Last year my uncle sent me a box of old photographs my paternal grandmother had left behind upon her death. Some of the pictures traced my growing up through school shots and snapshots. Those were of little interest to me. What was fascinating, what still is fascinating, is the pictures that allow me to piece together the image of a complete stranger: my father.
In the summer of 1979, my father was mountain climbing in the Grand Tetons. He blacked out and fell to his death. I was born the next October. Those were the facts I knew from a young age, black and white, like the pixels of an enlarged newspaper photograph. It has taken many years of collecting fleeting bits of information in my head to be able to step back, one inch at a time, and start to see the pixels come together to make a complete person.
My father was an athlete (I didn’t discover until my uncle’s package that he was voted Most Athletic). He played baseball, football, basketball, and ran track. At some point he was in a softball league because the dog he and my mother shared stole the ball during a game and wouldn’t give it back. He liked to surf.
My father’s high school girlfriend was named Jill. They were in some sort of car accident together. That’s all anyone really has to say about Jill.
My father traveled through Europe, sending back quaint little postcards. He brought my grandmother back leaf patterned china from Ireland.
My father had strawberry blond hair and a beard that grew in red, apparently the same red as my hair. His hair was short in high school and long, roughly shoulder length in college and wedding pictures.
My father married my mother on December 23. They had a Christmas tree with special decorations.
My father found out he was going to become such at a lunch where my mother threw up.
My father loved the movie Jaws. Whenever he went out on the water with my grandmother he would say “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
My father would go on long walks when he was angry, like I do.
My father walked on the balls of his feet. I have been told by two of the women who knew him best that I walk the same way.
There is something odd and fascinating and frightening knowing that there are people who see elements in you that belong to someone you’ve never met. Both my mother and grandmother would tell me about my father in jumps and starts: they would tell some tiny little detail, one of the things listed above, followed by an anecdote, and then shift into silence. And so I have been left with this watercolor impression. There is so much I don’t know–his birthday, his favorite ice cream, his favorite book. There is so much I can never know–his smell, the sound of his voice, the feel of his embrace. It is because of this that I cling, like someone drowning, to what I do know and the few items that I can hold to convince that he was once real.
I wore my father’s class ring, Costa Mesa High School 1969, until my wedding ring replaced it. The surviving Irish china is displayed in my dining room. The postcards he sent back to his mother as he traveled through Europe are framed on my living room wall. His travel journal is next to mine in my bedside table.
I love the Lakers. I don’t care if they win or lose, who the players are, who the coach is. I love the Lakers because my father did.
I love Jaws. I watch it every year on the Fourth of July to remember my All-American California boy Dad. I love Jaws because my father did.
I watch my daughter as she bounces along on the balls of her feet. I look at my son, with his strawberry blond hair, and wonder if someday he’ll have a red beard.
I love a ghost whom I have never met. I know he loves me.