Remembering Dad

Published by Leave your thoughts

The high, cold Sierra Mountains.  It is the summer of 1973.  Our boy scout troop has bedded down for the night.  Johnny Ballard is on my right.  Curtis Beesley is on my left.  My dad is standing outside our zipped up tent.

“Okay, boys,” he says. “Watch your ground cover and get some sleep.  They need to move you quite a few miles over that ridge tomorrow.”

Dad hesitates.  I can tell he has made no movement away from the tent.

“Love you, Jimmy,” he says, and walks off.

My friends wait a few minutes, until they think he’s gone, and they start persecuting me with falsetto versions of my dad’s ‘good night.’


I hear it repeated all night and the next morning.  They are merciless. It becomes a kind of greeting, a nickname.

Later, as we prepare to hike off, Dad approaches me. “Sorry,” he says. ‘I embarrassed you in front of your friends.”
He is going back to the trailhead.  Dad won’t be taking the week long trip over the mountains with us, and I think he wants to make sure I’m not angry with him.
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
“You’re going to see some beautiful country,” he says, trying to change the subject, but then returning to it: “You’re not mad at me?”

No, Dad.  Not sure if I convinced you that day, but I never was. You have been gone now for for 17 years, but I always knew you were my biggest fan.  You made it very clear.

The truth is that I can’t write about, or remember, either of my parents without battling a sense that I never really let them know how much they meant to me.  Love can be an awkward revelation.  A few weeks ago, we were up in Santa Barbara and one of Mary’s kitchen staff met us on Stearn’s Wharf, along with her family.  On a pier, suspended over the ocean, with all that sky and wind and salt around you, it feels something like a chapter mark, a time-stamp, as though you are actually inside the picture that begs to be taken.  I looked over at Mary’s friend.  She was embracing her fifteen year old daughter, holding her tight. It was a gesture that had “I love you” written all over it, and it made me wonder, as both a father and a son, how many of those moments I missed.

I think my father actually understood that question himself.  He could be working in the backyard, or driving us off to the Sierras, or golfing, and he would break out into an old Gene Autry tune, “I’d give all that I own if I could but atone to that silver-haired daddy of mine.”

I’ve written a little about Dad’s life in my book, but I never considered this specific memory.  I don’t think he was singing it to us just by way of guilt trip–a reminder that parents are worth honoring. There was something plaintive in his voice, as though he were contemplating amends he would make to his own father if he could. I can’t imagine those offenses were very great. He was a good son, but as we get older, as our own parenthood reminds us how helpless our children really are, how they need our constant care, we begin to realize the enormity of our debt to our parents, and what that teaches us about our debt to God.

You begin to feel what I think my dad felt when he sang that old song.  There are debts we can’t possibly repay.



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This post was written by Jim Riley

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