets. Many of the multiple-family multiple-car homes own a single license plate which is moved from vehicle to vehicle depending on which “cousin” needs to report to work.
The majority of the neighborhood is made up of illegals and elderly homeowners on fixed incomes, as well as an overpopulation of feral cats and large protective barking dogs. Iron bars and black grillwork adorn many windows and doors, and security company stickers are a common sight although it’s doubtful they are connected to any alarm company.
This is far from a neighborhood I would choose to visit. But the elderly couple who live here are people I need to see. They are my parents and have been living in this home for the past 10 years.
The kitchen is very small, not unlike the pre-owned house itself. It is an L-Shape with just enough room for a very small table for two people. As the metal dinette chairs ” a garage sale acquisition ” scrape across the cheap linoleum floor I can tell he is curious about what I have in mind although the time together is special for both of us and needs no reason.
We sit down at the small Formica table. His wife of 55 years, my mother, sits in the nearby living room watching television in her favorite pink housecoat.
I pull my laptop out of its black travel bag and plug in the power cord. The dim light of the dusty overhead fixture and 40 watt bulb cast a pale glow on the room, brightened only by the light from the computer monitor.
The man sitting across from me is now bald and short. He is still wearing a well-used tan baseball cap that was put on earlier in the day and forgotten about. It was purchased at a garage sale a couple of weeks ago. The doctor told him hats were a necessity in order to prevent skin cancer from recurring. The desert sun, he was told, is extremely dangerous for balding men. The skin cancers on the top of his head began to appear several years ago and were accompanied by frequent visits to the dermatologist for removal. Although the heat is oppressive in the small fan-cooled house, he is also wearing a long sleeve polyester plaid shirt and tan pants, the ones with the elastic waist. He folds his wrinkled hands on the table and then reaches out for the cup of instant decaf he has just reheated in the microwave oven. It’s in one of his favorite garage sale cups sporting the logo of the Lady Luck Casino.
“OK, Dad, start from the beginning.”
I never really knew my father or rather never took the time to ask about the details of his life.
His life had been focused on mine. It was always about me but shouldn’t it have been? I mean, I was the child, wasn’t I? And as a girl shouldn’t I be the focus?
Deservedly so? Of course.
However, now I have a laptop, and with this visit, I’d have the opportunity to write down everything he says and then later try to make sense of it. Try to put the pieces together to understand him better, and perhaps have the opportunity to understand myself better. The fear of his dying was not in the forefront of my thoughts. At 78 I could see him living for at least another 10 years. Except for his back problems he was doing well. …
Unfortunately I was never able to finish the memoir, except for recalling events of my childhood and time spent with him. Therefore my memoir is more about my recall than about his life with his words. This is something I’ve regretted and thought about since that evening in Las Vegas 10 years ago. What would I have asked him and what might the conversations bring to light?
Here are the questions I would have asked:
1. If you had it to do all over, how would you live your life?
2. If you could have had a second (or another) career, what would it have been?
3. What makes you happy? What is your secret to happiness?
4. What is the one thing that you always thought mattered but really doesn’t?
6. Is there one piece of advice that you received that you wish you would have followed?
7. Is there a God and, if so, how is he a part of your life?
8. What is your biggest regret?
9. Tell me about the Second World War and how you served your country? What were your thoughts at the time? What are your thoughts about war today?
10. What were your parents like and how are you like them?
These are questions I would have liked to have asked my father. You may have others. The important thing is to ask the questions and write down the answers. The legacy it leaves for you and your children will be invaluable. You might also want to think about and answer these questions for yourself. Father’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to open up conversations and write down some thoughts. You don’t have to share them with anyone. You might just keep them in your safety deposit box.
Four weeks after the visit with my parents and the beginning of the conversation with my father I concluded the memoir:
My 78-year-old father, Chum, was determined to get out of the house. His two back surgeries now made walking, even with a walker, more of a struggle, but after sitting in the house all day he needed to get out and move around. Until now he had always been an active person and kept himself in good shape. Sitting around the house was terribly depressing for him.
“Let’s go over to Ralph’s. They’re having a sale on yogurt,” he announced to Mary, my mother, after watching the ticker tape runner on the 5 o’clock news. They always watched the runner to see what happened in the stock market. There were two or three investments that needed daily monitoring on Channel 7.
She obediently grabbed her jacket from the hall closet. Even though it was a typically scorching Las Vegas evening, the air-conditioned stores gave her a chill, especially near the dairy or frozen- food department.
After locking the front door they set off on the six-block walk to the grocery store.
“Come on Mary, walk a little faster” he said. Even though the walker caused him to move slowly, she had a tendency to lag behind. Her slowness wasn’t so much due to any physical problem, but she never seemed to know exactly which way to go. Directions could be terribly confusing. By following a few steps behind, she could watch his back and sense when it was time to turn. It made her feel more comfortable, as if she was still independent.
They walked four blocks east and then two blocks north to where the entrance of Ralph’s Grocery stood next to the busy street. They had to cross two lanes to the median and then another two lanes to get to the sidewalk on the other side. They were crossing in the middle of the block, which was considered a traffic violation.
Chum knew he should walk to the corner where there was a traffic light but his back was hurting so he chose to cross midblock.
“Hurry Mary,” he chided her as they made it to the median together. “Now wait until I tell you to cross.”
She held back.
Turning his head twice as he checked for traffic he glanced back at Mary. He looked for a break in traffic and then again back at her telling her once more to hurry. He then stepped off the curb.
The loud squeal of breaks and crushing metal permeated the air. He hadn’t seen the oncoming black sedan. As he set the walker down in the first traffic lane, the car came out of nowhere, struck the walker and pulled him underneath the front wheels. Chum was killed instantly as Mary, his best friend of 55 years, watched in shock and confusion.
The 18-year-old driver jumped from his car and seeing an elderly man’s lifeless body, held Mary tightly as she tried to reach her husband. Cars stopped to lend help, an ambulance was called, and bystanders gathered to stare.
That night, the accident got a 30-second mention on the 11 o’clock news:
“If this couple, who were married over 50 years, had obeyed the law and crossed at the traffic light, they would be together this evening.”
John Ford reporting for KLAS-TV7, Las Vegas.
Just another statistic.
But this time it wasn’t just another statistic, it was my father.
Open up a conversation with your father, or yourself. Then write it down in your own words.
More importantly enjoy your father, or his memories, on this special day.
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