Lessons I Learned From My Father (Part 1)

American River,   March 2015

Self-Actualization. Sacramento River
March 2015

Last night, I hung up the phone with my father, and began to silently debrief the whirlwind conversation we’d just had. Anyone who has ever engaged in a discussion with my dad will know exactly what I’m referring to. He has this tendency to barrel his way through an issue in a no nonsense kind of manner, and then quickly switch to another idea before you’ve even have a chance to formulate a response to the first topic. Sometimes I feel like I’m performing verbal acrobats when I’m talking to him, although no manner of appropriate pause or clever interjection will ever make communication with him any smoother. It’s not that he’s insensitive or dismissive. Not in the least. It’s just that his thoughts are almost always two steps ahead of his words, so much so that he’ll literally hop up mid conversation and leave everyone rushing to finish their closing statements.

The question of “Where’d Dad go?” has become a running joke in our household, because if  family conversation or household activity pauses long enough, he’ll just quietly excuse himself to a more productive venture. Sounds peculiar, I know. But I promise you, his loved ones find it one of his most endearing quirks.

I used to be embarrassed of my dad. In retrospect, I see that it’s normal for children to be ashamed of their parents at one point or another as they are growing up. But my embarrassment had less to do with who he was, as it did with how I feared his uniqueness would reflect upon me, especially growing up in a neighborhood that had yet to know diversity.

My childhood was spent in a suburban utopia, complete with wide tree-lined streets, top-notch public schools, and neighbors that brought homemade cookies each year during Christmas time. My parents sacrificed many things to ensure that my sisters and I were raised in the neighborhood that we grew up in. I see that now. We often have gain clarity  as seasoned adults that we lack as carefree youth.

I was embarrassed of our old LTD cars, and dad’s hobby of tinkering with them incessantly. And I’m not talking about souping them up, lowrider fashion. I’m talking about FIXING them. They were constantly breaking down, and dad would patiently put them back together, garage door open, tools strewn across the driveway for the world to see.  “Why can’t you just buy something NEW?!” I’d complain, glancing enviously at the shiny station wagon my classmate was dropped to school in. But dad wasn’t about new. Nope. In fact one of my earliest memories is of our weekend trips to thrift stores, where my sisters and I happily pick out bags of mismatched toys from the 99 cent bin. That is until I was old enough to realize that my classmates ruthlessly bullied any kid that dared to wear threads bought at a second-hand store (This was all long before hipsters & Macklemore made thrift store shopping a trendy activity).

What I didn’t understand then, was that my dad’s own childhood profoundly impacted the way he operated as an adult. Though Sacramento was a long way from the dingy garage he lived in in East L.A., and even farther yet from the Texas cotton fields he played in as the toddler son of a migrant farm worker, he brought the principles of poverty with him even as he purchased his first home in Sacramento’s coveted Pocket area. Principle 1: Don’t buy new if you don’t have to.

I didn’t understand a lot of things back then. Like the fact that my dad was right when he told me to be proud of my beautiful brown skin, even as some of my peers were poking fun of my pigment and my surname. I couldn’t comprehend why my parents took it so seriously when, later, I reported that there was a severe bullying problem going on in the upper-grade classrooms of my elementary school. A problem that had all the tell-tale ugliness of race and class discrimination. When my dad insisted upon meeting with the teachers to bring the issues to light, I remember wondering if my folks were overreacting.

Back then I couldn’t make sense of why my father felt the need to repeatedly recount to my sisters and I, the lessons he’d learned as a young boy in East L.A. And why his standards for us were so high, in regards to both education and personal conduct. Or how he’d often sit at the dinner table after a full day’s work, starring into space at some far away memory that we were not a part of. On those nights, sometimes I’d catch glimpse of a tear sliding down his cheek. I didn’t understand that either.

A few weeks ago, my dad celebrated another birthday. He talked about the accomplishments in his life, as well as the struggles. And, like always, he ended the momentary bout of reminiscing on a high note with an optimistic tribute to all the blessings in our lives.

My dad has never been one to purchase frivolous things. New cars, designer clothes, custom accessories…they aren’t alluring in his eyes. Because of that, he isn’t much of a gift giver, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Birthdays and events roll around and it’s likely that he won’t go out of his way to buy something just for the sake of marking the occasion. Someone asked me recently if I’ve held onto any of the jewelry my dad bought me as a child. I laughed.

Dad never bought me jewelry, but he’s decorated my life with a thousand pearls of wisdom. I wear them proudly every day, head held high and the confidence  of knowing that I am equipped with the skills needed to gracefully navigate through life and all of it’s thrilling complexity.

Eighteen.

