So, I’m writing this post on January 20th, the day after my father’s birthday. I was going to post something on Facebook about it but it felt inauthentic (for me) so I’m writing here instead. Below is a little snippet from the GATJ book, the first time I felt like I truly met my father… which was after his death.
A happy sixty-fifth birthday to the guy. Thanks for everything.
And thanks to you for reading :)
Searching for a pair of boxer briefs beneath a smattering of unmated socks, a wall of nostalgia washed over me like an ocean wave—reminding me that the bottom drawer was full of my father’s personal effects that I took from his bedroom the day after he died. I hadn’t looked at or even thought about them since the day I brought them into my apartment. Sliding open that bottom drawer, I carefully removed a few old Life magazines with covers featuring Diana Ross, Henry Kissinger, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, and Nikita Khrushchev. I also took out a copy of one of his old driver’s licenses and an enormous, dusty American flag that the U.S. Government gave my father in honor of Haakon’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The last of what I pulled out were three old photo albums that I, until this day, had never viewed.
Inside the first photo album were pictures of my father from the early 1970s while on vacation with some of his friends and family, a few years before he met my mother. He had an odd, thin mustache and looked much happier than I had ever seen him. While thumbing my way to the back of the album, a thin leather-bound booklet that I didn’t recognize slid out from between the pages of the plastic sleeves. It was light brown and threadbare. The pages were yellow and tattered, and the whole of it was held together by a rubber band. Inside the cover was my father’s trademark handwriting—neat little words in all capital letters.
This was his old diary. In it were the childhood games he used to play, the names of some of his old neighborhood friends, and the girls with whom he was smitten during his Lutheran elementary school days:
My first cigarette was great. But since I’m thirteen, I was scared to smoke when my parents got home so I threw it inside our piano. My dad smelled it and got it out in time. I didn’t even get in trouble. They just told me not to burn the house down. Neat!
As I flipped through the pages, his writing became more perfunctory and his dated entries were few and far between. Toward the back he wrote about his early twenties and talked briefly about his time at Park College in Kansas City, Missouri.
He listed all of the jobs he had ever held (teacher, substitute teacher, amateur lawn care specialist, store clerk), but what he seemed most enthusiastic about was the law. He wanted to be a lawyer. A few pages were marked only with the words, “i want more out of life,” written over and over again—reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s deranged character in The Shining.
My father almost married a long-term girlfriend, a woman who was in love with him whom he found “utterly beautiful but emotionally unstable.” He also doubted whether he could commit to just one woman, and subsequently broke up with his long-term girlfriend at a coffee shop to keep her from going on a “psychotic rampage.” On the last page was a list of places he had traveled to: Germany, England, and Italy; along with a short list of places he needed to visit before he died: Jerusalem, Norway, and Vancouver.
I learned more about my father reading twenty pages of his diary than I ever had in the twenty-five years I had known him. Conversations about television shows, family members, or his opinions on biblical doctrine always came easy, but we never talked about anything deeper. Who he truly was, how he felt about women, or what he wanted out of life—those were things that only a skilled and meticulous excavator could uncover. And my father didn’t keep company with any of those scholarly diggers.