The Grape Arbor: Having an Older Father

There was always a grape arbor in the back yard of the house I grew up in. My oldest sister tells the story of she and her two younger brothers and two younger sisters passing an afternoon popping grapes into their mouths, squeezing the juice into their mouths, and then spitting the remains at each other. First Communions, graduation pictures, and family gatherings were most often staged somewhere around the grape arbor. However, a closer look at those pictures reveals that my parents actually raised two families:  the first five, who spat grapes at each other, and my brother and myself, who came along ten and twelve years, respectively, later. The grapes were long gone by the time the two of us arrived.

The first five, when they get together, reminisce about growing up in the same house and the same neighborhood as I grew up in.  However, our memories could not be more different. There was a small bridge over a brook which ran through the property which my oldest brother remembers as a meeting point for him and his best friend, who lived next door.  The brook had dried up long before my time.  Another often-told story is the day the twenty pine trees arrived in a manila envelope, pine trees which Dad planted to line a border of the property and were fifteen feet tall when I was a child. It was unimaginable to me that those trees arrived in an envelope. When the first five were growing up, there was a Victory garden where the garage was eventually built, and a beloved cherry tree replaced by the “extension”, the word the first five always use to refer to what I only knew as the den and my parents’ bedroom above it on the second floor. 

For my birthday this year, I assembled pictures of my childhood, my teen years, and my college years, and scanned them to a memory chip which is installed into a digital frame. This frame sits on the counter above my kitchen sink. Each morning as I am waiting for the kettle to boil, I click the frame’s remote to the next picture in the file, which becomes the picture for the day. In the past I had, perhaps once a year, browsed by hand through these pictures which used to be in a shoebox tucked back in my closet. So, these pictures are not new to me. However, when a picture is displayed in a frame over your kitchen sink for the day, you spend some time with it. I have been surprised by the detailed memories that now come to me from one picture. For example, for my birthday in second grade I was given a brownie camera. I brought it to school and took a picture of my second-grade class, all the students gathered at the front of the classroom. All 35 of them. Through the course of that day, I was able to remember every name but five.

Last week another familiar picture presented itself. I was about 6, wearing a pink-ribboned spring dress, and someone had curled my otherwise straight blond hair. When I looked at this picture when it resided in the shoebox, I always focused on the dress, fondly remembering it.  However, on the digital frame, my eyes were drawn to the background. The picture had been staged by the grape arbor, with no grape vines on it, but from one end of the grape arbor to the other, there was a single line of bountiful, colorful petunias that my father had planted. I remembered watching my father planting them and how lovely they were in bloom. I remembered running my hands through those petunias and how soft they were to my touch. I remembered what a great gardener my father was.  As the day went on, I found myself relishing not only this memory of my father’s petunias, but also other memories of his irreplaceable fathering of me as I was growing up.

My father was 49 when I was born in 1954. That year he also had two daughters in college, two sons in high school, another daughter in middle school, and a two-year-old son. He was meeting with the Governor of New Jersey to discuss his appointment to the bench to serve as a judge when a call came through to him that his wife was on her way to the hospital to have me.  About ten years later, around 1964, the “the first five” had all graduated college and were in law school, medical school, or married or getting married to someone doing something similar. Mom and Dad were at that point in their life where I was with my husband when our own two sons were “launched” as we like to say. I still fondly recall the Saturday morning my husband and I sat down at the dining room table to plan a trip, and I had the epiphany parents have at that point in their lives…we needed only to consider what was going to suit the two of us.

However, at this point in my parents’ lives, they still had a thirteen-year-old boy and an eleven- year-old girl to consider. Dad was sixty; he had worked every day his whole life to support and educate his family, a goal to which he and my mother were deeply committed. However, Dad had some dreams of his own and at 60, he knew he was not getting any younger.  He had spent enough summer Saturdays cutting the lawn and planting petunias. Dad launched himself.

