Dear Daddy

In honor of my dad's birthday, I thought I'd share a letter I wrote to him three years ago, while Rob and I were in California.  Poor Dad; I often travel on his birthday, as it falls during my first weeks of freedom after a long school year.  Since I can't be at his celebration, I hope he enjoys reading this, which (for some inexplicable reason) I hadn't shown him until now.

Dear Daddy,

Happy birthday!  I thought of you all day today, and wished we could be there with you.

It struck me today, because you were so much in my thoughts, how much you have influenced my life – how much I am like you.  People – especially Rob – tell me this often, but I never saw it with such clarity as I did today.

There is no one on this earth that I admire more than you, so it stands to reason that I have probably absorbed some of your characteristics, become engrossed in your interests, and adopted your attitude towards the great adventure of life.  I can only hope that someday I will be able to emulate your kindness, strictness of conscience, and far-flung generosity toward everyone you encounter.

We spent a gloriously tiring day exploring the rocky West Coast, your “homeland” and one of the most beautiful places on earth.  We spent the day with your sister and her daughter, traveling roads you had told us about and seeing sights you love.  We ended it among your friends and the family you married into.  You were everywhere we turned, it seemed, and it just made me realize how important you are to us.

The day began in San Simeon, in a hotel with frighteningly thin walls.  We woke to the sounds of whining children dragging their feet to the cars outside, squirrels scampering across the roof, and water flowing from the fountain in the rose garden just outside the door.  I went and got breakfast for the two of us from the hotel lobby: cornflakes, sickeningly sweet pastries, orange juice and weak coffee in the smallest Styrofoam cups I’ve ever seen.  As kids, we always loved  free hotel breakfasts, because we never got “sweet” cereal at home; Frosted Flakes were a real treat.  This was a very wise move on your part, judging by the disposition of the kids I saw zooming away from the tables after breakfast.

We met up with Debbie and Kristen and walked down to the beach across the street.  It was beautiful, cold and clear and humid, with the very distinctive “beach smell” of fish and salt spray.  I took pictures as the others poked around among the rocks, seaweed and tide pools, looking for wildlife.

You taught us curiosity – to look at nature up close, get our hands dirty and maybe even get pinched by a defensive crab.  How does it work?  What makes it do that?  Where does it come from?  These were questions we asked endlessly, and you always had the answers.  And yet you asked them, too: even now, you exude a particular kind of quiet when you are learning something new.  I can almost hear your mind absorbing it, drawing it into your sea of knowledge to be retrieved when needed.

You taught us to love nature; here I am ashamed to admit I have not measured up, and retain a fair amount of squeamishness when it comes to damp places and many-legged creatures.  But I can still marvel at the sheer volume of thick, ropy seaweed climbing up onto the rocky shore, even if I shudder imagining myself caught in it; and I love to watch crabs from a distance, scuttling sideways into cracks in the rocks and out of reach of inquisitively prodding sticks.

I glanced at my watch and told everyone it was time to head to Hearst Castle for our 11:00 tour.  When Rob and I took our first trip to California together (his first ever, except for a few days in San Francisco) you insisted we visit there.  I had been as a child, with you and Mom, and I remembered a little from our time there: in particular, the huge indoor pool and the vastness of the mansion itself.

When I imagine the scene – you and Mom with three children, ages 1, 4, and 7, in a virtual china shop of antiques and artifacts, with frowning tour guides and more kids than you can keep hold of at one time – I have renewed respect for your fortitude.  Despite the fact that we would probably not remember much of the trip, and could not possibly appreciate it as a mature adult would, you brought us along.  I think of my friends who have young kids today: many have become closely tied to their homes, venturing out occasionally at great trouble or leaving the children with a babysitter.  But you and Mom took us everywhere – Civil War battlefields, museums, missions, strange and beautiful places from Maine to Mexico.  You guys were brave.  You took the chance that we might knock over a towering stack of plane tickets, or hoot our way through a cavernous wine cellar, or throw a tantrum when you tried to take our picture.  And sometimes we did.  But we benefited from that more than you can know: we admire history over wealth, and we enjoy trekking off the beaten path in search of more than just entertainment – in pursuit of knowledge.

