Sunday, June 19, 2011


My dad has never received a store-bought Father's Day or birthday card from me. He prefers the cards I draw for him, each occasion's illustration depicting our current in-joke. (This year's showed him cheering on his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates, a word balloon over his cap-covered head stating "Look! They're making a COMEBACK!!")
My mom named me "Valerie" because it means "strong one," and Dad liked the name because it was actress Valerie Bertinelli's and he thought she was cute.
His days off when I was a kid were Thursdays and Sundays, and he would always take me to the public library after school on Thursdays and proudly announce to my mom the number of books I'd checked out when we'd arrived home with my stash for the week.

When I was into gymnastics as a kid but he and Mom couldn't afford lessons, he built me a balance beam out of wood and leftover blue living room carpet. I would run and tumble in the backyard while he worked in his garden, and I would breathlessly ask him after each move, "What did you think of that?? If you had to give it a score from 1-10 and 10's the best, what would you give it???" He too liked gymnast Mary Lou Retton for her spunk and strength, and when a certain curly-haired figure skater became popular in the 1980s just as I was getting into roller skating, he noted that I resembled her and started calling me "Debi Thomas."

He was the one who tried to comfort me when I missed the New Kids on the Block concert when I was 12, and I don't remember how young I was when his appreciation of Neil Young became my own.  Young's "Heart of Gold" always reminds me of him, as do the songs "It's Baby's First Christmas" and "Blue Christmas" sung Elvis-style. I think of Dad as quiet and reserved, but he'll also be silly--he sings a few lines of those songs over the holidays--and in this way, I take after him him. (A willingness to dance in public is, alas, not something we share. My brothers agreed that the highlight of my older brother's 2002 wedding was watching my dad gleefully do the "Macarena" at evening's end. )

When I was 24 and my soon-to-be first boyfriend brought me flowers at my workplace, Dad smiled while I bashfully told him and Mom about it and just said, "Ohhh, Dolly Donuts," a nickname he has had for me since the day I was born. He also calls me "M&M Eyes." 

Every Sunday my miserably homesick freshman year of college, he would write me a long letter telling me of the week's news and ending with Dad-isms like "Pacienza, Val!" a reminder to be patient that his own grandmother would exclaim in times of stress. He sent me and my husband a letter just last week that teased Mike about possibly wanting to change favorite baseball teams from the Yankees to the Pirates and ended with the words "You two take good care of each other." When we were at the flea market together last month, Dad helped me get my beloved antique green table and chair set loaded into the car and back home and also bought an Alex Rodriguez baseball card for me to bring back for Mike.

He has always encouraged me in my efforts at running and writing, two activities that have meant a lot to him in his own life, as well. The past few years, as I have kept up with the running more seriously than in previous attempts, he has bought me running shoes for my birthday. I regret that I was not into running while Dad was still a runner.  Whenever I mention a writing project, his eyes twinkle and he quotes "John-Boy Walton's" dad's line from the Christmas movie The Homecoming: "I don't know much about the writin' trade, Son. But if you're going to take it up, you'll have to give it your best."

He taught me how to fish and drive, tried but did not succeed at teaching me how to swim, and made up bedtime stories for me about a mischievous pig he called "JoJo." After I'd mentioned how I loved rhubarb and pestered him to plant some the next year, he spent that season trading lettuce from his own garden for rhubarb from an elderly neighbor's for me.  Dad had never met this person before.  He had noticed a garden along his morning walk that had a big rhubarb plant growing in it, and on his next walk, Dad stopped at that house with a bag of lettuce from his garden in his arms, explaining to the man who came to the door that he'd be willing to trade him for some rhubarb for his daughter.

On my visits home since my last move in 2007, Dad and I have watched The Muppet's Christmas Carol together, made a trip to a cemetery to find my great-grandmother's headstone, and played cards

Once when I was a little kid, Dad held up his can of Genesee-brand beer with his thumb covering the last two letters and told me it was named "Gene's" beer after him, and I believed him. (Mike sighed when I admitted this today.) When I was maybe five years old, I was asking my parents about a rock we, for some reason, had in the living room, and Dad told me it was a moon rock, and I believed that too. I remember thinking, "Well, he was in the Air Force, so I guess. . . ." Air Force? Astronaut? What did I know?! He told me when I was 18 not to be so gullible, worried when I moved to New York City at the age of 23, and as someone who had once wanted to become a Spanish teacher, before Vietnam and then married-with-children life unfolded for him, he cheered me on when I moved to Baltimore to teach Spanish in one of the city's public schools when I was 24.
When I called tonight to wish him a happy Father's Day, Dad said he'd cooked a spaghetti dinner for the rest of my family today, was watching a ball game on TV, and had already read most of the book I'd mailed him as one of his presents last week. And he enjoyed my handmade card as always, he said. I will see him in two weeks when I go home for my younger brother's wedding. His shy daughter will not be joining him in the Macarena that evening, but I'm sure the visit will somehow give me fodder for his August birthday card.


FlowerLady said...

Oh Val ~ You are so blessed to have had such a loving father your whole growing up life and now as an adult. That was a lovely tribute to him.


Songbird said...

Blessings to you and your dad.

Carol said...

Dads are wonderful, aren't they? I got to spend the afternoon with mine and with his older brother who came up to visit for the day. It was marvelous.

Draffin Bears said...

Hi Val,

What happy memories you have growing up and all the lovely photographs to enjoy.
Lovely tribute to your Dad and aren't the home made cards the very best, they mean so much more than the store bought cards.

Happy week

Cheeze said...

A wonderful tribute that I hope, one day, my children will be able to do similar "justice" with to me! What love...what wonderful love to have in your life...the memories... You've brought me to tears .. Thank you.

Val said...

Thank you all. :)

DreamgirlLisa said...

Oh Val, what a lovely post and dedication to your dad. You are truly blessed to have that kind of wonderful relationship with him. He sounds like a wonderful man.
on a funny side note, I used to ice skate with Debi Thomas in Redwood City CA at the rink there. I was an ice skater when I was young and I actually had the same coach for a while that she had when she was in the Olympics. I also skated with Brian Boitano occasionally, they are both from Northern CA. I was not very competitive by nature and eventually told mom I didn't want to do it anymore.

Val said...

How neat, Lisa! They both seem like down-to-earth and nice people too. :) And learning to ice skate is on my list of goals. :)

Wish on a Whisker said...

These pictures are priceless. ~Mandy

Val said...

Thank you, Mandy. They sure are.