Today, in honor of Father’s Day I am posting early rather than Monday. This is a reflection I wrote a few years back about my own dad. I share this to not only honor him but all military dads who are spending Father’s Day away from their families. And for all military families who feel the loss of their parent (dad or mom) during holidays. Thank you dad for your service and for being my dad.
As the radio announcer took calls from listeners relating their one special Christmas gift, my mind went back to Christmas 1964. The memory started in November 1963 when my father picked my sister Linda and I up from elementary school. A rare treat, we always rode the bus, his presence brought a smile of anticipation to our face awaiting some special surprise. Dad’s face was somber as he told us President Kennedy had been assassinated. I remember having no reaction: I was only eight. We stared at our father in confusion. That historic event paled in comparison to what was to follow in just a few short weeks.
Our Thanksgiving holiday was blurred with sadness that went beyond watching the President’s funeral on TV. Dad served in the Air Force, and was scheduled to deploy to Vietnam December 15th. The previous summer we had moved back to Illinois. Daddy wanted us near family while he was deployed. Moving was part of the military life; my sisters and I took it in stride. By the time Christmas break came, he was gone. No one had heard of Vietnam, yet. The media wasn’t focusing on it and the US troops were there as observers. We girls were too young to understand the risk involved. This was the first time Dad was stationed somewhere his family could not go. We came home from school that day, and he was already gone. I don’t recall whether he had said goodbye to us that morning. But I felt his absence somewhere deep inside that I refused to acknowledge. Instead I put our new Mitch Miller Children’s Christmas sing-along record on the stereo. My sister pulled out the song book; our bell-adorned shoe laces keeping rhythm to the music. Dad had been gone before so we settled into enjoying our time off from school, awaiting Santa’s visit with the usual anticipation.
For me, I came to understand he was really gone on Christmas morning. Linda while playing with her new Barbie Dream House noticed one of the cardboard legs on the bed was bent at an odd angle. My sister complained when she broke the leg trying to straighten it. To our surprise Momma cried.
That moment marked the beginning of the loneliest year of my young life. Having aunts and uncles living nearby wasn’t the real comfort we needed. Dad would not be walking in the door after we returned from school. Each morning the place at the table across from my mother was vacant. No more whispered tones gently awakening me from slumber as my parent’s drank their morning coffee. No more card games with him. I even missed his scolding us for still being awake after bedtime. My father was not a huggy, kissy kind of man. His presence was silent, yet dependable. When he scolded us about our bedtime and helped us with our homework, he was loving us. Watching Wide World of Sports on Sunday afternoon was our loving him. Saturday morning Road Runner cartoon was our together time.
Like most women of her generation, Mom had defined tasks that were hers as the wife and mother. Now she had to deal with maintaining the car and any repairs on the house. Her attempt at mowing stands out in my mind as another defining moment. I remember there were tears as the task nearly overwhelmed her. The grass caused her breathing difficulties. I stepped forward and offered to mow, giving her a break. Mom allowed me to mow a row or two before the anxiety of watching her eight-year-old daughter mow forced her to finish the job herself. Even with all extended family stepping up, taking on mowing and other tasks my father’s absence was never overshadowed. Rather it was magnified by the letters and gifts he sent us. My transistor radio became my constant nighttime companion. I hid the radio under my pillow so Mom could not hear it. Music kept the darkness away until sleep took me.
Every night we girls would climb into Momma’s bed and she would read to us. We all felt a sense of security as we snuggled together. Those fairy tales and fables remain with me today. This was our ritual for that whole year until Dad returned.
Exactly one year to the day, December 15, 1964, my father returned safely to us. He arrived in a taxi, and Mom ran out to meet him. I recall my sisters and I stayed inside holding back, shyness overtaking us. It seemed surreal that he was finally home. When Dad came in the front door, he did the unthinkable—he gave each of us a big hug. Feeling his arms and that familiar Old Spice cologne surrounding us broke the spell, and joy took hold. Later that day my youngest sister, Carol, took her friend into the bedroom where my father slept from his long exhausting plane trip. The past year her playmate had doubted his existence. My four-year-old sister pointed at his sleeping form and declared.
“See, I do, too, have a daddy. There he is.”
Her words seemed to echo how we all felt.
Those two Christmases took me full circle through the feelings of loss and loneliness to comfort and joy. I cannot tell you what we received as gifts that year for Christmas. My father’s presence will forever be a treasure in my heart. His safe return was the best gift of all.
My father is 85 and still with me in his quiet, steady way. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!
If you have memories of your own father that still resonate with you today leave me a comment. I’d love to hear it.
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