My father is coming to visit this week. We call him “Dada Bob.” He lives about three hours to the north, so we enjoy his visits often. When my son was two years old and first beginning to stretch his linguistic powers, we coached our little tot in forming the words “Grandaddy Bob.” With his characteristic cleverness and brevity, he replaced that cumbersome moniker with simply “Dada Bob,” and it stuck.
There are so many things I want to say about Dada Bob. Watching him be a grandparent to my son continually bursts open my heart with the memories of him as a father. When I was a child I thought my Dad was the kindest, smartest, most cheerful, most generous, most knowledgable, most responsible, most trustworthy, most brilliant person I had ever met. My mother agreed. She used to point out to my sister and I how lucky we were that my father always came home after work in a good mood. (I was shocked to learn that some Dads didn’t come home from work cheerful, and some didn’t even come home after work.) For many kids, those illusions about our parents slowly fade as we grow up. Not for me. As I got to know him as an adult, they only became more true.
One of my favorite quintessential Dada Bob moments happened several years ago when my son was maybe four years old. Dada Bob was visiting and had gotten up early as usual. He had brought a small wooden airplane that he was looking forward to flying with our boy. As we all began to stir from our beds upstairs, I heard my Dad calling to his grandson from the stairwell, “Come on Max! It’s a great day! Let’s play!” Next were the sounds of excited little feet padding down the stairs, the feet of a boy who knew he was loved. He was learning that there was always someone who wanted to spend time with him and that each day brought wondrous new things to learn. I recognized this because it is exactly how my Dad had always made me feel, and still does.
When I was very small, I would sit on my Dad’s lap in his gold easy chair every night after the family dinner and watch “The Andy Griffith Show,” or “Wild Kingdom.” As I got older, he taught me about native birds and animals, and I drew and labeled them in a special notebook: Pintail, Canvasback, Wood Duck, Muskrat. We would get up early while my Mom and sister where still asleep and sneak off to go fishing together. He taught me how to watch the bobber and hook a catfish in a pond, how to cast for bluefish in the bay, and how to hold a live crab without getting pinched. In the kitchen I watched him cook, slicing the ripe tomatoes, stirring the zucchini and onions on the stove, cleaning the soft shell crabs, marinating the fish for the grill. I learned the simple joy of a fresh fig or a ripe peach picked just for me from a branch above my head. He built me a treehouse and I learned to love the leaves, the sky, and the far-reaching landscape.
He helped me with my math and science homework and showed me how to break down a word problem into neat mathematical phrases. He wrote out the times tables on a sheet of yellow graph paper in his blocky engineer’s handwriting, and we studied it together until I knew every one. I learned to love reading by his example, watching the piles of books accumulate beside his easy chair and overflow his nightstand. He threw the lacrosse ball with me in the front yard, me with my modern plastic stick, and he with his old wooden one from college. I started painting in high school and he gave me his old paint box and showed me how to carefully clean a brush by swishing it on a piece of brown soap, then re-shaping the bristles. He sent me off to a great university to study Architecture and paid the bill. When my mother got sick and died in my third year of college, he stretched himself to become both mother and father. We struggled together against the heavy cloud of sadness that was left in my mother’s absence. I admitted I did not want to be an architect and told him I wanted to be an artist. He paid for another year of college so I could double major. I got a scholarship to grad school and earned my MFA. He helped me move to New York, carrying all my heavy boxes of art books up the stairs to my new apartment. He helped me move back to Virginia (twice), carrying all the heavy boxes of art books again. I fell in love and got engaged. He walked me down the aisle and gave me away, but I am still his and he is still mine.