So it was that in his sixties, my father learned how to ski, and he skied Vermont every weekend the lifts were running. Summers in his sixties were meant for other adventures. He spent some summers on his 24-foot Chris Craft cabin cruiser travelling up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain which he fully explored until the return trip home four weeks later. He made that trip to Champlain for about five consecutive summers. In fact, in 1967, he took his beloved Stella Maris all the way from the marina in Edgewater, New Jersey to the World’s Fair in Montreal. 

It was also in his sixties-summers that Dad decided to find his roots. He rented a thatched cottage in the west of Ireland, the cottage having no running water nor electricity. He lived there for the month of August, setting out each day from this beloved cottage in search of his roots, which he eventually found at a Dysert O’Dea in County Clare. He would return to the west of Ireland each summer for the next five years, taking some side trips to London and Paris, as well as a couple weeks driving through France, Germany, and Switzerland, stopping in Dijon for dinner, as this place, my father explained as we pulled into town, was the gastronomical center of France. Dad even attended summer school at Oxford University, studying International Law and Jurisprudence.

However, Ireland had won his heart and he spent the better part of his summers in his sixties on the west coast of Ireland. One summer, he rented a cottage in the Connemara Gaeltacht, an area where only Irish is spoken, and hired a tutor to help him with his study of the Irish language. This culminated in my father reciting his translation of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, Trees, in Irish over RTE Radio one memorable summer Sunday afternoon. Dad designed a Claddagh ring that held a heart of green Connemara marble, a design much copied now, and had a small business selling this ring to jewelry stores in the west of Ireland. Dad arrived one summer with bats, balls, and mitts and he coached a gaggle of young Irish boys on the basics of baseball in a field across the road from his cottage.  The following summer, I accompanied Dad to the local blacksmith where he supervised the making of a hoop, as that year the lads were to learn the basics of basketball. Dad made friends wherever he went in Ireland and was sure to visit with them each summer. During the fall and spring, when he was in home in New Jersey, he taught an evening course on Irish Art and History.

For most all of these adventures of my father’s, I got to go with him. This began when I was five and my brother seven. Dad, at age 54, had his initial itch to stop planting petunias and take his boat, the Stella Maris, up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. The deal struck with Mom was he could go if he took the two youngest ones with him. This deal prevailed through all his following adventures. Shestories holds detailed accounts of some of these adventures with my father, be it on the stern seat of the Stella as she plowed north towards Champlain with my father at the helm, or Dad and I at the top of the Eiffel Tower on our last day in Paris.  By his side, I witnessed the joy not only of travelling, but travelling light, taking off myself at the age of 16 to work as a waitress in Galway, a small city in the west of Ireland. That summer I was invited to the home of a friend for a weekend, and it was in the kitchen of that family’s home that on Sunday afternoon I heard my father’s translation of Trees. I was not sure how hearing Irish spoken with an American accent would go down with the natives. You could have heard a pin drop as they listened, and at the end, it was proclaimed that my father was “a grand man, a grand man, indeed.”  I was a rising junior at the University of London when I met my father at Heathrow in 1973, arriving for his summer school at Oxford. As he came through International Arrivals, with the eternal cigar in his mouth, he was grinning like a kid going off to camp.  

One year later, Dad passed away from cancer. I was all of 21, too young to fully understand who or what I had lost. I do now, when I see that row of petunias under the grape arbor. They speak to me of my father, not the man recalled by the first five, the man who mail-ordered pine trees, but the man I knew, the man who taught me, by example, to follow your heart, live your life, get out there.  On those adventures with Dad, I grew from a five-year-old girl to a twenty-one-year-old woman. I do not mean to dismiss the role my mother played in my life. Shestories carries innumerable accounts of the wisdom gained from my mother, most often addressing how to raise a child. However, as I have transitioned from my fifties to my sixties, from those demands of motherhood to the sovereignty of retirement, my father’s voice has become dominant. My only regret is that I cannot tell him.

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