Two people star in my earliest memory.
Dad and me.
I’m maybe four years old. It happened in the baseball field—or, cramped backyard—of our home in Sacramento, California. An overturned picnic table doubled as a backstop. Dad was pitching to me. I swung the littlest and lightest of bats, smacking a ball over the fence. There were Whoops! at my success, which is when the memory’s sights and sounds drift away like a tree’s last leaf in winter.
There is no known evidence of a Kodak moment to reinforce my mighty exploits. Whenever I’ve been asked about first childhood recollections, this is the one I confidently share. Most other kid-based early memories have been inspired by photos or told and retold family tales.
If I was four, then Dad was around forty. Based on my age when that ball cleared the fence, Dwight Eisenhower was president and the U.S.S.R. would launch Sputnik a year later. By the way, Sputnik was possibly the first significant historical event I vaguely recall.
Dad would live almost fifty-six more years after my backyard homer. He died on February 7, 2012, which means 2022 is a decade since his death. I wanted—needed—to honor and remember him now that I’ve been without his physical presence in my life since 2012. When I started writing about this personal anniversary, my earliest playtime with Dad wasn’t included. Instead, I focused on his dying. In the final decade of his life, there wasn’t much to Whoop! about. However, several paragraphs into my efforts, I decided it was crap. God bless the delete key. Beginning or ending with his death wouldn’t honor the fullness of Dad.
So, let me get the worst over in the middle, as sparsely as possible:
Dad had dementia.
It was awful.
He finally died.
Thanks be to God for his death.
Dad was my first real hero.
In the year Sputnik was launched (1957), the Wham-O toy company began selling the Pluto Platter. Soon, it would be dubbed the Frisbee. I like to believe Dad and I were the first ones in our neighborhood to start flinging it around. Maybe even first in our town? Hey, why not the nation! Okay, fine, that’s a silly exaggeration. But I’ll betcha we were tossing a Frisbee long before it became a marketing success. All Dad had to say was, “Let’s go play Frisbee,” and we were backyard bound for some action.
Dad encouraged me to play baseball, along with why I should love the San Francisco Giants (and hate the Dodgers). Dad read to me when I was a munchkin, and later would always ask what I was reading. Dad’s encouragement led me to ride a bike. He (mostly) patiently instructed me about driving. Because of his persistence, I was probably one of the top-ten parallel parkers in California. Though my steering skills have waned, my father provided an excellent foundation.
As an adult son, I occasionally groused to Mom that Dad never told me he loved me. When we talked on the phone, he usually ended with: God loves you. Why not say he loved me? When I visited my parents’ home, Mom would gush over me and Dad would shake my hand. When I complained about Dad’s rarely expressed love, Mom literally or figuratively rolled her eyes. “You know he loves you.” I did. And, in the best part of my soul, and even more with the accumulation of the years of missing him, I recognize that Dad was in a generation of males who simply didn’t openly share feelings. For my father, and many of his contemporaries, telling was never as important as showing.
Seeing a Frisbee forever reminds me of Dad. Baseball is about Dad; so are biking and driving. Saying grace before a meal is. Drinking iced tea is. Rolling up your trouser bottoms when washing the car is. Sitting on a backyard lawn chair to criticize or gloat about the Giants is.
Could I mention unsettling or awkward memories that happened while my father was vibrant and robust? Of course, for all heroes have flaws. So do the sons of heroes.
And yet I pause. I remember.
I am a kid again.
I am swinging a bat.
There is a whoop and a holler! Dad is forever alive.