On the surface, one might think my dad and I were not much alike. I’m liberal; he was conservative. I always vote Democrat; he never voted a straight ticket in his life. I saw him cry maybe three or four times in 46 years. I sometimes cry over a dog food commercial or when the fading sunlight catches my child’s face just right, all in the same day. He was rational and logical and a planner. I tend to be impulsive and approach life with the thought of, Why not? I’ll figure out a plan B later. I anger easily and have little patience. My dad demonstrated patience every day of his life — whether teaching a bunch of loud-mouthed eighth-graders or dealing with three daughters arguing over who needs the bathroom next.
I think because of those differences, he didn’t really know what to do with me. He shook his head in subtle disbelief — a lot — when I was around. I was the one who fell out of line. I moved away. I didn’t listen to advice (much). I had no interest in cattle ranching. I’d stay up all night reading when he’d told me, “lights out,” five times before. I wore socks with holes in them so I could afford to travel. I ate Cheetos and drank Dr Pepper for breakfast if the mood hit me. I mowed circles in the yard versus straight lines like he taught me. I chose to live where temps hit 50 below and bears hang out by the front door. Did I mention he shook his head a lot around me?
In fact, my very first memory at age 3 or so is of my dad shaking his head at me, grinning, as I tried to climb over a sagging barbwire fence. He waited to see if I could do it on my own, then quickly picked me up and over when my shoe caught the top wire.
Now that he’s gone, I miss that feeling so much, physically and metaphorically.
But something happened at his funeral that makes me think maybe we weren’t as different as I thought.
After he retired from teaching, my dad worked in my hometown county in Texas helping the area’s veterans and their families get access to benefits they might be eligible for through the VA. His office was in the county courthouse, across the street from the fire station. One of the firefighters came up to me at the funeral to tell me how much he enjoyed getting a wave from Dad in the mornings.
Then he asked me if I knew Dad was trying to help a homeless vet who slept down by the river and who hung out near the station some days. He said my dad would watch for the guy and bring over forms for him to complete. Several times, same forms. Tried to help him fill them out right there in front of the station. Told him about resources. The firefighter friend said my dad would always say, “I’m working on it!” when asked about the man who wandered around town, obviously needing services but not trusting anyone to help him.
I was so proud to hear this story. But it didn’t really surprise me. My dad was the kind of man who would stop on the side of the road to fix someone’s flat or run into a neighbor’s burning stable to get horses to safety.
But hearing the story did make me feel closer to him. Because my husband and son and I, every fall, put together a warm blanket and pajama drive for the homeless folks who stay in Denver shelters as winter moves in. It’s gotten really big over the years, and it’s something we look forward to all year. Last year, we collected nearly a thousand blankets alone. Now, knowing my dad had a soft spot for a homeless vet in my hometown … makes what we do even more meaningful.
I’m sure we had other things in common, too. The love of animals. A strong work ethic. Good books. Credence Clearwater Revival. Stubbornness when pushed.
But the next time I’m home, I just may try to find that homeless man. Maybe I could at least bring him a home-cooked meal or some clean clothes.
I don’t think my dad would shake his head at that.