Autumn has finally arrived in northern Virginia, bringing with it pumpkins in parking lots, marching band music at football games, and high school Homecoming events.
As colors fade in the garden, my nostalgia grows. This year, more than ever, as the garden’s maturing process seems so closely linked with my own.
I decide it’s time to overcome a fear that has plagued me for years — reading my journals. Though I’ve kept journals on and off for most of my life, some undefined terror has kept me from revisiting them.
I can’t explain the fear — perhaps that my entries would be too shallow, perhaps that they’d portray me in some other negative light. There must be a name for self awareness phobia. In any event, it’s time to get over it.
So I settled into my favorite patio chair on a recent sunny day, a cup of tea by my side and the backdrop of burgundy-tinged hydrangeas feeling like a blanket around my shoulders. I opened a random journal.
I was looking for references that tracked the garden’s trajectory, and how it shaped my own. But I was sidetracked by a surprise visitor awaiting me in those pages, particularly in an entry written in early autumn two years ago.
How long had my father been waiting for me to open that journal?
He was not a gardener. Well, not in the traditional sense. My father was a transplant surgeon, which I guess is just a different form of planting. I’ve never buried my hands in somebody’s insides. I can’t imagine it’s as calming as burying your hands in the earth.
He could have used a calming outlet. The job was stressful enough. My guess is that even gardening wouldn’t have saved him from his manic depression (what we now call bipolar disorder). He took his own life when I was 13.
Still There When I Need Him
Two years ago, my eldest son was getting ready for his high school’s Homecoming dance. His dad was out at a business event, and I was hosting the pre-party on my own. A dozen kids and their parents were due to arrive at our house any minute.
“How’s it going?” I called up the stairs.
“I can’t do the tie!” he said.
I met him in the hallway, my heart melting from the quiet look of desperation in his eyes.
“This is one of the few gifts that you’ll get from your Grandpa Larry, along with his strong intellect and athletic genes,” I said. “He taught his very young daughter how to tie a neck tie.”
So Many Lessons to Teach, So Little Time
I remember standing in the bathroom watching my father get ready for work when I was about 10 years old, blond braids hanging down my back.
I loved the sound of the shaving cream squirting out of the can, and was mesmerized by the transformation of white foamy Santa beard to clean shaven cheeks. Sometimes he’d knick himself and would use a pinch of toilet paper to stop the bleeding. After wiping his face with a towel and finishing with a splash of Old Spice aftershave (in those days there was only one Old Spice scent), it was time to tie his tie.
“How do you do that?” I had asked.
“Let me show you,” he said.
And he did. The hardest part was estimating the right amount of unevenness between the wide end and narrow end starting out. The wide end had to be a lot lower at the beginning to compensate for the wrapping around needed to make the knot. And then it all had to end up with the wide end just a little bit longer than the narrow end behind it. After a lot of practice, he let me tie his tie for him. I’m sure he re-did it once he got in the car.
My father tried to teach me other things during his healthier periods, squeezed in between the increasingly lengthy unhealthy times. I was game for anything, perhaps sensing that my time with him would be short.
When I was five or six, he took me to the top of a double black diamond ski run in Colorado. When I was 8, he took my sisters, mother and me to a Dixieland jazz concert at New Orleans’ historic Preservation Hall. When I was 11, he taught me to use a lacrosse stick.
And the coup de grace: teaching me to drive on my 13th birthday, including having me leave the parking lot where we were practicing and head down the highway. I knew his judgment was impaired, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
The rush to teach me to drive made sense to me eight days later, when my mother and sister showed up at my school and told me he was gone.
Fast forward thirty-four years to the day of my journal entry. My handsome son is two years older than I was when I lost my father. Already the tallest in the family, his neck is right at eye level as I adjust the tie, fashion the knot, and loop the narrow end through the wide end’s back label to hold it all in place.
My father wasn’t there to witness any of my graduations, see me land my first job, walk me down the aisle at my wedding, welcome my kids into the world, or offer counsel as I navigate life.
Perhaps I didn’t need him as much during those times. But nobody else could have helped with that Homecoming dance tie.
What about you? What legacy or life skills did your parents (or other loved ones) leave you to pull out of a hat in a pinch?
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