On my 16th birthday – a Wednesday – I walked out the front door of my high school with a few friends to find my dad standing 30 feet away with a giant balloon bouquet. I think one of them said, “I love you!” It was mortifying and secretly awesome; despite the teenage pretense of not wanting our parents to make a big corny demonstration in a public place, we all like feeling special and like a big deal is being made over us. We spent the afternoon – my mom, dad, and I – shopping for my first new snowboard, and went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant…the slightly expensive special occasion kind of place that had the best homemade salsa in town. We sat, ate recently fried tortilla chips, talked and laughed, my parents focusing on the fact that their baby was SIXTEEN years old and me focusing on the beautiful shiny cool snowboard in the car outside.
As a child of divorced parents, this is something to be appreciated. Splitting when I was two, each managed (for the most part) to put aside the frustration and hurt and anger that comes easily with the end of a marriage for this small smiley child that they were both pretty damn infatuated with. Photographs and accompanying stories from the time before my own memories kick in show me –in overalls and wielding a plastic hammer- following dad outside to fix the screen door, or elbows deep in recently tilled soil “helping” mom in the garden.
As the daughter of a man living 250 miles away from the small Vermont town where I grew up, this is something to be appreciated even more. I know a lot of girls who have a loving but disconnected relationship with their fathers. I know a lot of people (with divorced parents) who don’t feel particularly close to the one with whom they didn’t live. I am, quite luckily, neither of these. Since I can remember, he made the five-hour drive to Arlington and then Proctor VT for every “major” event a child could have. Soccer tournaments, year-end parent teacher conferences, plays, broken bones, birthdays, Halloween…he would leave work early, get in the car and drive north. I’d blissfully enjoy the time with him – the ice cream and hikes and treks around town to collect the largest possible amount of candy. He’d sleep on the couch or camp nearby (this is what happens with an avid hiker/camper – they’d almost always prefer it over the mid-range hotel experience).
As I got older, entering the teenage years when spending the weekend with a parent suddenly seemed like a drag rather than an adventure, the trips to NY declined to once a month. Then I went to college, signed up for everything and spent four years sleeping not nearly enough while double-majoring and it declined again, probably 4-5 times a year. Now here I am living on the other side of the world, and I probably see him once a year. The frequency of physical visits has changed, but nothing else has. In middle and high school it was for plays, soccer games, and the odd broken bone that he’d drive to Vermont. At HWS it was for award ceremonies and parents weekends that he’d make the trek to upstate NY, leaving work early to arrive in Geneva just after dark. When I decided to spend five months in Vietnam, we scheduled a motorcycle tour of the mountainous region along the Chinese border, and there he was, at my front door midday on my 21st birthday. That afternoon he took his first motorcycle lesson, and the next morning we hopped on fully-manual Minsks, glorified dirtbikes perfect for the messy muddy bumpy roads of the northern provinces. The second time I moved here, after college, we did a Mekong River delta version of our motorbike trip, with smaller lighter bikes and significantly more sun(burns). On his last full day in Ho Chi Minh City, we spent the day (the entire day) wandering the city eating street food. No restaurants allowed, unless they consisted of some sort of cart with a few stools on the sidewalk. Giant balls of rice surrounding stewed pork and deep fried in a pot of oil carried on a sholder-pole by a 70-year-old woman? Why yes! Chewy rice noodles, chili sauce, fresh herbs and who knows what else to be eaten straight out of the bag with disposable chopsticks? Yes please! (We actually circled the block to get a second helping of this delicious noodle salad) It doesn’t matter where I am; apparently…visiting is an adventure he’s game for.
Both iPhone owners, we are probably in closer contact now than any time I can remember. We can text or FaceTime pretty much whenever we like, and do it with regularity. I’ll catch him at work or on the train, we’ll chat for a few minutes and update each other on our respective days. When he took my sisters Julia and Ellie to see Paul McCartney in concert last as graduation presents, he Facetimed me and set the camera to face the stage, and I woke up to “Band on the Run” and a cheering crowd. When I realized there was a random piece of paper with information I needed in his attic somewhere (I left a portion of my belongings in NY with him when I moved to Hanoi) I called him, we chatted for a few minutes, and he texted me later to say he’d found it. It’s midday on Sunday here, and this evening when I call him to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, we’ll sit and talk, quite like we would if there wasn’t 10,000 miles separating us.
As a part of the transition to adulthood, we all eventually realize that parents are just people with their own messes and insecurities and plans and inner thoughts and passions and dreams. Maybe because to remain close we had to talk more than most teenage girls do with their fathers, I came to this realization early. He has talked me through some of life’s rougher moments and enthusiastically supported the impractical choices that have nonetheless brought me much of the happiness I’ve found. When a new project or job or research topic comes up, he takes detailed notes so he can explain to others exactly what it is I’m up to – though whether those individuals are interested in a detailed description is an entirely separate question. Even better, he shares his own life with me. By choosing to share whatever it was he was going through at the moment, we built a friendship that has only gotten better with time. We talk about life stress and yoga and shoulder surgeries and new photography projects and his work at the historical society. He calls me to tell me about weekends in Colorado, sends me links to the 360 panorama shots he’s doing around Port Washington, tells me about the big events going on in Julia and Ellie’s teenage lives.
It doesn’t hurt that my dad happens to be much much cooler than he knows. I’ve told him this before, something he responds to with a “Oh I’m the coolest! Fashion is my life!” or something equally in jest and self-deprecating. I laugh, because childhood memories of khaki shopping at generic mid-range department stores on the drive to/from VT seem to be proof that fashion is indeed not his life…but he’s still cooler than he seems to understand, probably because the things that make him awesome and “cool” come naturally and thus aren’t put on in any way for that label. He’s a photographer. He’s a photographer who used to be freelance and has spent months backpacking through the Philippines, who traveled the Great Wall with the U.S. Frisbee team. He’s a photographer who used to be freelance and who now works for a publishing company, doing photo-shoots at historical locales around the country, at fancy steakhouses and 5-star Caribbean resorts and the Playboy offices in Chicago. He started and leads an annual father-daughter trek into the White Mountains with 5-7 other pairs. He went to Machu Pichu, but instead of bussing in with the rest of the crowds, did a three-day hike up with burros and a guide, arriving at the destination just as the sun rose and hours before the busloads of tourists. He has an eternally positive outlook, something I’m happy to have inherited, and somehow even a trip to the grocery store with him as a child was fun – finding all the things we needed from memory and then checking our success against the list right before checkout. I still enjoy going to the grocery store more than I can rationally explain. He’s an adventurer, a laugher, a teller of stories, and as a warm and genuine person people gravitate to him.
Watching a relationship grow from that of parent–child to one of friendship has been one of the great pleasures of adulthood, so far. I feel lucky today and every other day to have this person in my life as both a friend and a father.