Nice and Ugly

Original story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas.

I was 15-years-old, opinionated and fashion-minded. Daddy decided I was his weapon of clothes-buying instruction.

Dad knows mom only wants one thing for Christmas: clothes. My poor father, try as he might, would get the right pair of jeans but the wrong size; the right dress but the wrong color; or sometimes, it’d be a blouse fit for a teen, but not so much a middle-aged mother. The year prior to dad’s idea to bring me along for his shopping trip had been a particularly rough Christmas present-opening. Mom had returned nearly every present.

Dad wanted the next year to be different. Our shopping trip was going smooth. We dropped credit card bombs at department stores across the city. I taught him name brands and mapped out mom’s favorites. We made a whole day of buying clothes mom would love.

Then dad saw the display of Christmas sweaters, some red and green glittered and others depicting cute, fuzzy forest creatures in the snow. He insisted his one success every year with one of mom’s presents was the ugliest, gaudiest Christmas sweater he could find. Against my pleas to leave the hideous sweater on the rack from which it came, dad purchased one with a Christmas Tree that lit up and played music.

“Clothes are for wearing not singing,” I murmured. He ignored me.

On Christmas morning, dad and I exchanged eye contact as mom began to open the ugly sweater. She gasped and I thought, Ah ha! I knew it! I smirked at my father, giving him that teenage I-was-right glare.

“How cute!” mom said, and lifted the sweater from the box, holding it up to her chest for sizing. She swooned when dad showed her the button that lit the tree up and played the “O Christmas Tree” tune.

My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.
My mom with one of the last Christmas sweaters dad purchased for her. Sadly, the dancing snowmen were not captured on film.

Dad grinned at me and winked.

Mom loved all her presents that year. The pants fit. The dresses were the right color. The blouses were age appropriate. So every year thereafter, my father and I would hit the malls together and spend the whole day shopping for mom’s Christmas presents. As I got older, married and had a child of my own, our tradition still continued. This was an annual father-daughter date.

Years after that first Christmas shopping trip for mom, dad and I stood, yet again, in the department store arguing over Christmas sweaters. I had spent every one of the last eleven years attempting to persuade my dad from buying the things and my mom from wearing them.

“Your mom doesn’t think they are ugly,” he would always say, and purchase one anyway.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

This time, I had found a black button up cardigan, away from the display of sweaters depicting dancing polar bears. The silky cotton was embroidered with small red and green beads forming a beautiful pattern of poinsettias on the right shoulder. It was elegant. It was expensive. It would look beautiful on my mom. Try as I might, my father insisted on the sweater featuring a patchwork of snowman he held before him. It looked like six different multicolored fabrics sewn together with a different dancing snowman on each color block. The only thing Christmas about it was that one of snowmen was wearing a Santa hat and another was wearing a sparkly green and red vest. I’m sure my mom would ask him if she could borrow that vest were it made in her size.

“That sweater looks like a kindergarten teacher’s dream, dad. Please, no,” I pleaded.

“Tell you what. You buy your fancy-smancy sweater, and I’ll buy this one. She will open both and we will see whose sweater she likes best,” he proposed.

“Deal,” I said, confident I wasn’t losing this bet. Surely those tyrannical snowman, barely Christmas, would not win mom over the stylish button-down I had picked out, I thought.

On Christmas morning, my family arrived at my parents’ house to celebrate and eat. The time to open presents came, and we gathered around the Christmas tree. Mom opened my present first.

“It’s nice,” she said and smiled. “I love the material.”

I threw a smirk at my father, who pretended not to catch it.

She opened dad’s. And gasped.

“It’s adorable! Where did you find it?” she exclaimed. She stood up and pulled the dancing snowmen on over her shirt. She looked down at the red, orange, purple, yellow, black and blue color blocks, the snowmen appearing to dance to celebrate their victory.

Dad smiled and winked. Words were not needed. I knew I lost. I didn’t know this woman better than this man. They were married 35 years.

