The extended family is getting together for my dad’s 70th birthday party.
For reasons that I won’t go into here, it’s impossible for me to be there, which is terribly sad and not at all right.
But in honor of his 70th birthday, and his many decades as the rock upon which an extended family was built, here are just a few memories of dad that deserve to be repeated and inscribed.
Fixing the car. It was a green ’74 Dodge Dart that we had as a family, when I was little. British racing green, in fact, though somehow Dodge dropped the ball and made the interior green as well, rather than the usual tan. That was the car that I grew up in. Bench, rather than bucket, seats. Vinyl. A hunk of steel. Must have weighed tons. Used leaded gasoline. Massively mechanical then, as cars were, rather than computerized and specialized—and dad maintained it well. The point, however, isn’t the car. The point is how many memories I have of working on it with dad, parked on the front lawn. He’d be wearing a mauve button-down shirt that to me was the “car work” shirt. The hood wood be open and the toolbox as well, sitting next to the car. I’d be there hovering—watching him and chatting with him as we cleaned spark plugs, changed oil, replaced the air filter, tested belt tension, checked the coolant and freon levels and did a dozen other little things that needed to be done. It’s a memory of sunshine, of tools, of chop-wood-carry-water necessity, and most of all of love. Dad loved me, I knew, because he made me a partner in maintaining the family car, it’s most visible and mobile asset—even if I wasn’t qualified (and I knew that I wasn’t) to help. To this day, the time spent next to dad working on the car isn’t just a fond memory, but is also a massively useful repository of knowledge. It enables me to maintain my own car, which (as is typically the case in American life) is the cornerstone of a family’s ability to get things done.
Learning to ride a bike. For Christmas when I was seven years old, I wanted—and got—a bike. A red bike with a red, orange, and yellow banana seat on it. (It was the early ’80s.) It was beautiful and somewhere there are photos of me standing in front of the Christmas tree next to my new and shiny red bike with a big smile on my face. There was only one problem. Though I was already seven years old, I didn’t know how to ride it. I was well behind the curve on the playground and on the street in that respect—all my friends already knew how to ride. So naturally, it fell to dad to teach me—and he did. Over and over again, he’d hold the bike up by the seat, tell me to climb on and pedal, and then run behind me while I pedaled, holding the bike vertically, maybe letting go for a moment, then grabbing hold again, until I was able to stay vertical and ride on my own. For many years I didn’t appreciate what an impossible feat this was. Then, I had my own kids, and they got their own bikes, and it fell to me to teach them to ride. I then discovered that this method is nearly impossible to duplicate. I have no idea how dad did it—how he managed to keep up as I pedaled, how he managed to maintain a firm grasp despite the bicycle’s wayward physics, how he managed not to get his feet and knees caught up in a melee of spokes and tires. But he did it, and I never once felt frightened or insecure as I learned. Because I knew that dad was right behind me, holding me up.
Fishing in the morning, in the dark. I was very young when dad started waking me up early in the morning—pitch black, in a whisper—to say, “Do you want to go fishing?” Needless to say, I did. I don’t remember ever turning him down. What little boy doesn’t want to be asked to join their father in the hunt, to be a part of the community of men in the family, fulfilling their responsibilities? Even if I couldn’t put into words just why, I knew each time he’d ask—in the dark, almost imperceptibly so as not to wake anyone else up—that I was absolutely eager. And we’d go. We’d drive for a very long time (a valley away, the better part of fifty miles, usually) and ascend into the mountains where the fish-laden streams were. I don’t remember what we talked about on the way. I don’t remember whether or not we caught anything. But I do remember all the time we spent squatting on large rocks or in the bushes alongside the streams, staying out of sight in the (by then merely) near-darkness as dad whispered words of fishing wisdom to me—not to scare the fish by being seen, not to make loud noises, how to bait a hook, how fish hide amongst the rocks and in dark areas because they school and because instinct tells them that it’s safest, and so on. He taught me that fish were living things that had a psychology of their own, just like us, and that we were honor-bound to respect that, yet also compelled by the necessities of life to employ it, for such is the chain of being. They were to play their role, and we were to play ours, and from mutual respect and presence in the world would come food for our family. This was my first taste of responsibility, and of manhood. I took it seriously, and the memories of those moments are still as clear as day to me.
