This weekend, my 94 year old Grandad died. My father texted me from Portland, told me it was important and to call, and I knew. I knew right away. I said out loud to B, He’s going to tell me Grandad died. And I was so stoic about it. I said, aloud, again, He lived a really rad life. But as soon as I got on the phone with my father, I cried. And I didn’t stop for a long time.
I’m not ready to write about it. But I will be, I think, soon. Because my papa is also a writer and he taught me the therapeutic nature of it as soon as I could hold a pen. He wrote this story about my Grandad in 2006. It’s even better today.
What I Really Wanted To Give My Dad Was Not Mine To Give
By Jonathan Nicholas
His tie is tightly knotted, the same slim four-in-hand he taught me when I turned 11. The shoes are shined, the shirt is ironed, its barrel cuffs shot to show.
My dad may be dapper, but at age 86 he’s not the kind of guy to waste a full 50 cents on parking. So he waits beside the car, watching as I step from the train and walk the windswept platform, trailing the bag that brings the Father’s Day gift I’m hauling from Portland. It’s a model locomotive much like the one, his childhood toy, he gave me years ago.
We smile. We shake hands. Then, in an unspoken rite of passage, he hands me the keys to his car. With a left hand long idled by New World driving, I fumble for the gear stick as he reaches over to turn on the wipers. It’s raining as we pull out of the station. It’s always raining in Wales.
Thick mists infest these sheep-strewn hills, occasionally gathering themselves into clouds of purpose, hurtling down-valley in hard, sharp showers. It’s at the head of one of these valleys, clad in wool and wistfulness, that my dad lives in one of Britain’s sorriest towns.
Merthyr Tydfil long was known as the place with air so dirty that women wouldn’t hang out their washing to dry. Today, it’s less celebrated for its coal than for its civic sadness. Downtown, half the buildings are shuttered. The local diet, long dominated by fish and chips, has new staples: heroin and Ritalin. Along the worn gray ribbons of row houses, burglar alarms all but outsell beer. Rain washes the sidewalks but never gets them clean.
My father’s response to this civic situation is to grow flowers. His specialty is geraniums. Best he can recall, around 1966 he ordered two dozen starts. He hasn’t bought one since. Each fall, from fading flowers, he harvests cuttings, incubates them, nurtures and coddles them by the hundred. He undertakes this task in his kitchen, where the plants pass the winter graduating through an ascending series of pots of perlite and peat, every countertop crowded with potential.
Come spring, my dad places these plants in his garden and, as the production line has expanded, around his neighborhood. With the artful network of elevated pots and raised beds, he has no problem. But he no longer likes stooping to trowel the ground. So I go home to help. I could get everything planted in a couple of days. But, through almost 40 years of this, my dad has developed a system. It’s a ritualistic, labor-intensive, chronically choreographed routine that tries my patience. Slowly, too slowly, I’ve come to realize that, for a fellow widowed for almost four decades who has spent half his life exploring the territory between solitude and loneliness, efficiency is the least of life’s priorities.
The purpose is the doing, not the getting done.
And so, at last, I’ve learned to savor the sylvan, sensuous quality of my dad’s days. All through the spring, as mornings warm and night frosts linger, he carries his hundreds of flowerpots up and down the garden path, sun to shade to shelter. He waters only with pure rain, harvested in barrels and poured by hand.
A few weeks back, on the third day of my visit, my dad finally entrusts me with the first 50 geraniums. At his workbench, he carefully taps out each, cradling it with soil-stained thumbs before handing it to me. In the garden, I bend and burrow until each plant is firmed and settled. Then I stake and tie, prune and pretty, as my dad’s desired “higgedly-piggedly” pattern of color takes shape across the yard.
It’s late May, and Welsh spring is well under way. No more lingering at the breakfast table, slacking with the tabloids. By 7 a.m., my dad, wearing shirt and tie as he does each day, every day, whether to meet the mayor or the manure truck, is ready for action. We dig, we plant, we water, we hoe. Then we pause and eat meat pies.
As we work on through the long afternoon, lawn bowlers heading for the nearby green stop to chat over the garden fence. Women half his age flirt with my dad. They trade seedlings, rhubarb tarts and gossip. In the evening, over the hedge, I hear the bowlers gathering, their conversation punctuated by the thwick and thwack of wooden balls caroming across the damp grass. They play until someone, anyone, suggests a beer. And off they troop into the club’s damp-smelling parlor, where my dad joins men he’s known since school days. And the ale flows warm and flat, and oft-told tales get repeated, night after comforting night.
As darkness falls, all the youngsters get sent home, save one, the barmaid. In between pours, she works on her high school homework, charting her escape.
On Father’s Day, a son is supposed to give something to his dad. The model train, a lovely 1955 Lionel, was a token. For what I really wanted to give my Dad was not mine to give. What a dad wants, what a dad deserves, is a sense of place in the world, a sense of a life well-lived, a sense of a job well done. It’s something so many of us try to create for our parents, often in communities of our own imagining. And it’s something so many of us imperil, as we work to tear our parents from their lives and haul them, often as reluctant guests, into our own.
Too few dads savor the security my father has created for himself with his garden and his bowling green. Too many sons are too mobile, too ambitious, too keen to stretch our connections across vast spaces. Too many Father’s Day greetings are exchanged over a phone than a flowerpot.
Just before supper - Caerphilly cheese and pickled onions - I slip away to the distant bottom of the garden to renew battle with the blackberries. A 20-year infestation long has blocked any hope of access to the far corner of the lot. I hack, I heave, I curse. After finally clearing a tunnel, I set steppingstones, thus opening an all-but-hidden walkway around the perimeter of the garden. My dad, watching from the window, seems dubious, even after I assure him his great-grandchildren will love this secret passage. Later, as I’m sitting inside, gazing on the garden, I catch him all alone, out there with the moon. Warily he places his weight on each stone, testing it. Maybe the boy has some use after all?
Our last morning together, over tea and marmaladen toast, in an uncharacteristic burst of conversation, he thanks me for all that I’ve done. The challenge of the garden, building all winter, has been met. The husbanding of hundreds of seedlings has not, after all, been in vain. He swears he’ll never bother again. “No,” I say, not believing it for an instant. “Too much work.”
On the ride to the railway station, we pass the new Wal-Mart risen on the ridge over Merthyr Tydfil. The modern world is coming to Wales. My dad seems to have outrun it. For a moment, in the parking lot, we stand awkwardly together. It’s the same spot where, 30 years ago, he slipped $200 into my pocket and sent me off to America. Just as he did then, he hurries. He shakes my hand, the grip firm but fleeting. “I’ll be taking cuttings from those geraniums in October,” he says. “I could just tell you how I do it,” he says. “But geraniums are funny. Better, you come home and I’ll show you how it’s done.”