I stepped from airport baggage claim into the steamy Richmond sun, and found a bench at curbside pick up. I hadn’t seen my father in a while, and a twinge of nerves caught in my throat.
When in a good mood, Dad is fun, larger than life in every way. While watching his favorite sitcoms, his loud and uncontrollable laughter is infectious. Also, he has an uncanny ability to seek out the best restaurants, always over-ordering for the table, and insisting on paying the bill. But like many people, my father has moody side. When in angry, he makes it uncomfortable for everyone, especially those he loves the most. We had both traveled to Richmond for my cousin’s wedding, and agreed to share a hotel room. Knowing my father was a man of extremes, I didn’t know what to expect.
Suddenly, I heard three sharp blasts of a car horn. Then three more. I stood up to investigate, just as I heard the blasts again. They were coming from a car driven by my Dad. Good mood, I detected gratefully. I knew that the obnoxious greeting was my father’s way of being playful.
I hopped into the passenger’s seat, and while exchanging side hugs over the center console, I noticed that his skin was like crepe. Getting old, I thought.
“Okay,” my father said in his characteristically domineering voice, “we don’t have to be at the rehearsal dinner until six, so I thought I’d take you on a tour of Sandston.” I knew the excursion to my father’s hometown was more for him than me, but I was curious to see the setting of his upbringing.
“When I was a kid, this road seemed to go on forever,” he said of Sandston’s sleepy main drag. He pointed to a faded drug store sign, explaining that his nanny, Irene, used to take him there for iced cream. “She wouldn’t go in with us, because she never wore shoes.”
We turned slowly down Garland Avenue, and my father told me about the “creek” he used to wade in, now a grassy ditch along the side of the road. Among the line of tiny steep-roofed houses, he pointed out the one he used to live in, where his parents divorced when he was only six years old. We rounded the corner to the school, and on to a small civil war cemetery, as my father told of being sent to Fork Union Military School at the age of ten.
For once, I let him do all the talking, and he told all the stories I’d heard before, and a few I hadn’t. Something in me sensed that my father needed to reflect on his life, and the best thing for me to do was to listen.
“I was devastated,” he commented about his father leaving. “I always wanted the kind of dad who would take me fishing, but he just wasn’t that way… After my mother sent me to Fork Union, I held the record for the most runaway attempts. But eventually, the school became like family to me.”
Later, in our hotel room, my father napped while I settled into a polite routine intended to minimize the awkwardness of the situation. Although we had visited each other many times over the years, sharing a hotel room was more chummy than we’d been in decades. But something in me sensed that my father simply needed a witness, not only to his stories, but to the advancement of his life.
Rather than armoring myself with defenses formed during rockier moments in our relationship, I opened myself to see my father as he was: a 73-year-old character with a unique story to tell. That weekend, I enjoyed his company, helping him with his buttons, brewing him coffee, researching local breakfast joints, and even plucking a particularly conspicuous white hair from his nose.
“This has been nice,” my father said after breakfast at The City Diner on our final morning together. Grateful for having had the opportunity to get to know my father in the context of his full life story, I genuinely agreed.