My Dad, The Stranger

I just spent 45 minutes on the phone with my dad. That’s got to be some sort of record. Neither one of us is good on the phone, because neither one of us is especially chatty. My mother and sister could spend hours on the phone discussing nothing, but not me and my dad. We’re both taciturn and only speak what matters. We don’t chit-chat.

In many ways, my father and I are strangers to each other. Even in 45 minutes of conversation, we didn’t really say much of import. We talked about dogs and fishing and building things. We talked about health and weather and lighthouses and fish flies. We have never talked about either of our pasts.

I don’t know much about my dad other than some anecdotes. I know that his mother was pregnant with him when they came to this country from Finland. I know that he was the first in that family to be born in the United States. His older sister died a few years ago and we didn’t even find out until recently. His father was even less talkative than he was. I can’t imagine them interacting at all. They must have had even more strained conversations than we do.

My dad served in the army in Korea and then was National Ski Patrol and half owner of a ski resort when he met my mom, the ski bunny. She was thirteen years his junior and still a teenager, nineteen years old, when they got married. He was 42 years old when I was born. The ski resort went under due to lack of snow one year and because his partner won the lottery, moved to Hawaii and left my dad with all the debt. As out of a movie as it sounds, that’s the truth.

He got a job as a lithographer printing high-end art prints, where he stayed until he retired. He worked a lot. For most of my childhood, he worked nights so I rarely saw him at all. During the summers, the rest of the family went to the hunting cottage on the lake, four and a half hours away, for the entire summer, while my dad stayed and worked. He came up on weekends and for his two-week vacation and that’s all I saw of him through my childhood.

He wasn’t there to protect me from the monster who dragged me out of bed at night. He just wasn’t there.

My father was like a ghost. He was not an important part of my life. He was rarely there. I still don’t know who he is. What makes him tick? What does he think? I don’t really know.

I used to harbor a lot of anger towards him for his absence. Some kids I knew had dads who were there. They showed up at school events. They took them places. Their fathers did things with them. They would put their sons and daughters on their shoulders and carry them around. I don’t remember my father ever giving me a hug.

While words and affection were just not his thing, he did teach us things though. He taught us how to build things. He showed us how to fish, how to build the break wall, how to use a table saw the right way. He taught us everything he knew and he knew a lot. My dad is a craftsman. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Everything he ever built is solid and sturdy. It will last for generations.

I still can hear the pattern of his hammer. One light hit, two hard ones. Tha-THUNK-THUNK. Every time. Every time, that nail went in straight and true. My sister and I have skills because of him. We can build. We can fix. We know how and that is irreplaceable.

My father is typically Finnish like me. We have a lot in common. We’re both pragmatic, disinclined to talk for the sake of talking, and we both thrive on coffee. We’re both quietly, wryly funny. We laugh a lot. We find humor in everything. We look alike. We have the same nose and lips. We have the same hair. He has blue eyes; I have green.

My dad wasn’t a bad person. He meant well. Once he had an inkling of what was going on in my bedroom late at night, he almost beat that monster to death. He kicked him out of the house post-haste. I don’t remember that at all. My sister told me that recently. While I was initially thrilled that my dad’s anger, a rarely seen force of nature, had been directed at the monster, my next thought was but, if he knew, why didn’t we ever get help? If he knew, why was that monster never prosecuted? Why did my sister and I never get any counseling? His protection only went so far.

I have no doubt that my father loves me. I have no doubt that, if I was ever in danger, he would do anything in his power to stop it. He would give his life for me. I know this without him ever saying it. There is nothing more powerful on this earth than my father’s protection. And there is nothing more dangerous than to make him an enemy.

His anger, though as rare as Haley’s Comet, is not something you ever want to be on the receiving end of. I never have been. My father’s anger in my lifetime has only been used towards those who would harm his family, never his family itself. I have only seen my father’s anger a handful of times in my life and it is positively fearsome to behold. It makes you shake in your boots even if it’s not directed at you. Just being within a mile of it causes the air to shift and the sky to turn a sickly shade of green, like watching a tornado form.

While my dad isn’t a stranger, I still don’t really know him. I can’t imagine ever calling him daddy. He’s never been my daddy; he’s always been my dad. He’s not the greatest dad in the world, but he’s certainly not the worst. He never beat me. He taught me things. He never demeaned me. He always supported whatever I wanted to do, even if unwillingly. I know that he cares. That’s about the best you can do.