|Dad and me, circa 1980.
Known as Red, Billy, Uncle Bill, Coach, Mr. M, and Poppy, my father has been many things to many people. To me he is, simply and perfectly, Dad. He is the first man I ever looked up to and the first one I ever loved. He’s been one of my favorite people for all the time I’ve been alive. I am, and have always been, a Daddy’s girl.
Dad has always seemed sort of timeless to me. He’s been a responsible adult for a long time, but he’s also maintained a youthfulness and joie de vivre you don’t always find in responsible adults. He is a teller of stories, an athlete, a funny-face maker, a handyman, an exuberant dancer – the kind of guy everyone loves. He is one of the most patient people I’ve ever known and has both the mischievous humor and sensitivity of an Irishman, the mind of an engineer and the heart of a poet.
My dad grew up in a series of tenements in Springfield, Massachusetts, where his grandparents had settled when they arrived from the old country of County Cork. I doubt life in the city was easy in the years spanning the Great Depression and World War II, but to hear Dad tell it his childhood was nothing but happy. He played stick ball and kick the can and pond hockey with neighborhood kids and once got lost wandering Forest Park, causing his sainted mother a fair amount of angst before the local cop brought little Billy home.
This lost-and-found tale is one of the stories I loved as a kid, one my children have now heard many times. Another favorite is the time Dad and his fraternity brothers in the 1950s were told they needed to class up mealtimes in the dining room. They showed up the next evening in suit jackets and ties – but no pants. Poor Flora, the fraternity cook, got quite a shock.
Dad was the first in his family to graduate college, paying tuition by working his way through the summers for his father, a highway foreman for the city. Those days of wrestling a clattering jackhammer may have contributed to Dad’s less-than-stellar hearing, although this sometimes makes for really funny conversations. Like when my 8-year-old son announced he’d like to be a zoologist, and his Poppy made a funny face and said, “Why would you want to be a urologist?” Once the adults around the table recovered from the ensuing bout of laughter, we had to explain to the children what a urologist does. It is not a career path any of them care to pursue.
During Dad’s career of 30-plus years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he left the house each morning at 5:30 to beat the traffic en route to his office in a Boston suburb, starting his day early so he could be home in time for dinner with the family. He and Mom took my brothers and me skiing and hiking from the time we were babies, and on an epic road trip one summer to explore national parks and cool landmarks from New England to the Rockies. He (and Mom) coached my sports teams when I was a kid. He taught me to play cribbage and tried to help me with my math homework by showing me the “easy” way to figure the answers.
When I went to college, Dad often drove me out to school, six hours away, and he was my copilot when I moved to Colorado after graduation, driving cross-country in an old Bronco II laden with the possessions of a 22-year-old. During these long drives I heard more stories, gleaned bits of sage Dad advice, and realized my father had a full life that preceded his parenthood.
We all inherit something from our parents: the shape of our eyes or color of our hair, interests and life goals, sometimes the way we look at the world. From Dad I have gained a penchant for pancakes and a love of mountains, the habit of singing made up songs about random things and of tapping my fingers on the steering wheel as I drive, a sensitivity that causes my eyes to grow watery at anything mildly emotive, but also a quickness to laugh. His influence is why I endeavor to stay fit and active (even if I don’t listen to the advice he continues to share on the chairlift regarding my ski technique) and why I look for an elephant in the full moon. I have never once seen the illusive elephant, but Dad swears it’s there, so I still look.
As fun-loving as he is, Dad also has a strong sentimental side. The morning of my wedding he was visibly, and adorably, nervous. When my husband and I announced my first pregnancy, Mom literally jumped for joy, while Dad smiled through watery eyes. He tears up at the first note of “Danny Boy.” For 45 years he has written a poem, sweet and sometimes silly, in every birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day card he gives my mother.
When my older daughter was a baby and wanted to always be in motion, Dad spent hours carrying her around the house singing a little ditty he made up just for her. When my youngest was born he sang Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (an Irish-American lullaby) to her, even if she wasn’t fussy.
My kids adore my dad as much as I do. They love his stories and his silliness and the way he sometimes laughs so hard he cries. For this momentous birthday, the kids wrote poems as gifts. One is an acrostic poem of POPPY, ending in “Youthful,” the other a haiku whose middle line is “You can always make me laugh.”
Here’s to laughter and love, family and playfulness, stories shared and memories made, and an everlasting youthfulness. Happy birthday, Dad, from your little girl.