On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
— Scouts’ Oath
— Scouts’ Motto
I do my father a disservice by drawing attention to him, this I know at the outset. So this may be a short post, depending on how long it takes to say as little as possible about the fact that we celebrated his 80th birthday last Saturday. I get the feelilng from old photographs (many of which were on display on a table at the entrance to the church multipurpose room where we had gathered only last month to celebrate his sister-in-law’s 100th) that my dad had something of a hambone in him when he was younger, but for the nearly half-century I have known him he has not been one to seek the limelight.
We his family and his friends are exceedingly glad that he was here to be celebrated Saturday. He comes into his 81st year beset by breathing difficulties that oblige him to be always within a few yards of a tank of oxygen, which he inhales through a nose-tube. This and the wheelchair (because it exhausts him even to walk) make him perhaps even less eager to be the center of attention than he would be anyway, though he does not say this, and in the tradition of his WASP heritage he does not complain very loudly or very often about the wheelchair or the oxygen tube, which he often holds coiled up like a cowboy’s lariat so that he can lend out slack when he walks from his chair in the living room to the breakfast nook, and not at all about the curtailment of his once-favorite activities — dancing with Mom, rebuilding pianos, walking the trails at Mount Rainier. And since he has lived well past the five years he was “given” when doctors discovered a slow form of pancreatic cancer eating at his internal organs, he actually considers himself lucky. Indeed, it is not the cancer that troubles him now — it has all but receded with the adminstration of annoying but non-invasive treatments — but the shortness of breath caused by emphyzema. The lack of breath is the only thing that he seems willing to own as a tribulation.
Dear friends drove long distances on the freeway and crossed large bodies of water to be present for Dad’s celebration, and some of these folks are people for whom travel is a discomfort or even a hardship. My Mom’s brother and his wife, Uncle Jack and Aunt Lil, flew out from what Jack calls “the right coast” for the occasion (both my parents are from Baltimore, Maryland), and my brother Ben brought his family down from Alaska. Two of Ben’s children, the twins Emily and Jack (yes, named for his great-uncle) were also celebrating their birthday that day (Dad’s was a few weeks ago, theirs was that very day), and so there were several cakes and we sang multiple renditions of Happy Birthday.
Dad brought his Boy Scout sash with him. He’s very proud of the fact that he made Eagle Scout back in the day. I have only seen this accessory a handful of times — maybe fewer than five — but it means a lot to him and it has obviously been kept rolled up or folded in a safe place throughout my entire life. As I googled the Scouts’ code of honor online (that’s a sad picture, isn’t it?) it became clear to me that my father has never stopped being an Eagle Scout. The Scouts’ Law describes my dad to a fare-thee-well.
What meant even more to him was that several people attended his party from “the old neighborhood”, the one in south Bellevue where he and Mom raised us kids. I spent most of the event flitting around from one table to another saying hello to people I hadn’t seen in years but whom I had known, or rather who have known me, since I was two days old. And because my century-old aunt Evelyn was able to attend — this had not necessarily been a certainty — brother Ben got to see her at last. He was not able to be here for her do last month.
Mara was once again happy to spend time with her Alaska cousins, who despite turning eight years old are near enough to her own age as to be a new kind of cousin in her mind (all but one of her “adult” cousins on my side were also present). Mara has quickly bonded with Jack and Em, especially Emily. They spent the afternoon playing together and eating cake.
In my father’s lifetime, American society has evolved from an essentially agrarian world to a digital one, in many ways a virtual one. When he was born, cities were surrounded by and supplied by farms and most people in America still lived in the countryside. I think about this all the time, what has changed, what has been lost. In some respects, the America I long for is one that I don’t really remember but that he does. People stayed put more and were more interdependent on one another, community supplied what has been replaced by money now. Planned obsolescence was unheard of and would have been regarded as the insanity that it is, and things made were made with pride and with the intent that they should last as long as possible. If my dad has ever reflected on the remarkable transformation of the world he has lived in for 80 years he has not done so out loud, nor is he a glass-half-empty man like myself. My dad has cheerfully accommodated the plastics and high tech polymers and fabrics that have emerged and taken over the world once made of iron, tin, aluminum and wood, meanwhile simultaneously keeping his own love of more traditional materials alive in his piano rebuilding work.
I think one word that fairly describes my dad’s outlook on the world is acceptance. That alone wins him not only my highest admiration, but also a measure of vexation. More than any other, this is the man whom I am more likely to resemble in all ways as time goes by, no matter what I do. I am filling the space where he walked, the stages his face has gone through, the shape of his body — my brother saw a recent photo of me and said I even stand like him. But other than the fact that he values, still values, the mores listed in the boy scout’s code — being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent — I know him so little. More than anything I want to know who my father is and it is mainly by what we are passionate about that we are known. His passions he has held close to the vest, and that’s just how it is. He is, after all, descended of English and German farmers.
I do know that he considers himself to be a lucky man in more ways than not, and that’s a posture in which I am happy to follow him.
Dad sat in a high-backed chair like an old and well-loved king, and because so many people wanted a chance to talk with him he ended up clutching the same half sandwich in his left hand for about an hour. He held up well, though, and afterwards a small subset of family and close friends retired to my folks’ house in Issaquah to finish off whatever cold-cuts didn’t get eaten at the party and to prolong the togetherness before plane flights the next day.