Dear Dad // No. 13

Dear Dad,

I didn’t think much about bravery when I was young. You either were brave or your weren’t. I didn’t think about the different facets there could be. How being brave didn’t necessarily mean being daring in the face of danger, but could instead mean leaving a life and a job behind to find adventure somewhere new. No job, three kids. Just jumping and trusting that life would see you through.

I still remember the address to our first house in San Diego. White stucco again, with a two-car garage and an odd, squat palm plant in the front yard, spiky leaves jutting out like knives over the walkway to the front door.

The living room was Mom’s studio, where we put her massive blue table, mat-board bins so big J, C and I could all three fit in them, and a shrink-wrapping machine. Mom framed your paintings and prints, worked full time to prepare for each weekend’s art show. That’s how you made a living now. Teaching was over. You and Mom went to outdoor art shows on the weekends, set up the art racks and print bins, and sold your work to the people who browsed the show.

J, C, and I stayed with various people while you traveled: Grandma B, who lived on the other side of town, or a neighbor. I liked staying with Grandma B okay, except that she made me sleep on the pull-out sofa in the office. The portrait of your deceased stepfather, who none of us ever met, peered down at me all night, making my skin crawl.

I hated staying with the neighbors two doors down more. They let their kids beat up on us. We were kind of small, C, J and I, and maybe even a touch ragamuffin in hindsight. (We liked to play in the mud, and none of us really liked shoes. At three years old, C had a habit of running around the neighborhood stark naked. We never got into any trouble, but we were wild in our own wonderful ways.) We told you and Mom about the kids’ cruelty, and after that we stayed with Grandma B more. I convinced her to let me sleep with J and C in the queen bed in the guest room sometimes; other times, it was me and the portrait in the office all night.

One of our neighbors was named Happy. He was an older man, with a tidy yard and small house on the corner of our cul-de-sac. Every now and again he came outside while we played hide-and-go-seek and chatted with us. He liked that we had an old casing from a bullet from a WWII plane in our garage. I don’t know why we had that thing, but Happy thought it was really interesting. I think he was a veteran. He didn’t have anyone who lived with him. I always wondered how a person named Happy, who was, as far as I could tell, very happy indeed, could be alone all the time.

Because you and Mom worked at home now, it behooved you to get us out of the house some. Three bored children could fill up 1,200 square feet with complaints and restless energy in a heartbeat. You took us to the beach a lot, to a place near La Jolla we called Dog Run because it was an off-leash beach. We didn’t have a dog, but we wanted one badly. La Jolla had big cliffs with fancy houses clinging to the edges, houses with lots of glass and crisp edges and looked like they were four of our neighborhood’s houses in one.

Whenever we went anywhere, J got shotgun most of the time, which left me in the back—until C was old enough to sit in the front, and then it was me and J in the back. Most of the time we stood up and held onto the back of the driver and passenger headrests, which was fun because you could see out the front window then, but you had to watch out for cops and be quick to duck down so they wouldn’t notice a couple kids standing up while a van drove down the road.

Driving over winding roads with the windows down and the salty air blowing through our hair…I’m pretty sure that’s what perfection feels like. My favorite view was when we came around a massive hill and the road curved inland for a second and just before it cut back out the ocean burst into view, the sun ricocheting off the surface like a bowlful of pennies falling to the floor in the middle of the summer sunlight.

Once, after a trip to Dog Run, we were driving through the heart of La Jolla and came to a stop at a light. J had shotgun. C was in the baby seat, which was secured between the driver and passenger seat with bungee cords. You were driving, of course, so I was in the back of the Aerostar lying on the floor under the windows so that the sun shined onto my face. I closed my eyes one at a time and watched the light change from orange to yellow to blinding white as my eyelids opened and closed. I had your straw hat on my head. I loved that hat because it smelled mysteriously floral and earthy in a way I didn’t yet understand but identified with home.

While stopped at the light, you looked out the window and started laughing to yourself, this kind of chuckle that started in your throat and came out of your mouth with a lot of feeling and knowing behind it. J unbuckled himself and C hopped out of the car seat and I scrambled over to your headrest and we all peered out the window at what had you laughing like that.

The man in the car next to us was your splitting image. Really and honestly, Dad. It was like looking at a you living a different life. He had your same smile lines around the edges of his eyes, your tan skin and straight white-gray hair and beard, your wide nose and square face and broad shoulders. He wore your same signature straw hat and Hawaiian shirt and jeans, only I don’t remember if his jeans had holes in the knees or not. It was hard to tell because the car got in the way.

That car. He drove a brand-new bright red Ferrari with the top down. A young girl with blond hair sat in the passenger seat. I don’t remember anything else about her because all we did, the three of us kids, was peer out the van window around you and laugh and point at the man and make jokes about how much he looked like you.

You laughed, too, and said something like, “Oh, hey. Look! It’s me in another life. That’s my rich life, kids. Look at that. Somewhere out there I’ve got a girl like that and drive a car like that.”

And we all laughed and laughed. And the man driving the Ferrari looked at us and laughed too.

When the light turned green, the man and the blond drove away, probably to one of those big houses by the beach with all the glass. I remember wondering if he lost his hat, driving like that with the top down. At least in our van you didn’t have to worry about that.

We sold that van some years later, when we moved cross-country again. I always pictured someone else driving it to the beach in San Diego, and wondered what they did about the lack of seats. Wondered if they were the same kind of brave that we were. Brave enough to stand up while the car’s in drive and let the wind rush through the open windows into their hair. Brave enough to leave everything behind for adventure, and to trust the journey to take care of them.

Love,

Ash

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