Today is my dad's birthday. When my mom told me how many candles would be on the cake, I thought, That can't be right. I still think of my parents as being in their fifties. They seem ageless in a lot of ways. Probably because they don't really live their lives like people who I generally imagine are eligible for AARP and the senior discount at the movies and the local seafood restaurant.
Of the thirty five years I've been on this earth, my parents have spent every single one teaching me things, whether they knew it or not. I can't say I spent all thirty five years listening, and they were awfully understanding of that. But as I think back, remembering how naive I was at certain points in my life, and remember those bursts where I experienced massive paradigm shifts (buying a house, realizing what the title "homeowner" actually means), I see a pattern: those moments didn't always involve my parents, but my actions were the direct result of things my parents taught me, and experiences that I had because of them.
For about ten years, somewhere between age 16-26 for me, my dad worked overseas. When I told a friend that once, his eyebrows scrunched up in this particularly woeful way, and he said, "What was that like for you?" He took it to mean Dad was "absent" in some way, and was prepared to hear a sad story. I have to admit though, I never in those years interpreted this as "absent." Sure, Dad was physically far away. Yes, I missed him. It was hard making phone calls that bounced through military bases, ran along the wires of pay phones and skipped over satellites before landing to the tiny island where he was. I couldn't have articulated this when I was in my early twenties, and really it just occurred to me recently, while reading this terribly insightful book, Mating in Captivity--but I always felt like Dad was with me, no matter how many nautical miles separated us, because of the parts of him I carried with me. Now I've come to understand that that's why it doesn't often bother me to be far from home, and far from my family. Because we're so close, and because they are so deftly woven into the way that I live, I feel like they are always with me. Every day. I don't see them or talk to them every day, but they are with me in the ways I view the world, the ways I talk to people, the meals I cook, the wacky expressions I use.
In truth, some things that Dad has taught me became so integrated into my life that I sometimes forget they are things I had to learn--often the hard way. The list of things he taught me is long--but here are a few that stick with me:
1. When cleaning fish, don't leave them unattended--the cat will always run away with one.
2. That rule about saving 20% of your paycheck? Turns out to be a pretty good rule. It's even better if you can put it in a stock like Marvel or Apple (before they shoot up 400%).
3. Always make sure you have a quarter tank of gas in the car. Always. Especially when you are driving across Lake Ponchartrain.
4. Fish are most delicious when you catch them yourself. With your dad, on a sunny day in June, drifting on a boat in a pond that no one else comes to.
5. Then again, it doesn't matter if you don't catch anything at all.
6. When you find that your temper is flaring in that way that makes you hit the offensive object with a hammer, you should probably take a little break and come back to it later. That beam/screen door/floorboard isn't going anywhere.
7. Geographic distance is not the barrier that you think it is.
8. Black snakes are good friends to have around the house. It's best that you keep a respectful distance and routinely praise their varmint-eating practices.
9. Nothing says "I love you" like handwritten letters that travel across oceans.
10. Baked goods seal the deal. Especially cakes.
11. A Louisville slugger has lots of practical purposes, most of which have nothing to do with baseball. It's good to keep one under the bed.
12. There's nothing wrong with being a tomboy. In fact, it will get you farther than you think.
13. The best food in the world comes straight from your own garden. If you have a black thumb, make some friends who know this, too.
14. The "check engine" light really doesn't mean anything. The 5,000 mile check-up means everything.
15. If you find yourself being charged by a bull, you should not shoot it unless you want to repair the fence.
16. Not all people are vocal and outgoing and overly expressive (like perhaps you are). This does not mean that they don't like you, or respect you, or love you deeply.
17. You can do anything you want with your life. The time is yours to spend in the ways you wish.
18. People will surprise you. Daily. (See #16).
19. Do not, under any circumstances, put 50 "puff-out proof" candles on a cake…unless you want to meet the fire department.
20. People are the most important thing. Always.