Only a month after they called me out of class to tell me that my dad had been in an accident — and that he didn’t make it — I realized I’d started to forget little things about him. I wrote my journal then that soon it would be six months, a year, then 10 years, and my father would be reduced to a just a feeling I’d miss having.
It’s been 16 years since March 23, 2000, and I’m trying to feel that feeling I miss having. I’m thinking about how a father like that, and his death, just like that, put me on the road that led me to Peace Corps and life as a writer.
I’ll start, as I always do when I talk about him, with the fact that he was 6’6”, 300 linebacker pounds set on legs of a bear. People knew him, as Big Pete, not just for his size, but for the way he could make the world change when he walked in a room. I became Yetter-Yets or Little Dee, names of which neither had a logical origin. My mother was Mother Machree. My brother was Captain and my sister Whamos. The floor became a stage where he would whistle and sing while getting ready for work, twirling two black work socks in unison like propellers as he danced back and forth as if he were auditioning for The Drifters. We laughed until the sports came on the news and he said, “SportsCenter, nobody speak,” in a stern voice that maybe other fathers used for real, but from our dad only made us giggle.
Sunday morning pancakes were a performance as well. He would flip each one high, punctuating each throw with noises like a football team — “Hup, hub, hibby, hup!” — Even at his size, he could flip one under his leg like a baton twirler. He’d set my plate down in front of me and say, “Here you are Little Dee,” and then fill up my glass of milk. I’d look up at him and smile that smile that said, “Aren’t you going to cut them for me?” And he would.
I was the youngest and remember being told at the dinner table, in that voice you use when instructing children, that once I turned 12, I would have to cut my own pancakes. The birthday came and went, and for all the time that I had a father, he cut my pancakes, buttered my toast, tied my shoelaces when I flopped my feet over his lap on the couch and even tucked me in at night. Needing to make a joke of it as I got older, he’d dramatically pat the covers, sitting on my bed and doing this silly little giggle that, yes, I can still hear. As he left, he would look back and, one hand on the light switch, say, “Good night, Little Dee,” in a voice that’s like a star, growing dimmer when I try to look right at it.
I try to picture his face now. I remember his skin was smooth and cool, darker than the rest of ours. He’d let me cuddle while we watched tv, perhaps Law & Order or whatever else he’d deemed The Family Show. He’d guess what would happen and then hold up a finger and say, “Prediction!” in a high-pitched voice, and later, if he turned out to be right, it’d be followed by, “Brilliance!” If a sex scene started, he’d say, “Trouble Brewin’,” and cover my eyes.
There were those few times where my dad could take me to school. For him probably a small chore, for me precious alone time. Sometimes my best friend was in the car with me, in his brown towncar he called The Hoopty. There was this one corner with a collection of restaurants, bars and a Burger King. As we approached the corner with the deciding turn lane, we’d beg, “Please can we stop for breakfast? Please?” “Please Mr. P,” my best friend would say. “Not today girls,” he’d say in his fake stern voice. Then, at the last minute, he’d put on his blinker, sigh, and say “I’m too good to you.” And he’d pull into the drive-thru to get us french toast sticks, or take us to the little café where he knew the owner, of course, to get us strawberry cream cheese croissants and himself a coffee. I’d lean on his side as the cash register rang and put out my hand and my best smile and he’d put the change right there every time.
It’s a cloud of confetti, all the moments, hard to get a look at just one. There are just the stories I’ve told over and over.
I tell people about the time our L.L. Bean-ish cousins were visiting, and we went to Adventure Island Waterpark. Dad put all of us in one of those big round tubes at the top of a huge waterslide. He went to get in then, and the attendant said, “No sir, that’s too many!” But my dad just said, “Hup, too late!”, then jumped in and shoved off. We soared off the slide’s bumps in a way that was clearly meant to be avoided by the set weight limit. My cousins went whooping back to their parents, saying, “You would not believe what Uncle Peter did!”
And Oh, yes, The ostrich. Another theme park. Drive-through safari. Of course, there were practically more DO NOT ROLL YOUR WINDOWS DOWN signs than there were animals. “Pass me a cookie,” he said to my mother. An ostrich was walking up to the car. To our amazement, he rolled down the window and passed the cookie to the bird, who pecked at his hand too fast. He jerked his hand back, but the ostrich followed, biting the cookie and my dad’s hand.