Dad passed away from cancer before the next Christmas. Mom still wears all her ugly Christmas sweaters dad bought her, and somehow they don’t appear as ugly to me as they once did. I smile when I see her donning the sparkly green argyle, the kitten popping out of the present, or the multi-colored snowmen, and simply say, “You look nice, mom.”

Chasing Ghosts

 

IMG_2886“You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.” – Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool

Yesterday was my last day employed by the bourbon distillery where my father worked 17 years.

I made it 31 months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t inherit his stamina and work ethic. My co-workers were interesting, good people, with laid back, comedic and gossipy personalities one grows up around in a small town. Time tick tocks a little slower down in the valley where the distillery rises up above the tree lines.

Dad began working there when he was 19 until he was 36 years old. I was 12 when he got a better job making more money at a federal prison. He passed away at age 50 of lung cancer about 10 months after diagnosis. I was 25 years old, five days before turning 26.

Despite being an adult with a mortgage, paralegal career and a one-year-old daughter, the devastation of his loss brought my knee caps to the kitchen floor.

It happened after I called my brother to deliver the news. It had to be me to tell him. I knew it had to be me.

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Sometimes we are able to close the door on our emotions long enough to accomplish a difficult obligation. That’s what I did. I did it for months before dad let go of life. I knew I’d have the rest of mine to leave the door wide open, but not in front of him, or my brother or my mother. Not while hope and strength were needed as a priority to push us all through the treatments, hospital stays and filing for Social Security based on terminal diagnosis.

All until that moment when I hung up the phone with my brother; strength evaporated and took hope with it.

I knew part of me was going to be different from this point forward. I was not wrong.

My brother and I would join thousands of people who had lost parents, some young, and many who were much older than us. There’s an understanding expression in the eyes when we see each other, because it’s not possible for another human being to understand what it feels like to lose a parent until it happens. Not even if I were to craft a hundred metaphors to describe the feeling.

I wager the experience differs as well for those of us who were close to our parent, like I was with my father. (No, I’m certainly not saying it is harder or worse for me, but different.) We were so much alike, and we were best friends.

About two years after grieving dad’s death, I received a Facebook message from a friend working at the distillery letting me know her position would be open soon. She asked if I would be interested.

Here was a chance to meet many of dad’s former co-workers who I’m sure could tell me stories I hadn’t heard. I was tired of my commute to my current job and was feeling guilty about spending so much time away from my family, so I took the job.

I was right. Within a month, I had gathered many hilarious stories about my dad’s antics and humbling tales about his kindness. A few folks wandered to my desk just to meet “Otis Ball’s daughter” and tell me what a great person he was. I soaked it all up like a little shriveled plant thirsty for water. These were his memories brought to life through people who knew him well, and I had gained unfettered access.

My connection with my deceased father is so strong, I feel it even in death. Perhaps the pain comes from my inability to create new memories using our connection. Surely others left behind in the light of the living feel as I do. I was lucky. I had found a way to discover old memories which were new to me.

The job was easy, simple office work. I knew I was overqualified. Hearing about dad’s life from co-workers fed my soul, but the work didn’t. I was a writer. My passion lives inside words scrawled on a page. I liked challenge. I liked to help people.

Somewhere on my journey chasing my father’s ghost, I had forgotten my passion. So after several months soaking in the atmosphere where my father had spent half his adult life, I slowly began to write again, and realized I wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. Dad wouldn’t want me stuck in place on his behalf, a place I didn’t belong. A place where my talents were not utilized.

So I left.

I am pursuing a fulltime career as a freelance writer. When I switched majors my sophomore year in college from Physical Therapy to a double major in English and Communication, my father said, “How are you ever going to make any money doing that?”

me and dad collegeHe was laying on the concrete floor of the carport at home, fiddling under my car. The forest green Honda Accord was making a crazy scratching noise. He had the tire pulled off minutes after my arrival.

“I will,” I said, though I really wasn’t sure myself how I was going to turn words into cash. I was seated on my tire watching his greasy elbow move this way and that.

He turned his head and faced up at me to make eye contact. “Show me,” he said, then turned his attention back to the mechanics of the car he helped me buy.

Well, dad. I’m showing you now.