There were times in my mid-20s, shortly after my father died, that I imagined myself, in essence, taking over my father’s life. I imagined joining a weekly bowling league in the winter and a weekly golf league in the summer, and spending my Friday night happy hours at some dive like the Ace Bar – one of my dad’s old haunts when he was in his mid-20s.
So as I write this from a fancy villa in Saudi Arabia – even the word villa sounds fancy on my tongue – I often wonder what my father would have thought of this interesting life detour. I also often contemplate what my father’s mother, my Grandma Kathy, the matriarch of our family, would think.
And then I worry that I might have been afraid to make this move had he (and she) been alive. I can’t help but wonder if my perspective would have been different had I had my father’s reaction to gauge.
My mother is a vibrant 70-year-old, 18 years a widower. She travels the world aboard cruise ships a couple times a year, and is, quite possibly, more alive than she’s ever been. She is slowly phasing out her involvement in the game of golf, opting instead to play hours upon hours of pickleball. Backward indeed. Instead of focusing on a diet high in fiber, she seems to be focused on corn dogs from a local legendary corndog truck vendor, so much so that she rides her bike past the corndog truck person’s house and if the truck is not parked in the driveway she rides her bike around town until she locates the truck. Some people call it stalking. My mom calls it a diet plan. A friend of ours has begun referring to my mother as Hashtag Retirement Goals, as her daily agenda reads like a teenager’s on summer break.
But my mother is also Scandinavian, and so goodbyes are either awkward or sometimes non-existent. For those of you reading this who hail from “hugging” families and end every phone conversation with “I love you,” I often look at you with wonder. I feel awkward when I’m even around you and you’re tossing around I Love Yous so fast-and-loose. It’s just not what our family does.
Despite that vacuum of hugs and I Love Yous, there’s never been a moment of doubt of my parents love and devotion for my sister and me.
So separating from my mother, who’d recently moved to be closer to my sister and me, wasn’t that hard because our family doesn’t really do goodbyes. We are fine with communicating every couple weeks. I look at it this way: My mother respects my adulthood (albeit, I arrived at it somewhat belatedly). She respects our family’s decision to move far away. She is excited to visit us.
But because I was 23 years old when my father died, only four months a college graduate, I never reached the point where I interacted with my father in an adult-to-adult manner. So, naturally, I am left to wonder how my adult life would’ve been different had he been involved in it.
This move to Saudi Arabia being by far the biggest outlier in my adult life, it’s not surprising my mind meanders around and through many thoughts about what his impact would’ve been on this life detour.
Nindede, an Ojibwe word, translates to dad, or father. Nindede is not a word I’ve ever used in reference to my father, nor even a word I’m sure how to pronounce. But it does open up a window to my father, who was not Native American but grew up on Leech Lake, a big and beautiful body of water in northern Minnesota. It is home to a band of the Ojibwe tribe, and, hence, many of my father’s closest friends during his most impressionable years were Ojibwe. My father used to speak to me in Ojibwe from time to time, and I remember it giving him great pleasure to do so.
His closest friend in high school — and later the best man in his wedding — was Larry Aitken, who to my father was a classmate, a great athlete, a beer drinking buddy. Aitken, Ojibwe member, went on to found the Leech Lake Tribal College in 1990 and serve as its first president. He later became the tribe’s spiritual healer. As were many people in my father’s early life, he and Larry were first generation college graduates of their families.
My father double majored in sociology and psychology, and so obviously he did what all sociology and psychology double majors do … he went into insurance. Specifically, he was an insurance claims adjuster, so when people’s lives were at their worst (think tornadoes, floods and hail), my father had to be at his best, showing up at people’s front doors to survey the damage and help them rebuild their lives.
And that may sound like a minor detail, but the fact he worked in the insurance business had no small impact on the way my father lived. He was risk averse. He used to tell me about his $2 blackjack wagers he liked to make at Jackpot Junction, one of the early Indian casinos located in the heart of his insurance adjusting territory. I was only 16 years old at the time, but I was instinctively more wager oriented than my father, so I understood that his 20-minute in-and-out trips to the casino between work appointments were $20 wins or losses. My father was so risk averse that in wanting to serve his country he signed up for the Army Reserves … as a cook. How he managed that I’m unsure; with the exception of popcorn (non microwavable) and French toast, I never saw him cook.
Leaving aside for now his overindulgence with alcohol, he was fiscally conservative. He learned to take five-minute showers in the army and expected that of his family. Because of my father’s disdain for wasting water I didn’t know what a courtesy flush was until I was 26 years old. The term “Energy Waster” was a constant phrase he uttered under his breath as he walked around the house behind his kids, turning off lights in the rooms we’d recently vacated.
