By Al Albers
It was a Saturday morning. My daughter and I were eating breakfast at a local restaurant when she suddenly looked towards the front door.
“Is something wrong?” I whispered.
“No, everything is fine,” she replied. “The restaurant is starting to fill up and people now have to wait for an empty table or booth.”
“Hungry folks,” I answered. “Besides, the buffet selection is terrific and you can’t beat the price. It’s a win-win deal for everyone.”
It was then that I noticed a family about to be seated: a father and his two young girls. The girls were clad in their Sunday dresses; their long brown hair neatly pulled back in a pony tail and tied with a red ribbon. Their father wore a freshly laundered button-down shirt and khaki pants. He was about 35, but his weather-beaten facial features and the strands of gray that were seamlessly mixed in his black hair made him look older.
I tried to be inconspicuous and not blatantly stare as they followed the hostess to the back part of the room. The girls were visibly excited – they held hands and were quietly talking – as they walked down the aisle with Dad following right behind. A smile inched across my face. You didn’t have to be a father to know he was proud of his children; you knew it instinctively.
“Dad, do you….”
I drifted off into space. My own recollections of my father, deceased since 1985, ran through my head.
To a young boy, a father is a strange and powerful man with uncanny powers enabling him to do and know all things. Amazing things, like putting a bicycle chain back on, solving addition and subtraction problems that seem unsolvable, even spelling the hardest words.
“Dad. Hello. A penny for your thoughts.”
“Oh, sorry. Seeing those two girls with their father got me thinking about my Dad,” I replied.
“Tell me what you were thinking.”
I paused a moment to sip my coffee.
“For my seventh birthday, my father bought me a bicycle. I distinctly remember the occasion because we had to walk it home; I didn’t know how to balance myself. That afternoon, we went to the back yard of the apartment building where we lived. He said, ‘I’ll ride it first to show you how easy it is.’ It was funny watching him ride back and forth because his legs were too big for the bike; the tires were only 20 inches. When he stopped, it was my turn. I got on and while he held the back of the seat to help me balance, I pedaled off. He kept encouraging me saying, ‘You’re doing fine, son. Keep going.’ When I turned my head to talk to him, I noticed he was no longer there. ‘Turn the bike around, son,’ he hollered. I was about 15 feet from a wall. Even if he ran, it wouldn’t have made a difference; I hit it.”
“What happened after that?”
“I told him that I wanted to try again, but this time not to let go of the seat. Off we went. After riding back and forth for a few minutes, he let go and kept running alongside me – just in case. Once he felt confident that I could balance, pedal and steer, he stopped running. Afternoons were never the same after that day.”
The relationship between a father and son changes over time. Like all things, it grows and it can succeed or fail. As time passed, there were rules to learn: Always do your best; and Do it now. However, the most important one was: Don’t lie.
“My graduation from the eighth grade was a proud moment for him. In my autograph book he wrote, ‘Son remember, we had six honest helpers to teach us what was new. Their names were WHERE and WHAT and WHEN, and WHY and HOW and WHO. Knowledge is never final.’ A wise man, my father, even though he had little education.
“My teenage years were a new experience – for both of us. Times were changing rather quickly, and for the most part he refused to change with them. Only when he realized that these changes were here to stay, did he give in. And even then, it was a little at a time. The rules I learnt years ago were still there; however, I soon realized that he was not telling me what to do as often as he was to my younger brothers. Being the oldest had its merits, but it also meant that I knew better and that more was expected of me.
“When my name was announced at my high school graduation ceremony, my father, who was sitting in the rear of the auditorium, stood up, applauded and whistled. Everyone in the audience turned and looked. I took it all in stride; after all, it was a significant moment in his life. And mine, too.
“The Navy beckoned a few months later. The morning of my departure, after I said goodbye to everyone at home, I walked up to my father’s newsstand, shook hands and said, ‘I’ll see you in a few months, don’t forget to write.’ No longer would he be there when I needed advice. Decisions to be made were now in my hands.
“In later years, politics and issues gave way to talk about his declining health. But our conversations always ended on a high note when I shared the latest stories about you and your sister. Invariably, he’d say, ‘You may not remember this, but when you were.…’ Strangely, I did remember some of the stories he recounted. What made it poignant was seeing the smile on his face as he contentedly relived those fleeting memories of yesteryear.”
“How old was Grandpa when he died?” my daughter asked.
“Three weeks short of his seventy-third birthday,” I replied.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
“You never know what you’ve lost until it’s gone.”
“I miss Grandpa, also.”
Tears started to well up in both our eyes and we simultaneously grabbed our napkins.
“You know, I can’t help but think about the time when you are married and you and your children will be reminiscing about me,” I said.
“Dad, I hope you live a long, long time,” my daughter replied.
“So do I … so do I.”
The waitress stopped by and offered us more coffee. We politely declined and I asked for the check. As we were getting ready to leave, we saw the girls quietly standing alongside their father at the buffet counter. Although we couldn’t hear what was being said, we seemed to know the questions being asked. When the girls nodded, their Dad would serve them.
“Let’s go,” I said, as I picked up the check and slid out from the booth. “There are still people waiting to be seated.”
Thanks, Dad, for the times we’ve shared. You were there when I needed you, and even when I thought I didn’t. You were strong and firm in your ways, but I’m a better man for it. I only hope that I did as good a job with my children, as you did with yours.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop.
Your son, Al.