Sunday, June 21, 2009

With Dad: Gatlinburg, TN

Father's Day is coming to an end. I have been thinking of my dad throughout the day, though, and wondering what I could possibly write to do him justice, to honor him. A lifetime of memories—forty years of them, shy some months—often simply blend into a constant, comforting knowledge: less a specific image or recalled dialogue, more just an ongoing certainty that he is there for me, always has been, in every interpretation of the phrase. We are bound by more than our blood, our cells, our DNA . . . and without him, I would be a sorry shadow of the person I am. And yet, he reminded me of something the other day: our first trip together, just the two of us, in the summer of 1978, when I was almost nine years old. In August of that year, we drove from Chicago down into Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains, before continuing on to Georgia, where we'd meet other family members. We stopped and stayed a couple of nights in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a quaint rustic town proud of its simple country heritage and its majestic natural surroundings. On a mountain pass (I think heading into Gatlinburg), just before a tunnel, we saw two black bears at the side of the road. My father stopped the car some distance away so that I could take a picture of them, and I think now how instead, he could have just kept driving. Having grown up in urban settings, the only bears I ever saw were bears in zoos, and it seemed the luckiest thing in the world to happen upon them in the wild like that. Of our time in the town itself, I remember a few things: Although I don't recall the name of the little hotel we stayed in, I do know that it was at the edge of the Little Pigeon River, and that we had breakfast outside on a small patio where yellow-orange objects conspired to wake us with cheerfulness (the same sunny orange hue was seen in patio umbrellas with white polka dots, in the rubber slats of the deck chairs, and in glasses of chilled orange juice that we drank down as we talked about what to do that day). On August 15, 1978, we took the Gatlinburg Sky Lift five hundred feet up to the top of Crockett Mountain to a viewing platform. The frame of the sky lift was yellow (more good cheer); I remember also that I wore a favorite pair of yellow leather (or fake leather) sandals and that my feet did not reach the foot bar, since my legs were not long enough and stuck straight out in front of me. This was in sharp contrast to my father's long legs, bent at a severe angle to fit. As we neared the top of the mountain, our photo was taken. I loved scaling the mountain in this way, dangling from cables, exposed on all sides (it was like a ski lift)—and I reveled in the fact that this was something I would just share with my father; even if my mother had been with us, she would likely have skipped the ride, acrophobic as she generally is. I was proud of having no fear, and happy to look straight down, thinking nothing of danger. I don't know what else we did during the day(s) we were in Gatlinburg. I am guessing that we went in and out of shops, am guessing that we bought old-time treats like salt water taffy and caramel apples. I know that one evening we went to a vaudeville show, my first, and I was captivated by the crazy word play in a full rendition of the famous "Who's on First?" skit. Another night, we went to the movies. I am not sure which film we saw, but I know it was either Grease or The Cat From Outer Space, both of which had come out that summer. Everyone was buzzing about Grease, but I was also captivated by CFOS, and I remember the leaps of imagination by which I transformed myself into the alien space cat, Jake, with his glowing collar. Neither of these films, I'm certain, was what my father would have decided to watch on his own—bless him and his indulgence, he never let me see that he was anything other than enthusiastic for my choices. In the flow of years, our time in Gatlinburg was short—too short—but back then, time slowed down for us, and I know we had that rare opportunity to lose ourselves in each other's company, to trick ourselves into thinking that it was just us two for the world and that our special journey with its inside jokes and songs and laughter could last forever. And, in many ways, it has. I am thankful for many things about my father—I hope he knows this—but above all, I am thankful that he is the kind of man who could take a genuine interest in the ideas, thoughts, and dreams of a nine-year-old girl. I am blessed to have as a father a man who has, no matter how busy with his own work or life concerns, always made time to nurture our relationship. Thanks, Dad. I love you.

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