To honor my dad for Father’s Day, I could tell you that the man never missed a dance recital, and that he always proclaimed me “the star of the show,” even when I was in the back row of the chorus.
I could tell you that, after reading the crappy first draft of my novel he proclaimed it “Pulitzer Prize” material, and he believed that.
I could tell you that there is no one else like him in the world, and that the greatest lesson he has taught me is to be true to yourself.
All of those things are true. And they are enough. But he also taught me not to be embarrassed by his wacky behavior, and to honor that lesson, I’m sharing a story embodying his wackiness. Happy Father’s Day to all those great men who teach, nurture and shower love on their children.
One moment my father was on the train. The next he was gone.
The year was 1979. There were no cell phones, but frozen yogurt was in its first craze.
My health-conscious dad loved it with strawberries, coconut, and carob chips on top. When he had a root canal and was holed up at home in his blue terrycloth bathrobe, he instructed my then-14-year-old older sister: “Listen very closely. I do not give you permission to get my keys on the counter (right there, see?), drive my car to Yogurt Mountain, and order me a large strawberry yogurt shake. Do you understand? You do not have permission to do that.” She understood all right.
It was a frozen yogurt craving that nearly derailed our family’s vacation from Boston to Washington, D.C. I learned on this trip that my mom was organized, responsible, prone to worry, and in charge of reservations, travelers checks and plane tickets. I learned that my dad was spontaneous, mischievous, and kept my mom on a “need to know” basis about certain of his plans (justifying her tendency to worry). For example, as we trudged along Boston’s Freedom trail, my dad said he was leaving to see a Red Sox game. My mom’s face showed chagrin, but not surprise. This was, after all, the man who took her to six baseball games on their honeymoon. She knew what she’d signed up for.
But one event on the trip best illustrated the essence of my parents’ characters. When our train from Boston to DC briefly stopped in New York’s Penn Station, my father, antsy from being cooped up for hours, stood and announced, “I’m going to get frozen yogurt.”
“You’re what?” my mom asked. “You don’t know if there is any frozen yogurt here, and the train is going to leave soon!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” Away he went. I listened to my Walkman. Sensing my mom’s agitation, I smiled at her, trying to reassure her that all was well. That’s when the train began to roll without my Dad on it.
My mom bolted into action. She instructed my sister to head to look for a conductor, and she went the other direction to do the same. I sat, utterly helpless, saving our seats. Then something moved outside my window. It was my Dad. He was jogging on the platform alongside the moving train, arms out, palms up, as if to say, “Now what?”
I looked back at him blankly. Then he was gone.
I stayed in my seat, heart beating fast. He didn’t know what hotel we were staying at in D.C. What would become of him? Would I see my father again? Then, like magic, my dad strolled down the aisle, took his seat, and picked up a section of newspaper.
“Dad! How did you get on the train?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, with a “no big deal” voice, but flashed a conspiratorial grin that said, “That was close.”
My mom and sister came back to report that they hadn’t found a conductor and to strategize. Seeing my dad, my mom stammered, “What…how…?”
“What?” he responded, playing dumb.
“Tell us what happened!” we demanded.
Much as he wanted to maintain a poker face, this escapade was too good to keep to himself.
“I couldn’t find frozen yogurt, can you believe it?” he began.
“Yes! How did you get on the train?”
“Okay. When I came back, I went to the wrong platform, so I had to run back up the stairs, then down to our platform. The train was leaving, and the conductor on the last car saw me running for it and called out, ‘Jump!’ So I jumped.”
My heroic, yogurt-seeking dad, jumped onto a moving train.
Thirty-five years have sped past since that trip. I have taken my own children to Boston and to Washington, D.C. Frozen yogurt is in vogue again (minus the carob). And my mother and father celebrate their 50th anniversary this month. My Dad continues to leave legendary travel stories in his wake (see, e.g. creating a stir with the KGB by running in Lenin Stadium), and my mother continues to sigh with a smile, revealing her deep appreciation for his impish grin, his “what could go wrong?” attitude, and for a life where there is rarely a dull moment.