Happy birthday R.W.

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If he had lived, my father would turn 70 years old today.

He grew up on a soybean farm in Oregon, Ohio. I’ve only been to the farm a few times in my life. The house was dark and serious and very different from our small suburban home in ‘the city.’ It had dark wood floors, a black and white kitchen, and a wide wooden staircase leading to small bedrooms upstairs. Sometimes my sister and I would go to the attic, where boxes of toys from another era were neatly stored. A breeze blew through open windows. At night, you could hear trains in the distance. The house had a fruit cellar and several outbuildings with cracked windows. It smelled damp and earthy in the big, cavernous barn. There are, or were, lots of tractors, and I loved driving the little green John Deere. Grandma Peach grew big pink roses and would send us off after visits with rhubarb and homemade biscuits. Our hands and feet would be dusty from playing in the bin of beige soybeans.

His only brother still lives in their childhood home.

My dad had dark hair and a beard, and didn’t tan. He had light eyes, and he could do tricks like make them cross inward then outward. I always assumed he learned that in optometry school. He always had motorcycles and I thought that’s what would get him in the end. Instead, it was his heart.

He wasn’t great with kids. But I think he would have enjoyed his grandkids – how smart they are, their sophisticated senses of humor.

My dad loved The Far Side cartoon. He chewed Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and didn’t wear cologne. He wasn’t the type of dad who drank manhattans or scotch. He liked cheap beer and red wine. We usually gave him ties as gifts; he wore ties to work every day.

He moved out when I was 5 years old, my sister 2. Frankly, the house didn’t seem that much different. He never remarried. I always felt bad that he spent holidays alone. I know now that he had friends, more of a life than I ever realized.

One time he picked me up from indoor swim classes when I was 7 or so. The place was humid and reeked of chlorine. Even in my memory, the facility has a sickly green cast. It was the dead of winter and we went to my favorite place for dinner, Long John Silver’s. We liked their clam chowder. My wet hair hung in ropy strands, my skin tight and dry from the pool.

In most of my memories of my dad, we are in a restaurant or at the movies.

In his house across town from us, he almost never had the air conditioning on, a preference I share now.

He liked watching tennis. Seems like McEnroe and Connors were always on his TV. He would love Federer now.

He liked cats and always had a few. Supposedly, he liked German chocolate cake, which we served at his memorial. He liked to cook but I only remember him making ham and cheese omelets with Cheez Whiz. In the summer, he made gazpacho in a big white painter’s bucket. He liked watching Siskel and Ebert on Sundays, and going to the movies at Studio 35 and the Drexel. He owned Never Cry WolfThe Bear and Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion on VHS.

He was blunt and never hesitated to correct people, something I try never to do because I saw how much it put people off.

The one time he visited me in L.A., he ate at a second-rate sushi buffet in Santa Monica every day for lunch. Of all the places… I didn’t take off work while he was there, and I wasn’t a very good host. That visit was kind of a disaster. One night, I took him to Frank & Musso’s, a famous restaurant in Hollywood. Another night, I took him to the Seven Years in Tibet premiere.

He mowed on weekends wearing white cutoffs and a sleeveless white shirt. It seemed like whenever I called or visited on weekends, he was mowing, getting ready to mow, or just getting done mowing.

He was a champion pool player. Sometimes when he had us kids on weekends, he would take us to smoky pool halls in the middle of the afternoon. He eventually gave up this hobby. He couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke, he said. In the later years, he was really into ballroom dancing and would often go to places like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand restaurant for their dance nights.

His business cards said “The Eye Guy” and had a big eye on them. He owned his optometry practice and usually didn’t schedule patients until after 9 a.m. He liked to stay up late, going out to dinner most nights to artsy places in German Village or the Short North or downtown. He would always order coffee at the end. “Only if it’s fresh,” he would say to the server. My sister and I would be so embarrassed by his pickiness.

His favorite book was Les Miserables. His favorite joke was “What’s the last thing that went through the fly’s mind before he hit the windshield?” “His ass.”

His house was filled with piles and piles of old Columbus Monthly magazines. “He wanted so badly to get organized,” his friend Charlene said when we let ourselves into his house the night he died, my sister and I speechlessly surveying the mess.

My sister and I didn’t grow up with him, really, and affection didn’t flow easily. The last time we saw him, it was a cold night in March 2002. We hugged goodbye on the street after having dinner at Strada World Cuisine then got in our separate cars.

A few weeks later, my sister told me a story my dad’s secretaries had relayed to her. He had come into the office one recent morning telling them what a great date he had had the night before. ‘Who was your date with?’ they asked. ‘My daughters!’ he said.

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One thought on “Happy birthday R.W.

  1. Hmm, I left a comment last week but I guess it didn’t post. Good job, sis! He would be so proud of you! I think you captured Dad in a beautiful, heartbreakingly honest way. For better or worse, he was our Dad. I miss him.

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