My father was 43 years old when I was born and, because he was an older parent I suppose, he was especially cautious and protective of his two daughters. He’d lived through the Depression and served in the South Pacific during WWII. He’d seen some hardship and calamity before marrying for the first time at 42, so he was in a more cautious phase of life than he might have been at a younger age.
I have photos of my sister and me on July 4th when we are about 6 and 7 years old, wearing work gloves and sunglasses as we hold sparklers. No chance of burned fingers or sparks in the eyes for us. In other photos, we ride in fishing boats or swim in lakes, always strapped into orange life jackets. In the winter photos, we wear red rubber boots, snow pants, and thick coats with hoods tightly tied under our chins. We took afternoon naps when all of the other neighbor kids were outside laughing and shouting. We were not allowed to race out for ice cream on summer evenings when we heard the ding, ding, ding of the ice cream truck because years before in some part of the city a child was run over by an ice cream truck driver. (Although as a side note, this was an era before child car seats or bicycle helmets. I’m a little surprised my dad didn’t invent those devises.)
I don’t remember being teased by our neighborhood friends for being so restricted. They seemed to accept our adherence to this special treatment as a natural consequence of having an “elderly” father, so unlike their own dads still in their late 20s or early 30s.
I grew up very cocooned. My world was directed by this sedate, honorable man. He would never have pretended to be perfect, but he was trying hard to be a responsible, mature adult. When taking rides in the car through the city, I would spot ramshackle houses and imagine with delight living in such a place, where I could be like Pippi Longstocking, making up my own rules, with an absent father who was a pirate. or maybe a gambler or a crook. How much more interesting life would be!
Would I have been different if my dad had been younger and still finding his own way in the world, testing his strengths, making mistakes, and occasionally neglecting his children and letting them run wild? Would I have been more of a risk-taker? More confident in my own abilities? Bolder, braver, stronger?
One summer vacation we drove to California by way of the Grand Canyon. We spent a night in the nearby cabins and hiked around the rim. Naturally, rules were immediately established: Stay on the official paths at the top. Keep close to Mom and Dad. Do not approach the edge. Do not venture down any trails into the canyon.
I was a tomboy, loving to climb rocks and trees in the parks back home when not under the watchful eye of my father. So I was much drawn to the idea of skittering down the rocky slopes to the trails just below. It looked pretty easy. The trail was only about five feet away. If I sat down, I could ease myself down the slope and land on the trail.
I decided on a plan. Afternoon rain showers often kicked up suddenly in the summer, so I carried a rain jacket that could be stuffed inside its own pocket to form a little pillow. I’d toss that little packet to the trail just below and would thus have to go down there and retrieve it. The rules would have to be set aside for this rescue mission.
I tossed the rain jacket pouch to the trail below and watched as it bounced on the narrow trail (it had not seemed particularly narrow before) and hurtled into the abyss, falling, falling until finally disappearing from sight. Mom, Dad, sister, and I all stood there silently watching its descent.
Turning to me with an expression of utter incomprehension, my father asked “Why did you do that?”
It was a reckless, uninformed maneuver. Of course it made no sense to him. I did not admit what my plan had been. But I was rattled. I had intended to slide down to that trail, which upon closer examination was really not a trail at all but a very slim outcropping. Without my father’s strict rules, I would not have thrown my rain jacket first, but would have scooted down there myself. Wouldn’t I have met the same fate as my rain jacket? I felt dizzy and a little sick at my stomach.
Rules suddenly took on a new significance. So did fathers who made up these rules.
My dad died eighteen years ago. He looms in my memory as a protective force. I close my eyes and see him standing on a southern California beach, the one he’d selected for our family vacation because it was the safest in the state. He’s 54 years old and handsome, looking a bit like John Wayne. He’s bare-chested in madras swim trunks, zinc oxide on his nose, squinting into the sun as he waves his arms, motioning my sister and me to take a break from riding the waves and drag our inflatable mats back up the shore. We have been carried by the waves too far down the beach — not into harms way but too distant from where he was sitting with my mother. She lies on a beach towel, relaxing and reading a book. But not my father. He is on duty, ever alert, watching over us.