After our tour and lots more photos, we set off in search of lunch.  My love of all kinds of food is certainly another gift from you; your refusal to accept “No, I won’t eat that” transformed a picky child into a remarkably open-minded adult.  There are, obviously, things I don’t care for, but I will try anything at least once, and most things more than once.  I enjoy the surprise that comes when I enjoy something I thought I wouldn’t; I have very little patience for people who won’t eat somewhere because it looks dirty, or run-down, or doesn’t have a spectacular wine list.  Some of my most memorable meals have been in dive-y places, like the catfish cafeterias of the Deep South (who needs beer when there’s vats of sweet tea?) and the Waffle Houses where everything absorbs the stickiness of maple syrup.  I remember the time you tricked me into trying calamari; by the time I realized the “pasta” was really tiny tentacles, I enjoyed it too much to stop eating. I took great pride in telling my 5th grade friends I had eaten escargot, and greater pride in explaining what the delicacy consisted of.  By the time I moved to New York City at 17, I was eager to discover new things, and elatedly tried everything from Ukranian pierogi (good) to Japanese octopus fritters (not so good.)  I couldn’t wait to tell you, with Armenian pride, that I had found a place that served great breakfast – two eggs, home fries with fresh herbs and peppers, thick, airy challah bread, juice and coffee – for $2.25.

The place we found, though not exactly a gem on par with B&H Dairy, was the only one in the tiny town of San Simeon that didn’t appear to be a tourist trap: a Mexican restaurant with great homemade salsa and mediocre sangria.  We ate and talked, enjoying our last hours with Debbie and Kristen before we parted ways.  I realized that you and mom had taught me how to always make time for family; growing up, if someone was traveling through town (or if we were traveling through theirs) we would always stop to say hello or have lunch together.  And now that I plan and take my own vacations, it’s rare that I don’t involve relatives somehow, especially when I enjoy their company as much as with these two ladies.

We left San Simeon to return home, but going through Santa Barbara, we hit abysmal traffic.  As we crept along and wished we could think of another way back to Los Angeles, Rob suddenly remembered that the very next exit led to the home of your friends Carla and Troy.  I hesitated, but only for a moment, before calling them to explain our predicament.  “We’re passing through,” I said, “and we’re just sitting on the freeway.  We don’t want to impose, but can we just come and say hi?”

“Oh, please.  Please!”  Troy implored.  “Come and stay for dinner!”

We happily exited the freeway and spent a wonderful evening enjoying hamburgers with people who are technically your friends.  It seemed spectacularly unfair that you and Mom couldn’t be there, too, but we talked about you, catching them up about your latest exploits with the Parish Council at church and various business ventures elsewhere.  I took such pleasure in their company, and I know that ability comes from you – the ability to feel comfortable in any situation, with any age group.  I have enjoyed being with adults from the time I was a child, and now that I am an adult I enjoy being with children.  You taught me that everyone has something to say and something to teach; all I had to do was listen.

Several hours behind schedule (which I also learned from you; but if Mom’s reading over your shoulder, don't worry, because we did call Grandma to let her know) we departed for “home.”  Grandma was waiting up for us, of course, with fried egg sandwiches and questions about our trip.  I can’t imagine how many times she must have done this for you and Mom over the years, but I know you have come to love her as a second sort of mother, teasing and cherishing her as you did your own mother throughout her life.

One day.  Just one.  And I see, over and over again, evidence of your love and faithfulness as a father, a husband, a Christian, a curious human being in this wide and wondrous world.  “Thank you” doesn’t quite cover it, not even close; but as those are the only words I can come up with just now, thank you.  For everything.

Love, Emily