My first dad died when I was almost four. I have a few clear memories of him.
For a while, only one side of him worked with the help of a leg brace. And then neither side did.
The curve of the wheelchair when I’d sit on his lap as he wheeled me back to bed. I’d sneak out to watch television. If dad found me, I’d get that ride in the wheelchair. Plus, he’d sit by the bed and tell me stories until I fell asleep. Mom would just haul me back with no stories. I understand now. He knew his time with us kids was limited, months if he was lucky. Mom was overwhelmed. Three little kids, a dying husband, a bleak future.
The ashtray full of cigarette butts. It was always fuller when the uncles visited.
Barfing. Lots and lots of barfing. Dad and the uncles had been playing poker and drinking beer. And feeding me chocolate ice cream. There wasn’t room on the table for cards and bottles, so bottles went on the floor at their feet. Within reach.
But mainly, what I know of the man is through the stories others told.
The time he and the sheriff’s son shot up the door of a community hall. Well, they technically were shooting at a calendar. Forgot about the door.
All the sports he lettered in. How small he was compared to the uncles. How they’d start a fight and he’d finish it. How fast he could run.
The, probably apocryphal, story about getting drunk, waking up the next day, and being in the Navy.
Getting shore leave, being invited to a party, coming down the sidewalk pulling a tee-shirt over his head. And meeting my mom for the first time.
And then the whole military thing. Like the time he missed the boat. Literally. Too much shore leave. Court martial for that one.
The other shore leave story, in Korea at the end of the war, finding a tiny newborn in the garbage. Smuggling her back on the ship. His plans to keep her, bring her home, raise her. His horror that someone would throw away a child. He was forced to return her.
These snippets of a lifetime make me ponder on how vital stories are. How we keep people, traditions, habits, alive through words. I’ve heard you die twice. First your physical death. And then again, when there’s no one left to tell your story.
I think about the stories I tell. The ones I read. The others I hear. All those words piling up, creating nostalgia and memories, laughter and sadness.
But most of all, building a life.
It’s not such a bad thing, to be remembered in stories.