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Tag Archives: 1980s

I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

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Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons

My dad wasted a fortune trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I started with lessons at 5 or 6 and quit when I was around 17. I have little to show for them.

It wasn’t a total bust though. I got to spend an hour a week with Mrs. Park.

Oh, how I loved her.

Joo Eun “June” Park was a goddess. The daughter of a successful father and the wife of a successful businessman, she lived in a spacious contemporary home with an open design, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furnishings. I had never before experienced a cool leather sectional or a plush white carpet. I had never been in a house anything like this. Her studio was off the kitchen. We slid open the glass door and entered a world of delicious aromas.

Mrs. Park herself was the picture of mod glamour—even when she was dressed for housework. You just knew she was meant to be a jet setter. Sometimes we arrived right after she had returned from the tennis court, and she sported a tiny tennis dress with gigantic sunglasses. She was quite the athlete, swimming countless laps for fitness.

She had a beautiful moon face, perfect skin, and lovely tapering fingers. I loved her clean-smelling kimchi breath, and her musical, girlish laugh. I loved the way she punctuated her speech and gestures with a deep “unh” which I could understand without knowing how.

I loved being loved by Mrs. Park.

Mirrored in Mrs. Park’s eyes, my sister Gwen and I felt special and adorable. Those sunny eyes showed affection, and it was clear that we were more than just a paycheck.

Mrs. Park was no pushover. She could be irritable. My lower lip trembled when she rapped my knuckles with her pencil: “Position! Position!” And the way she corrected her sons hinted at steel and impatience. But when we had the sniffles, Mrs. Park brought us into the kitchen and gave us chewable Vitamin C tablets. If they were gone, she opened the freezer, plunged a big spoon into a frozen cylinder of orange juice, pulled out a glob, and fed it to us like a popsicle. She taught us about kimbap and shared her fascinating food with us.

We had to give her up for 4 years when we went to Germany. We ended up with Frau Ristevski, God help her. Gwen and I were rotten. I mean rotten. She didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Mrs. Park.

Mrs. Ristevski lived in a teensy apartment under the roof of a tall Altbau (a surviving pre-WW II house, which had been divided into apartments) with her husband and son.

Gwen and I dreaded our lessons
PLUS
Gwen and I were responsible for getting ourselves to our lessons
PLUS
Our parents did little to monitor our progress beyond writing a monthly check
EQUALS
Nothing good

We would hop on our bikes at 4:55 for the 25 minute bike race across the city for our 5:00 lesson; arrive sweaty, breathless, and unprepared; and piss her the hell off. Every week.

You would think I’d have had the sense to rebel and just quit piano lessons upon our return to the U.S.  You would think. But Mrs. Park had seen something in me which was good and promising, and it was hard to resist the lure.

Once we returned, I stuck with piano even when I fell so in love with running and my team that the only way I could continue lessons was to run several miles to her house on one of my long-distance days.

Mrs. Park was a good sport. She protected her piano bench with a thick towel to sop up my sweat and stink without ever telling me off. I am sad and ashamed when I think of how long we continued this painful farce—me still hoping to please her by living up to my early potential and both of us knowing it was never going to happen.

My last recital was the last straw. I had not prepared and I was unable to remember the piece despite many (many!) sloppy stops and starts. I quietly got up from the bench, returned to my seat, and called it a day. I refused to meet any eyes, I and left to walk home the second the last player finished. Not long after that, Mrs. Park moved to Korea, and I lost track of her.

My friendship with Mrs. Park was briefly rekindled many years later when my daughters were small. My sister had chanced to run into her. It turned out Mrs. Park had moved back to the area and was very excited to find us. She quickly made plans to get together with us, and we did meet a few times. Sadly, the reunion didn’t stick.

Mrs. Park’s sons were grown and out of the house. She was lonely and looking for a daughter. I felt both her hunger and the weight of her expectations, and I knew I couldn’t be the person she sought. I was unable to reciprocate her lavish gestures financially or emotionally, and I became uncomfortable. We lost touch.

Both of my counseling offices are near Korean markets, and I go often to touch, smell, and buy ingredients for my next culinary adventure. Once, as I scrutinized a bag of Korean pancake mix with a furrowed brow, trying to recall what was in Mrs. Park’s pancakes, a white-haired granny no taller than my shoulder grabbed me and dragged me through the store. Using gestures alone, she explained how to make the pancakes. I still follow her orders: Pancake mix, green onions, long hot peppers, Korean squash, chives, kimchi. Meat or seafood, optional.

I ran into Mrs. Park in the market a few months ago. I was torn. I wanted to run and hug her. I wanted to hide. In the end, I crept around the store behind her, beaming love at her back, terrified she would turn around.

Thinking about her is giving me a stomach ache. I want to cry.

This is post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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