Regarding his alcohol use, he was certainly pre-ordained. His kin have all had minor or major issues with it, and then throw on top of that a job in which day-in-and-day-out he dealt with people in their saddest moments, and it somewhat explains his “work from home” afternoons and evenings with a dictation machine in one hand and a drink in the other. Certainly I’m not making excuses, and his alcohol abuse certainly contributed indirectly to his truncated life, but because he was a functioning alcoholic who awoke each morning and went to work, it didn’t stand out.
One area, though, where I think his drinking proved detrimental was on his ability to get to know his children as we progressed through adolescence and passed into early adulthood. My sister said to me recently “I never knew him as a fellow adult.” She was 20 when our father died, I was 23. Sadly, neither did I, partly because I was slow in maturing, but partly because I never transitioned into that mode where he and I talked as fellow adults, peer to peer. Despite being very sick, my father attended my college graduation party, and for the first time we drank beer in the same room but not together. That serves as a metaphor of how close we were to having an adult-to-adult relationship. In the same room but not together.
At the time of his death, my life and sister’s life were in major transitions. Try as I may, I have never been able to imagine my father as an old man, or as a man living during the time of internet and social media and cell phones, which, of course, has greatly shrunk the size of the world. He was a wonderful Nindede, but I was ready for the next stage with my father: Life After Nindede.
So as I enter my ninth full week in Saudi Arabia, I am pondering “What would Gary Worth have thought of this drastic mid-life move?” and “Would my perspective have been drastically altered on making such a move if I’d been able to have a peer-to-peer relationship with my father?”
I suspect the first thing he would have done upon hearing the news of our move would’ve been to purchase a book about the Middle East. He would’ve wanted to learn everything he could about the area. (Yes, a book. He died in 1998, and I suspect my father’s hands never touched a computer keyboard, let alone typed in a web address.) And he wouldn’t have purchased “Middle East For Dummies,” but probably something truly insightful about the region and its culture, maybe something by Thomas Friedman. While Gary Worth certainly read for pleasure – Louis L’Amour and James Michener, among his favorites — he mostly viewed reading as a portal to enlightenment. He read the bible on the toilet, for goodness sakes. This man wanted to know more about things he didn’t previously know.
My father was a voracious reader. The cliched term of reading the newspaper “cover-to-cover” actually applied to my father. Sunday mornings were always a treat. French toast after church — and mimosas if my grandma Kathy was involved — and the Sunday Star Tribune. My children will never know the glory that is the Sunday morning newspaper, thick as a big city phone book (wait, my kids will never know a phonebook, either). And my father read it all, including the comics, especially Peanuts and Doonesbury.
He loved comic strips, as he saw in them the power and beauty of satire. Comic strip story telling was Twitter before Twitter. They said so much in so few words. I remember he used to hand me a comic once in awhile to see if I appreciated the same humor. It was my first “deep readings”. I saw it as a challenge: Could I understand the comics that adults found funny?
I also distinctly remember a book on his bookshelf — just down the row from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and Howard Cosell’s memoir “I Never Played The Game” — titled “Raising A Daughter” (or some self-help title in that vein). My younger sister was far from a dangerous teenage rebel, but she and I both had our hormone-related bumps in the behavior road.
This was Gary Worth, wanting to know more about a topic on which he felt he didn’t previously know enough. His voracity for knowledge has certainly impacted many facets of my life, especially how I parent his grandchildren.
Here With Me
Prior to 2014, Saudi Arabia issued no leisure tourism visas, and, with the exception of religious pilgrimage visas to Mecca and Medina, tourism visas are still extremely rare. For those of us with work visas, our only visitors allowed in country are our parents and our siblings. It’s understandable that siblings don’t often visit, as in many cases they are likely working and raising families and creating their own memories. Yet from the stories I heard from our neighbors, some parents choose not to visit them in Kingdom. Certainly, that often has to do with financials, but some who do have the means choose instead to meet up with their expat family members at other worldly locations. That’s understandable. Maybe KSA wasn’t one of their bucket list destinations. But I want my mother to see the life we have here, to see we’re OK, to be reassured that her grandchildren are thriving.
I am excited my mother is planning a trip to the Kingdom for late-winter or early spring of 2017. Certainly she wants to do a meet-up vacation someday, too, but first she wants to see the way we live our daily lives as expat teachers. She wants to see her son as an adult, an adult making his way halfway across the globe. Where he teaches and where he walks. And I suppose she also wants to see her grandchildren’s school, too.
And while it’s certainly not the life my father nor I would’ve envisioned (definitely no Ace Bar near here), had we been able to experience that coveted adult-to-adult relationship, I can say with confidence he’d have been in the airplane seat next to my mother, finishing the final pages of a Thomas Friedman book, eager to exit the airplane and learn all about a region of the world so vastly misunderstood by so many westerners.