Living beyond the boundaries of streetlights, I often drive on dark country roads where fog hides in the hillsides. Sometimes only tendrils of mist reach up from the ground. More often I’m engulfed in clouds so heavy that the road is obscured. Straining to see the turns on these narrow lanes, I’m not stressed. I smile. I’m thinking of my father.
“People call this kind of heavy fog ‘pea soup,’” my father had explained to me when I was a first grader.
Although he leaned intently over the steering wheel, he easily kept up our conversation. “But it doesn’t look like soup to me,” he asked. “What would you call it?”
Beyond our windshield it looked like a white wall as our headlights reflected off the water vapor. His voice remained cheerful. He told me about being a radar man in the Navy and described the sound of foghorns.
“What we’re going to do, Honey, is blow the car horn to let other cars know we’re coming. It’ll be our foghorn. That way we can navigate our way past the fog.”
We drove on through the dark, he and I, talking and laughing and pretending we were piloting a ship through the waves. Before each bend he gave a blast on the car horn. It was delicious to me—my daddy taking part in a giant game of pretend. And better yet, engaging in the forbidden act of making noise, waking up the night to say we’re here.
My father never let on that the ride that night was dangerous or that the prattling of a little girl was hard on his concentration.
Although his own childhood was marred by the early death of his father, his mother’s chronic illness, and the hard work that comes with poverty, he overcame those limitations. He went on to a career as a public school teacher where he helped hundreds of other children find the best in themselves.
I know he had a way of making me feel important, no matter the task. On our camping trips he assigned me the job of signaling as he backed up the trailer. At home I got to help with all sorts of repairs. Once when I wanted to help him install a hot water tank he didn’t let on that an eight-year-old would be in the way. Instead he said what he really wanted was for me to read him some poetry because that would make a difficult job more pleasant. He put me safely on a stool a few feet away where I read aloud from a junior book of verse while he wrestled with the chore. Occasionally he sat back on his heels in appreciation at the end of a poem. He talked about discovering the great poets when he got to college, even described the large brown book he’d saved from a literature class for his own children to enjoy some day. When he was done, he said he couldn’t have done it without me, the same thing he always said.
He never found that big book of poetry he’d hoped to share. But my father gave me something more precious. Complete acceptance. And when a girl has that kind of love from her father she carries with her the self-assurance to transcend any boundaries.
My dad always shrugged off praise and begged his kids not to bother giving him gifts. So each year when Father’s Day rolled around I bought a blank card. Inside I wrote him a fond memory of my childhood and how that resonated in my sometimes challenging life.
This is my fourth Father’s Day without my dad. If I could I’d tell him, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Originally published on Wired.