He taught me to drive, on I-275, yelling “Malfunction Junction! People die out there!” while I tried to keep my eyes on the road. Driving over the bridge on 60, I’d be getting passed, my eye on my speed. And he’d sigh and say, “Yetter, step on the foot speeder.”
On road trips, either up North or to the grocery store, we were nothing short of secret agents on a mission. “Road Warriors!” he’d call. He’d take my stuffed animals and act like they were driving, even bending down their little padded paws to flick off other drivers.
He was always breaking rules, social or otherwise. When I felt bad once because I was the only one in a group who’d never been to a real play, he made me feel better by saying, “Eh, that crap’s too artsy fartsy for me.”
I still think about that, anytime I’m on the verge of taking life or myself too seriously.
When I got him alone for a few minutes, he would call me, again in the dramatic voice, “Paulette Perhach, cub reporter for the daily planet,” because I’d joined the yearbook. Or he’d sing, “I love you, you love me, we’re as happy as two birds in a tree.” Or he’d say I had too much makeup on and follow it up with, “You’re naturally beautiful,” again, in a joking, high-pitched voice.
When I was in elementary school I taught him one of those hand-smacking games little girls play at recess. Even until I was 17, he would stop me passing in the hallway, clap his hands together and dramatically say, “Ready?” He’d put his left to my right, his right to my left with a look of intense concentration. We’d play faster and faster until we were just smacking at each other and we’d laughed and he’d hug me and say, “Ya crazy cracker.”
My father never fully made that transition into the father figure who pretended he never used a cuss word or got out of line himself. Many of his fatherly sayings included a word that would have gotten me in trouble had I repeated it in school. These included, “If I need any shit from you, I’ll squeeze your head.” “That looks like ten pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag.” And, “If you throw enough shit against the wall, some of it’s bound to stick.” This last one was repeated to me posthumously on his behalf by my mother years later as advice on meeting Mr. Right.
His finger was pulled upon request numerous times throughout my childhood, setting off the predictable physical reaction. If your face was burned, bruised, swollen or anything of the like, he couldn’t resist but ask if your face hurt, just so you could say yes, and he could say, “It’s killin’ me.” If you were excited go anywhere, he would talk about how he just saw on the news that that very spot had just burned down. When my sister was about to leave to join the Marines, Parris Island was, according to him, a pile of ash.
In recollecting these scraps, I get that feeling. That feeling I miss having. There’s one memory where it’s strongest. We were walking through a department store and I started twirling a lazy susan of silver charms. There were flowers and hearts. He saw me looking and, like I hoped he would, he asked me if I wanted one. Out of all those beautiful trinkets, the one that caught my eye was a solid little piggy. He saw my choice and laughed this laugh, this “I don’t get you sometimes, but I love you anyway” laugh. Maybe that’s it. Of all the people in the world who laugh at you, that there’s one who’s always laughing with you. You can be as weird as you are.
On Valentine’s Day when I was 17, he got me this big card that had a bunny on the front. It said, “You know what I like?” Then I opened it up and it was a pop-up of three hearts that said Y-O-U, strung between the now popping open arms of the bunny. Under it he’d written, Little Dee, Will you be my Valentine? Love, Dad. I laughed and said, like a teenager, “Did mom pick this out for you?” He said, “No, why?” He had no idea how adorable he was. He hugged me and even at 17 I felt like a little girl wrapped in an entire world made up of him, and it was a world sweet and loving where even a trip to the grocery store is an adventure and all my little quirks made me just the much more perfect, the way I am.
Then he died, that next month.
There was so little left. A few clothes. So few pictures. So few notes with his all-caps writing I loved. Just, that’s it.
In ways I’m sure he wanted to, and in one big way he would have never wanted to, my dad taught me about freedom. He showed me freedom to reject the rules of people who wield whistles, or who tell me who I should be or what I should have done. In dying, he showed me how quickly all that we build up can turn to dust and just blow away. How little it all matters in the end. The only thing that matters is now. It’s the kind of attitude that might make someone say, “Screw it, I’m joining the Peace Corps.”
My dad’s gone, but his spirit is so present in my family. My little nephew, named Peter for my dad, has picked up, through osmosis, some of the habits of a grandpa he never knew. When he gets an answer right, he sticks up his index finger and says, “Brilliance!” in that high-pitched voice my dad used to use. We still yell “One down!” when someone drops a plate, just like he used to. He is scattered about us like his ashes in the sea, in our jokes, the mischievous turn of a grin, or any time I turn life into the game and the adventure I know it can be.