Sunday, June 20, 2010

In honor of Fathers' Day

It's weird how we remember things. How do our brains decide which memories to store and which to move to the trash file to make room for new data? Why, for example, is it more important that I remember my dad making me blood orange juice for breakfast when I was six than how to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle? I dunno. All I know is that I have some vivid, seemingly inconsequential memories surrounding my dad and the things we used to do when I was a kid. So, in honor of Fathers’ Day, here they are.

Yes, indeed, my dad used to make me fresh squeezed orange juice from Sicilian blood oranges. But that wasn’t the end of it. He also told me weird stories about how Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Scotty had to beam down to some alien planet to get said oranges. Don’t ask. Just smile and nod and drink your juice, that’s what I did. My dad also made me scrambled eggs in every color of the rainbow after I became obsessed with Green Eggs and Ham. Scrambled eggs were the first thing he taught me how to cook and I could make them all by myself by the time I was five or six. Of course you can’t have scrambled eggs without toast, so my dad would make toast and then use various cookie cutters to make all sorts of different shapes and sizes. I had rocking horse toast a lot.

Both of my parents love language and were eager to feed my rapidly growing mind with a wealth of vocabulary, but it was my Dad who witnessed my first word when I was six months old and convinced my mom that I knew what the hell I was talking about. Now, obviously I don’t actually remember the moment I said my first word. I was six months old. I’m willing to bet I was more interested in wondering when my next meal was coming than the nuances of memory retention. My first word was "kitty cat". Pretty complex for a six month old, even if it did come out sounding more like “key cat”. But the point was that I connected the word to the thing and it wasn’t until we were in a restaurant and my mom saw me staring at a picture of a black cat on the wall and exclaiming “Key cat! Key cat!” that she realized my father wasn’t crazy.

Like most parents, my dad told me bedtime stories. But if you’ve been paying attention so far, you know that they couldn’t possibly be the same fairy tales that every other kid got. The one I heard most often was “Ronnie, Sununu, and Quayle”—a parody of “The Three Little Pigs”. Nancy Reagan was The Big Bad Wolf. But instead of trying to eat all the pigs she blew down their houses because she wanted to have a look at their china pattern. As you can imagine, I had no chance of growing up in a politically neutral household. Add that to the fact that my dad introduced me to both Mel Brooks and Monty Python at a very young age and I didn’t have a chance.

The first Mel Brooks movie I saw was Young Frankenstein and it was from there that my young brain learned the concept of quoting movie lines in everyday conversation. My mom and dad were in the kitchen one day putting away groceries and getting dinner started. Dad was on the floor putting away sodas while mom was doing something in one of the cupboards. Intending to help, I walked up to my dad and asked, “Need a hand?” whereby my father and I looked at each other in a moment of mutual inspiration and declared, “No thanks—got one!" My mom slowly turned around, staring down at us with a look of abject horror on her face as if to say, “Aw, hell. Now there are two of them.”

This may surprise people, but I was somewhat reluctant to learn how to read. My mother used to be an actress, you see, and she read to me so well that I didn’t really see any reason why I should bother to learn. She made me practice anyway, much to my chagrin, and promised me that the more I learned the more I wouldn’t be able to help reading. Every letter had a sound and every word had a meaning and there would come a time when I wouldn’t be able to look at a word without reading it. Turns out the bitch was right.

The part my dad played in all this was less active but no less involved. He went crazy on Microsoft word one day and printed out labels, which he then taped to nearly every object in the house so that whenever I walked by something I could see the word for it in bold block print. Kitchen, door, stove, microwave, window, bookshelf, table—everything in the house had a label. He would have taped a label to the cat if we had one when I was four.

My dad also taught me big words like actually and rhetorical and I was using them correctly when I was five years old. I think he knew for sure by then that I was way ahead of most of my peers.

Of course I’m sure it helped that I was taken on a lot of intellectual outings as a kid. One of my favourite excursions was the Getty Museum, back in the day when there was only one of them. I’m not sure how much history I actually picked up there, but I did learn two very important things: 1) How to behave in a museum and 2) How to enjoy museums. I don’t know how my parents managed it, if I just had a laid back temperament or if my parents were more interested in my enjoyment than they were in theirs. Whichever it was, I discovered that I liked looking at old stuff and thinking about how people lived a very long time ago. You can probably blame both parents for my double major in English and History.

One thing my dad still goes nuts over is Christmas. When I was a kid he would hang garland wrapped with these round frosted red and white lights that looked like berries all over the house. I really miss those lights. I can’t find anything else like them. I still have a strand of the white ones on which only one half of the lights work, but you’ll never get me to throw it away.

One year Dad brought home some clay and acrylic paints and we made our own ornaments using Christmas cookie cutters. We did a bunch of stars and tiny reindeer with different colored saddles. I also made a couple ornaments that weren’t Christmas themed, like a giant chocolate ice cream cone. Dad taught me how to use a toothpick to make a waffle cone texture in the clay and we baked them all in the oven after poking a hole in the top for the hooks to go through. Mom still has those and every year they go up on the tree.

The first Christmas song I ever learned was “Santa Clause is Coming to Town." I used to sing it a lot with my grandfather, who would stop at the end of every refrain for my solo, which consisted of an exuberant, “Tooooo tooooown!" I liked it so much that my dad arranged a jazzy version of the song for the piano and played it for me almost every day in December. My dad also taught me more obscure Christmas songs, songs that most kids my age probably didn’t know. One of those was “Christmas is Coming” and it was my second favorite song after Santa Clause.

I don’t know why I’ve remembered all this stuff, but I’m kind of glad that my brain saved these random bits of childhood for me to look back on. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks for all the random bits of childhood, Dad. And...you know, all the other stuff you do on a regular basis. Happy Fathers’ Day.

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