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Elijah,

I promise you I won’t launch into a big sappy monologue, because I know how that bugs you. Also, I certainly don’t intend on writing you a letter on each and every anniversary of your earthly debut. This is your last public birthday post (I reserve the right to pen a few sentimental words every now and then in years to come, but I’m sure you and your siblings should be used to “mom’s birthday musings” by now).

The purpose of this letter, is to formally write down an account that I’ve told many, many times aloud but as of today, have yet to immortalize through written word. It is the story of how I chose your name.

When I was about 3 months pregnant with you, and just beginning to remerge from the hell that was hyperemesis gravidarum (aka severe morning sickness), I had a vivid dream.

Life during that time, was odd. Our family was going through some difficult times, completely independent of our circumstances. Things were challenging- for everyone. I felt like I was in the eye of a storm…watching all the chaos around me, yet grounded in a sort of calm certainty. I knew we were on the path we were meant to be on.

Anyway, one night, I dreamt I was at Nana & Tata’s house. The mood was still, almost too still, in the surreal sort of fashion that only comes in dreams. I walked into the back hallway toward the bedroom, and paused outside the door. There was an unearthly light radiating from the window facing the backyard. It brightened the entire room…Nana’s bedspread, the wooden dresser, the crucifix on the wall…all of it was illuminated in a glow that I can only describe as warmth. I walked into the room. And there you were. 

At the time, I didn’t even know you were going to be a boy. I didn’t know you at all. But in my dream, there you were…a boy. A child. You extended your arms toward me. I tried to remember every detail of your face at that moment. Your eyes, nose, mouth…

Your mouth. It was upturned in the sweetest smile. You opened it to speak….and this is what you said:

“I have come to save my people.”

I woke up.

Upon waking, I remember being filled with an incredible peace. The kind that comes with knowing that everything is going to be alright.

I knew, from that moment on, that you were going to be a boy. There was something else I knew: That when you mentioned “your people,” you were referring to your family. Long story short…your birth did save us. Your presence in our family healed many rifts. It brought us together in the ways that only a child can. You reminded us of what matters.

So what’s this got to do with your name? Well…upon waking from that prophetic dream, we knew you needed an equally fitting name. And so, it was decided. Elijah.

A simple story really, but significant to me. Just as all our moments together have been simple, really…but they all add up to an incredibly significant life.

Yesterday, I stayed up all night with you following your birth, my face against your tiny face, amazed that we were finally breathing the same air. Yesterday, you were clinging to my leg as we walked into new places together. My little sidekick. Yesterday, your nose was pressed up against the glass window of the preschool, watching a hail storm with the wonder of a small child. I stood on the walkway for a moment in the rain, and waved at you. Yesterday, you giggled in delight when I showed you that if you stir syrup into warm milk, you can make hot chocolate….you fell asleep on my lap, stuffed animal tucked under one arm, hand in my hair. Yesterday, you skated away from me at open house to join your peers, only glancing back to tell me you’d meet me in the parking lot when the festivities were over. Yesterday, I walked up to DMV with you so that you could obtain your license, and your newfound freedom. Yesterday, you texted me late at night to tell me not to wait up. I did anyway…  

Yesterday, you fell in love. Yesterday, you planned a post-graduation trip with your buddies, sans adults. Yesterday you applied for colleges, some of which are far away from this little house you call home.

Today, you are 18.

I am proud. I am honored. I’m in awe.

And because I feel a major bout of sappiness coming on, I’m going to leave you with the words of a book that we’ve read together many times. A perfectly reasonable book to revisit on a day like this. A book, called Someday….

One day I counted your fingers and kissed each one. 
One day the first snowflakes fell, and I held you up and watched them melt on your baby skin.
One day we crossed the street, and you held my hand tight. 
Then, you were my baby, and now you are my child.
Sometimes, when you sleep, I watch you dream, and I dream too…
That someday you will dive into the cool, clear water of a lake. 
Someday you will walk into a deep wood. 
Someday your eyes will be filled with a joy so deep that they shine. 
Someday you will run so fast and so far your heart will feel like fire. 
Someday you will swing high – so high, higher than you ever dared to swing.
Someday you will hear something so sad that you will fold up with sorrow. 
Someday you will call a song to the wind, and the wind will carry your song away. 
Someday I will stand on this porch and watch your arms waving to me until I no longer see you. 
Someday you will look at this house and wonder how something that feels so big can look so small. 
Someday you will feel a small weight against your strong back. 
Someday I will watch you brushing your child’s hair. 
Someday, a long time from now, your own hair will glow silver in the sun. 
And when that day comes, love, you will remember me. 

– alison mcghee

Happy 18th Birthday, son.

Love, Mom