It was August of 2002 when I realized that I was, in fact, my father’s daughter. I’m exactly like him, dammit.
It wasn’t my best moment as a parent. I still feel guilty about it. And Jacob, my only child, makes sure I do. He still glares at me when he recalls that day. But it wasn’t my fault. Really. I blame Dad. The fact that he’d died nearly two years earlier did not absolve him one little bit.
John, Jacob and I had just moved back from Europe in July, and Jacob would start his new school in September.
That August afternoon, I held in my hand the most important envelope of every child’s year — the one that told us what class he would be in for the entire school year. It had just arrived. Each year since Jacob had been in kindergarten, we opened that envelope together the minute it arrived.
Naturally, Jacob was nervous. He wanted more than anything to be in class with his brand new best friend ever, Joe. Jacob wasn’t concerned that he might not like his teacher. Or that the work would be too hard for him. No, he worried that he’d be in a class of entirely new kids. Ones he hadn’t known, like, for a month.
We stood at the kitchen counter and slit open the envelope. I read it aloud:
“Jacob K has been assigned to Mrs. Smith’s 1st Grade class.”
Assigned to Mrs. Smith’s FIRST GRADE class? Jacob was 11. He was supposed to be going into 5th Grade, not 1st. WTF?
Jacob looked at the letter, and looked up at me with panic in his eyes.
That’s when my late father rose up and spoke out of my mouth.
“Well,” I said to Jacob, philosophically, “I guess you’ll have to start again with 1st Grade.”
Jacob’s eyes bulged, his mouth fell open in a silent moan, and tears started forming behind his eyeballs.
Of course I couldn’t hold it for long, I burst out laughing and quickly followed up my sarcastic comment with “I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding,” and a big hug. “They just made a mistake. We’ll go to the school tomorrow morning when school opens and they’ll correct it. And if you want, you can ask them to put you in Joe’s class.”
Somehow, Jacob slept that night, and the next day we went to the school, where they apologized profusely for their error and did, indeed, put Jacob into Joe’s class. It made Jacob feel like the folks at his new school were on his side.
But what made me torture my son like that?
Dad. He made me do it. Because I’d bet my life that that’s exactly what Dad would have said to a terrified boy who feared he had to restart school at the beginning. In fact, I’m sure of it. That’s exactly what my Dad would have done.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I adored my Dad. We were close from the moment of conception, I’m pretty sure. I was the last of five kids, and the acknowledged favorite, well before any of my elder siblings were even born. Dad was just waiting for me. Because I was the one who would “get” him. He made me laugh. Everybody else was terrified of Dad. And with good reason. Most people couldn’t tell when he was joking.
My first memory of Dad is not exactly a happy one.
I was three years old, and had gotten my head caught between the legs of my horse, Lightening. And Dad laughed at me. Seriously! Can you believe his cruelty?
Now before you start assuming that that’s where my brain damage came from, I have to confess that Lightening was a pretty special horse. Lightening was usually a black stallion, although sometimes, when the mood struck, he was a white one. Lightening was also the second fastest horse in the West. He was regularly beaten by Thunder, my brother Fred’s horse. Fred named our horses before he learned that lightening is faster than thunder.
To other people, what we rode on weren’t “real” horses. They were the railings surrounding our staircase landing. Their legs were made of pickets that were thin at the top and widened at the bottom. I’d stuck my head through the pickets at the top, slid down, and was unable to pull it out at the bottom.
I was not a happy child at that particular moment. I was uncomfortable. I was stuck. I’m sure I was thinking that my whole family would be laughing at that moment for years. I was right.
Nobody could calm me down enough to lift my head up and get me out of there. In kid years, which are just like dog years, I was there for days and days. I was there forever.
When Mom couldn’t get me out, she told me that she’d get Dad who would. I started calming immediately. Dad could fix anything. Absolutely anything. He would get me out from underneath Lightening. He’d do it like he did everything, with a cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth, and a carpenter’s rule and pencil in his pocket. With those three things, Dad could rule the world.
Dad came up from the basement and quickly sized up the situation. I’m sure he took a drag from his cigarette when he said, “Hmmmm.”
His presence alone calmed me, stopped my crying. I knew he’d get me out, somehow. I knew I didn’t have to worry. I knew that soon everything would be OK.
“Hmmmm,” said Dad again. “I guess we’re just gonna have to cut your head off.”
Spoiler Alert! He did not cut off my head.
Once I stopped screaming, Dad was able to lift my head up a bit to where the railing was thin at the top, and got my head out.
For as long as she lived, my mother shook her head whenever she thought of that day. “I still can’t believe he said that to you,” she’d say with a laugh. “Right after he’d calmed you down!”
Clearly, I take after my Dad. Jacob was (and is) never quite sure whether to take something I say seriously. (Duh! Never!)
But you know what? I think that’s a good lesson in life. That you have to find the humor, no matter how terrified you might be. Even at the scariest times.
Dad taught me something important that day when I was stuck underneath Lightening. That if you can laugh at whatever’s holding you back, you’re gonna be just fine. Unless of course you’re stuck underneath the second fastest horse in the west. Then screaming bloody murder is the way to go.
Thanks Dad for getting me out of that jam and a million others. I miss you.