I was a five-year old in pigtails, standing on an elm-lined sidewalk with my grandfather, staring at what I thought was the most marvelous toy on the planet. Grandpa had just pulled a kid-sized pedal car out of his basement and had placed it on the sidewalk — for me! I was beside myself.
At first Grandpa ran beside the car with his hand on the steering wheel as I pedaled furiously. Whether it was his growing confidence in my ability to safely drive my new toy or fatigue from running in a hunched over position, I’m not sure. All I know is he finally stopped exerting grown up control over my new wheels and I took off. I made it all the way to the corner where I discovered I actually did need an adult after all — I couldn’t figure out how to turn the car around. Before I knew it, Grandpa’s hands were on the car again, this time lifting and turning it so I could pedal my way back home.
The day’s surprises weren’t over yet. At dinner, Grandpa told me the steel car I had been riding in all day was my father’s, purchased for him when he was my age. He had ridden that very car on the very same sidewalk. That’s the day I discovered my dad had once been a kid.
The man I saw every day with the cigarette behind his ear and jeans slung too low had been a little kid who played with cars — just like me. I looked around at all the toys my grandparents brought out when I visited. There were cars, trucks, shipping loaders for when I pretended to unload cargo at the pier… Instead of the brightly coloured plastic toys that were prevalent in the ’60s, these were made of steel or cast metal. Now I understood why there were no dolls for my sisters and I to play with. This was a house where a boy was born and raised and it never changed.
Dad passed away very recently. Just two days before he died, I asked him this question:
What was your favourite toy when you were a boy?
The cancer already had a stranglehold on him but his voice perked up as he told me about his Gene Autry gun.
Even though Dad’s gone, I feel lucky. I’m lucky to have had him in my life as long as I did, and I’m lucky to have hung out in his boyhood home and played with some of the toys that were meaningful to him.
So go ask your father about his best toy. I bet you’ll gain insight into your dad that you never had before. And someday, that will be a very special memory.
The story below is the one I wrote the day Dad died. I hope it gives you a sense of his playful spirit.
Boy Named Sue
My Dad has called me Boy Named Sue my entire life. In case you’ve never heard that phrase before, it’s from an old Johnny Cash song. Dad never failed to greet me with this phrase spoken in a lively voice:
“Boy named Sue – How DO you DO?”
Dad passed away today which has me feeling more than just a little sad that I’ll never hear that greeting again. I’ll miss the progress updates on his antique car restorations, his latest discoveries in Hemmings Motor News, engine compression test results, debates about exhaust systems (should they make a car quieter or give it a gutsy growl?), chassis construction, fan belts, throttles and the best way to polish an authentic chrome bumper. And of course, I’ll miss the way he ended phone calls with a slightly gruff “I loves ya.”
Looking back, I guess I did try to live up to my name somewhat. I’m not much of a Tomboy but I enjoyed fixing cars with Dad in his garage. He taught me to respect vehicles and to love the smell of GOJO hand cleaner (only grease monkeys will get that one). He also taught me driving strategies by relating detailed stories about accidents and near accidents. And he taught me how to drive a motorcycle. I still remember Dad looking away when I dropped his Honda 550 while practicing for my motorcycle drivers license. He was probably cursing under his breath and didn’t want me to see the words forming on his lips.
My father was no stranger to the Grim Reaper. When I was six, he was hit broadside by a tractor trailer while riding his motorcycle to work. He recovered and eventually got himself another bike.
Years later he spent many weeks in intensive care from a particularly nasty type of e-coli poisoning. His organs had begun to fail when he amazed his doctors by popping back. This was followed by a number of surgeries over the next ten years due to related complications—each incident sufficiently serious to kill a less lucky and less determined man. He emerged every time expressing gratitude for being alive.
The last conversation I ever had with Dad was just a few days ago. We knew he’d be gone soon as this time the Grim Reaper had hit him hard with a cancer one-two punch that couldn’t be outrun. Dad called it his ‘one way ticket.’ Two of my sisters were at the house taking care of him and watching old westerns with him. That’s the day he told me his most prized possession was the Gene Autry cap gun he had as a boy.
How fascinating that in his whole entire life and with all the beautiful homes and other material possessions he and Mom had enjoyed, a toy would take the top spot. And that’s when I realized that Dad’s life was full of joy because he retained an element of childlike delight in everything he did. He collected antique cars because he found them fun. He rode a Goldwing for the pure bliss of leaning into curves and feeling the air rush by him unencumbered by a steel chassis. His inimitable impish grin could be ignited at the slightest mention of devilry. And he wasn’t above burning rubber when the light turned green just to see if he still could.
Death has taken away his physical presence but he has left too many pieces of himself in too many of us to ever be completely gone. I guess in a way, Dad’s still flipping off the Grim Reaper.
Boy Named Sue
was written May 6, 2015