March 14, 1935

alison-on-dads-lap1There are many men in the world celebrating a birthday today, millions and millions of them. There aren’t that many birthdays to choose from, when you think about it – only 365 possibilities, and we all have to share them.

We focus in on the man in the photo up there, the one wearing the plaid shirt and the white socks, the one holding the fat cross-eyed baby, his firstborn, on his lap.

Happy birthday, man in the plaid shirt. You might be wearing one today, although I don’t know that for sure. When I picture you, I picture you in tan polyester pants with a stain on the front, and a short-sleeved plaid cotton/poly blend shirt. Large brown tie shoes.  Black socks. A zip-up jacket.

Where are you now? In the 35-year-old new room, maybe, perched on a chair ludicrously small for your large frame, playing computer solitaire.

Looking for your wallet, which you will find, after searching the kitchen, the dining room, the new room and the living room, on the mantel above the fireplace.

Putting a hat on and heading out to your car, which will be unlocked, with the keys in the ignition, to drive five miles to the diner, where you will meet your cronies for breakfast, a 30-year and counting ritual.

Stooping down to rough up the fur of your dog, or, more likely, sitting in your recliner and calling her to you so that you can manhandle her large bulk into your lap and rock her.

Making your way down to the  vast woodpile and chopping some more logs into woodstove-size chunks.

You are the man who took his children on a two-week road trip every summer, road trips that, over the years, came to encompass nearly every battlefield and fort in the eastern  states, north to south and back again, who who came out of the gas stations – back when you paid for your gas inside at the counter – with his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.

Who sat for hours with your parents after the massive meal had been eaten, catching up on all the latest news. Who, not young yourself, bent to the floor and picked your mother up in a single motion after she fell leaving that one restaurant.

You are the one who short-sheeted your sergeant’s bed in basic training, and slipped the dead fish between his covers. You are the one who hung the tire from the butternut tree, who stayed up all Christmas Eve putting together the race track, who makes the stuffing at Thanksgiving.

You are the one so tough and uncomplaining that the doctors didn’t believe you were in any real pain even though your appendix had burst 24 hours prior, the one who had to lie down on the floor of the doctor’s office to  make them believe you.

You are the one who drives your fearful rural friends to Yankee Stadium every summer, who books the cheap motel where you all cram into a single room, and you are the one who tells the stories afterward.

You are the one who puts your campaign sign on the front lawn, opposite your wife’s opposing-party campaign sign.

You are the one with the big frame and the big station wagon who wore the flame-orange polyester shirt to Parents’ Weekend at your firstborn’s exclusive upper-class college in the mountains, your giant voice roaring with laughter; the one that all your firstborns’ friends gravitated to.

You are the one who drives the old people and the young unable people and the people without cars or friends to their doctors’ appointments.

You are the one who wept when your father died: the first and only time your children saw you cry.

You are the one who called your firstborn on her 33rd birthday and told her you loved her on the answering machine tape, back when there were still answering machine tapes, and she yanked it out of the machine and put it away in a drawer, where it has accompanied her to every one of the six apartments and houses she has lived in since.

Happy birthday.


  1. Stephanie Parsley · March 14, 2010

    This is lovely. Made me cry.


  2. Pepper · March 15, 2010

    Me too.


  3. beryl singleton bissell · March 15, 2010

    This could be one of your wonderful character, or it could be your dad. Whoever it is that receives this message is blessed indeed!


  4. oreo · March 16, 2010

    So sweet. The first and only time I remember my dad crying was when I was a teenager and we went to see the movie “Dead Man Walking.” I don’t remember much else about that film except the convict’s long slow march down the hallway to his death and the light reflecting off my father’s wet face. I just kept looking at him out of the corner of my eye because I didn’t even know he COULD cry, especially as we hadn’t been to any funerals together.


  5. Lucy · March 17, 2010

    Oh how lovely, made me cry and laugh too.

    I have an old envelope with a premium bond in it and my (unmarried) name on it, and I’ve never done anything about the bond but I keep it because it’s the only thing I have with my dad’s handwriting on it.


  6. oreo · March 20, 2010

    Perhaps a workshop about how to write about your father, whether you still have him or only have your name written in his hand? I’d sign up WITH my father, who is still trying to figure out how to write about the man who never said he loved him.


  7. alison · March 21, 2010

    Ah, I love these. Imagine a workshop called Writing from Family. Do you believe, as the Hmong do, that you knew the people who become your family before you were born, that you chose to be with them in this life?

    Lucy, the only thing with your dad’s handwriting on it? I wouldn’t open it either. . .

    Blessed are the fathers who can cry, if only once.


  8. oreo · March 21, 2010

    with all due respect to the hmong (and much indeed is due), i’ve gotta believe there are some alternate scenarios. maybe the hmong were paying attention and got in line on time and got to choose their families. some of us were lollygagging and showed up after selection time was over, getting tossed down at random to be raised by crazy people who no one else chose.


  9. alison · March 22, 2010

    Or maybe you chose your challenges in this life, and that was one of them. You’ve proved your strength, Oreo.


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