My brothers and I are cruising down a Southwest Florida boulevard, top down in my convertible, feeling a buoyancy we haven’t felt in a decade. It’s the first time we’ve been together since both our parents died. There is no morphine to administer. No rasping breaths. No interminable waiting for the end.
“Ice skating!” I shout into the wind. We’re collaborating on a verbal list of my father’s obsessions. Some people would call them hobbies. But we know better.
I shudder at the recollection of my father at age forty-two developing a sudden interest in gliding across the ice at a nearby rink. While other dads were content watching football, ours took lessons in a quixotic effort to master figure skating without cracking his coccyx. Thankfully, his fascination with the triple Salchow cooled after about six months.
We all loved our mother without reservation. She died in 2006 at seventy-three after a brief bout with lung cancer. The chasm remains. My father, who died a year ago, was much more complicated. He’d been distant, at best. Impatient, angry, disapproving, disappointed, incomprehensible – these were the adjectives we were more apt to apply to his enigmatic nature. But we remember him too as a young father, handsome, athletic and involved. He’d gather the neighborhood kids for a snowball fight or help my younger brother build a complex model plane.
Though only five-foot-eight, he seemed substantial to us when we were small – strong and protective. But as we grew from toddlers to teenagers he grew too. Less connected. Less loving. Less present. My father collected hobbies like Imelda Marcos collected shoes. So, as Kurt, Ken and I drove down Gulfshore Boulevard, we recount my father’s obsessions. Because they were, indeed, just that.
“Remember that stereo system he built from scratch?” Kurt asks. We nod our heads, conjuring an image of the bulbous components that were state-of-the-art in the early 1960s.
“Comedy albums!” Ken chimes in. Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Allan Sherman, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Jonathan Winters were regular visitors in our living room. Their comic shticks were accompanied by my father’s strangled laughter and gasping for air. He would laugh so uproariously that tears would roll down his whiskered cheeks. My mother, brothers and I would accompany him from nearby rooms, all of us doubled over, not knowing what was so funny but loving the sound of my father’s unabashed pleasure.
“His rose garden,” I say. After he retired in his late sixties, he exhibited a newfound patience and a reverence for roses of many species. They grew with abandon up trellises and on bushes throughout the yard, nurtured by his encyclopedic knowledge of their tending. Years later, as his memory disintegrated, the activities director at my father’s assisted living residence planted a single rose bush for his enjoyment.
“It’s a . . . a . . . a . . .” my father tried to explain.
“A knockout rose bush,” I suggested, somehow remembering the variety from his lengthy explanations.
“Yes!” he cried in childlike delight. “They planted it for me.”
“Handicapping horses!” Kurt exclaims. Oh Lord, I think, remembering my father sitting tirelessly at his computer trying to do what countless others had failed to do: create a system for predicting which horse would win a particular race at the track. A strange hobby for a microbiologist for sure. Even stranger because he never went to the racetrack or bet a single penny. It was just an intellectual challenge – replaced after a couple of years by computer stock market modeling. Which was soon overtaken by memoir writing.
Bowling, photography, pipe and tobacco collecting, running, amassing a classical music collection that would rival the Julliard library, building an intricate model railroad, sailing, computer programming, fishing, stamp collecting, chess, ping pong, board games, cheese and other gourmet foods, gardening, and travel. My father’s interests ran the gamut from the athletic to the esoteric. He was fascinated by the new and novel, the indecipherable, and the merely challenging. And then, just as abruptly as he’d embrace a passion, he would abandon it. The darkroom he’d built and then labored in for hours gathered cobwebs. He discarded his pipes. Forsook his thoroughbreds. Repudiated the Dow.
After he developed dementia, this once insatiably curious man dissolved into a gentle, befuddled man-child, content to sit silently on the sofa, surrounded by the conversations of others. Solitary in his lifetime of hobbies, he remained alone in his jumble of thoughts, unable to articulate anything that might have been churning in his brain.
As my brothers and I recall his pastimes, now able to chuckle at his restlessness, I reflect on our own lifetimes of relentless pursuits. How much of our father inhabits each of us, I wonder. With the balmy breeze riffling my hair, I turn the wheel, thanking him for his zeal. Still cursing him for his inattention.