Weekends with DadAugust 14th, 2009 at 7:31
For the first three years after our mom and dad divorced our dad continued to live in Ann Arbor. Though he was no longer in the house he made the effort to be very much a part of our lives, taking us to the Food & Drug lunch counter for school day lunches and having us spend the classic divorce two weekends a month with him. He was not just going through the motions of the non-custodial parent, he really enjoyed having us with him and it gave him and he always thought up fun things for us to do together.
His first place was on Henry Street, just off State Street a mile south of the University of Michigan campus and a half mile east of the stadium. He lived with two UofM graduate students in a three bedroom apartment. Being near the stadium and basketball arena and the whole University athletic complex there were plenty of practice fields close by where we could play baseball, football or basketball together.
Sure he was a dad playing ball with his kids, but the interaction was more like peers or buddies than some patriarchal father figure. He played every sport like he meant it, even if just the three of us, with a competitive intensity which included getting mad occasionally when he missed a shot of whiffed on one of our pitches. Mind you, he never got mad at us, just his own athletic imperfections. That said, he was a reasonably good at baseball, basketball, football, tennis and even frisbee. Later we would find out that he was an excellent handball, racquetball and squash player as well.
He would sometimes recruit his apartment-mates to play with us or would meet people out on the practice fields and encourage them to join us in a pickup game. If nothing else the three of us would play…
• Us two against him in basketball or a shooting game like HORSE.
• One of us pitching, one hitting and the third in the field, sometimes pretending that we were all major league baseball players. (This was the precursor to my brother and I inventing our own sports leagues, see “Table Top Hockey” and “Big League Manager”.)
• One of us quarterbacking, one of us going out for a pass and the third on defence.
After a year he moved from Henry Street to another shared apartment with two other graduate students on the east side of campus by the University Hospital and the Nichols Arboretum and then soon after got his own place with “The Arb” as it was called practically in his backyard. This added the dimension for our weekends together of hikes and adventures in the woods and hills of the place.
But then he got a good professorship at a black college, Wilberforce University in southern Ohio, which he accepted and moved 200 miles to the south to a little backwater town of Xenia. He got an upstairs apartment in the back of a family’s home with the tiniest little kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom I had ever seen.
Still twice a month we would spend the weekend with him, but now it was a much bigger effort on his part. If he had a Friday afternoon class he would get a colleague to cover it. After an early lunch he would make the four-hour drive from Xenia to Ann Arbor, load us in his car, and drive another four hours back. We would spend Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning with him, then after usually a fast-food lunch on Sunday, drive us back to Ann Arbor and return to Xenia that evening. All told 16 hours of driving to spend a day and a half with us. It brings tears to my eyes now to write about this, thinking about the commitment he made to us by making this effort, basically twice a month, twelve month a year for the next eight year, until both my brother and I went off to college.
The weekend agenda was usually…
• Friday night watching TV – A baseball game maybe in the summertime or a basketball game in the winter – or some pulp TV action or sci-fi show
• Saturday morning sleeping in, hanging out, going to the grocery store or other errands
• Saturday lunch at a fast-food place followed by an afternoon of playing baseball, basketball, football or tennis, depending on the time of year and the availability of others to join in. (I remember winter Saturday afternoons where the three of us would play football clomping thru or slipping and sliding in the snow.) A couple time a year we would even venture to a Cincinnati Reds baseball or Royals basketball game.
• Saturday evening out for dinner at one of my dad’s favorite inexpensive places. (Sizzler is the one I remember.)
• Sunday morning hanging out at his place, him grading papers or preparing assignments for his classes the week ahead.
• Sunday afternoon the journey back.
Nothing extraordinary in the above, but the whole ritual of it is burned into me so that 30 years later I still remember it well. It was our dad that believed that life was a great adventure, though he never said it in so many words. Though each weekend stuck pretty much to the routine, the Saturdays could find us playing tennis or basketball at a different park, playing a pick up baseball game in the field behind his house, playing racquetball at the Antioch College gymnasium (where he taught a few classes beyond his full-time position at Wilberforce), watching the Cincinnati Reds play at old Crosley Field or even venturing on a road trip to find some funky miniature golf course or a movie playing at a drive-in in the next town over.
I think it was 1968 when my brother and I were chauffeured down to Xenia for weekends with our father. I was really into Simon and Garfunkel, and I would bring their albums on these weekend sojourns and listen to them over and over again. I was 13 and did not know who the hell I was or what the hell it meant to be happy. All their songs from this period stick with me, “The Dangling Conversation”, “I am a Rock”, and particularly “For Emily…”. The lyrics of that song run through my head from time to time culminating in the “Oh how I loved you.” Oh how I loved you dad and how I knew you loved my brother and I.
It is interesting the timing of things looking back. It was right about the time my brother was headed off to college at the University of Chicago (I was already attending the University of Michigan) that my mom finally agreed to my dad’s long-standing proposal to remarry each other. Possibly one or both of them were impacted by the empty nest, though I am only putting this together now and they are both no longer with us to confirm or deny this speculation.
And I became a parent in the big megalopolis of Los Angeles, where parents with the resources to have a car drive their kids all over the place. And when faced with an hour drive to take my son to his pre-school over the hill in Venice or a half hour drive to take my daughter to her best friend’s in Burbank, I never balked or complained. I felt like I was honoring my dad every time, paying forward how much I loved him.