Dragonflies as pets. When I was very young, nature was still nature and creatures still roamed the earth. It sounds melodramatic to say it, but to step outside these days is merely to encounter smoggy air and metropolitan bustle. Back then, backyards were akin to jungles and wildlife kept house alongside people. In fact, there were dragonflies. Many evenings, particularly in the summer, they would come and go in swarms. And though I doubt he remembers this, the memory of watching, chasing, and domesticating dragonflies remains with me, a kind of magic that is difficult to describe. I remember he and I standing in the backyard, or crouching on the patio, or in the garden, watching the swarms of dragonflies and deciding to capture them. We’d each use one of dad’s caps and we’d move around the yard quietly, “sneaking up” on them, then snapping the hats downward. But it was what happened after we caught a dragonfly that has mattered most for all these years. Our dragonfly was never destined to be run through with pins and put on a corkboard, rendered mute and inanimate. Instead, through some magic that is alien to the culture in which I was raised, dad would pick a long blade of grass from the tufts that surrounded the garden and would tie a tiny loop and knot in one end—then slide it over the dragonfly’s tail—and cinch it ever-so-gently to snugness. And then—for a few minutes at dusk—I would have a pet dragonfly floating along next to me on a blade-of-grass leash. My very-own-for-the-moment dragonfly, wild and weightless and beautiful, held captive not by technology, but by the gentle green of the grass that was its natural habitat. After a few minutes of play between and amongst species, outside of time, in the fading light of the backyard jungle, we’d untie it and off it would go—into eternity. We’d go inside. Have dinner. Live life. Not speak of it again. I’ve never heard anyone else tell a story even remotely like this. I doubt I ever will. But something in this memory is at the core of everything that I know and value about the world.
Me being impossible. It’s important at this point that I also go over a few of the things that I suspect dad remembers rather well—things that show not only what a patient dad he was, but what little boys (e.g. me) get up to as they grow. My habit of sneaking up on him whenever he was reading the paper—the one newspaper of the day, irreplaceable in a time before the internet—and suddenly savaging it. I’d slash, grab, rip the paper out of his hands, mid-sentence, rendering it unreadable just as he was finally relaxing after a long day’s work. The most he ever said to me about it was, “Hey!” I doubt whether I could be so patient. And of course there were the “picture moments”—dad holding camera, me obligated to pose and failing to do so. Instead, I was jumping, running, rolling on the ground, making faces, or simply having a wild, ecstatic fit, nothing but motion and noise. In retrospect, I know that dad must have been exasperated (I now have a little boy of my own, one that is rather the same) but in the moment, I was never yelled at, never punished. With the patience of Job, dad would firmly repeat instructions, then navigate me deftly into a moment—and of course only a moment—of calm. There are some pictures. And I have no bad memories of these moments. That’s a testament to dad’s ability to be a dad. Then of course there were all of those teen years, during which I made (nearly) every mistake in the book, many of them of the sort that are generally offensive and frightening to parents. Rather than being beaten, grounded, yelled at, punished—all of the things that I hear as stories from others in my generation—dad would could corral me into a conversation. He’d sit down with a napkin, a pen, and some wise words and reason with me. Share knowledge. Share experience. Ask me tough questions (that I often hated to answer or couldn’t answer). It’s important to me that dad know, now, that it all mattered. It was not time wasted. I was an impossible kid, often, maybe always—and now that I’m a dad, I’m fairly sure that dad must have wondered whether or not he was handling things in the right ways, at times. Well—he was. You did a good job, dad. An amazing job, really. Sorry for being such a handful. Thank you for your patience and for your love. I will try to pay it forward.
© Candace Hsiao / 1984. From the archives.
There’s not room enough in the world, or on a Sunday morning, to write everything that I’d like to write. But if there was, I’d also write about:
- Making rope chains out of rubber bands
- Being taught to weave gum wrappers into yards and yards of fabric
- Hours and hours spent playing board games
- Math, tireless teaching of math, from multiplication tables to trigonometry and calculus
- Being kept involved—at great expense—with computing and technology, which became my career
- Stories, made up on the fly, about animal characters living lovely adventures
- Super supreme pan pizza for every holiday, and hearing dad’s voice as he ordered it by telephone
- Learning to do push-ups and sit-ups in my pajamas, with dad’s assistance
- Chinese songs that I loved to sing
- Learning to write my Chinese name in Chinese characters
- Dad’s supportive dubiousness about the Boy Scouts, which was later validated, validating me in the process
- Much, much firm gentleness, and gentle wisdom
- Generosity beyond belief, in all things, that continues to this day
So—on the occasion of my dad’s 70th birthday, I just want to say that I have come to understand that it’s now my time to try to be that ineffable thing that appears to be not long for this world: a father. Time has passed and is passing; one day, my time as a father every day, too, will be a matter of memories. But every day, as I do this, I think of you and the father that you were and are to me. Because it matters.
And thanks, dad.