My parents moved out of their home and into my sister's house last June. As the family helped them move their belongings, Dad handed me a large box stacked high with papers. Growing up with a freelance journalist, I was used to lugging around his clipped articles, scribbled notes, and the other mish-mash of a writer's life. But they were moving into the extra bedroom in my sister's not-so-large house. It was time to wean Dad from his piles of clutter.
"You're going to have to go through this, Dad, and sift out what's important," I said firmly. "There just isn't room for a bunch of old papers at Liz's house."
"I've sifted, Judy," Dad responded. "Everything in there is important. It's all about you. I'm passing it on."
I left with the box. Over the next few weeks I proceeded to slowly page through my past. The box was chock full of things I had written over the years that I'd never realized my father had saved. Studying scribbled preschool drawings and letters I'd sent home in college, I was able to reflect on my evolution as a person. But more than that, this box of memories revealed something about my father and the way he loves his daughter.
Dad hasn't always been able to verbalize his affection. He bases his relationships on the footings of intellectualism. But as a journalist, he appreciates the power of the written word in all its forms.
The items Dad chose to save over the last 40 years revealed a sentimentality I had not known he possessed.
Many parents save their children's best work: the kindergarten handprints made into a Mother's Day card, the painting exhibited in the art show at the public library, the high school research paper that earned an "A." My dad didn't save my "greats," but he seemed to have saved everything else - from sketches to shopping lists to doodles I'd made while chatting on the telephone. I think my father realized that these works reflected the real me at different times in my life more than any product produced for school.
Dad wrote notations in the margins, marking the date and recording observations about his daughter. There is my first drawing of a person: a circle with a line over the top. My father had written "Mom" alongside it. Several other blobs are labeled "ice cream cones."
Moving through the box and through my life, I find a Christmas list written when I was 13. I included the name of the catalog, the item number, and page number so there would be no confusion. Dad drew question marks by some items.
Maybe he considered buying them for me, but I doubt it. I'd always give such lists to my mother, since Christmas shopping fell into her domain. But obviously my wish list meant something to Dad. After all, he'd gotten it from Mom and saved it for more than a quarter century.
I recalled how, during my junior high years, our easygoing relationship had given way to increasing tension and conflict. Perhaps this list was my dad's way of trying to better understand his teenage daughter.
Another item I discovered in the box was a poem my father wrote and read at the father-daughter banquet put on by a club at my high school.
As I reread this poem years later, I recalled the mortification I'd felt when one of my teachers asked Dad to give the welcome speech.
The thought of my dorky dad speaking in front of all my friends was too painful to imagine. I begged him not to come. I cried, I screamed, I ranted and raved - all to no avail. At the banquet, my father stood at the front of the room and read a quirky poem he'd written. He incorporated part of Ogden Nash's wisdom on daughters and then threw in this line: "Tonight I have two daughters here - out there is one named Judy. She's my moody, broody, candy-bars-fer-foody, often fruity, pulchritudinous sweet beauty."
I survived the banquet. My dad was a great hit with my friends and teachers. He never spoke at another of my events, and his poem would have disappeared from memory except for the fact that Dad had saved it in the box. Now, years later, a copy of the poem in hand, I finally looked up the word "pulchritudinous" in the dictionary and realized Dad had complimented me.
The deeper I dug in the box, the closer I came to the present: high school and college grade transcripts; many, many rough drafts of research papers I had asked my father to edit; letters I'd written to Dad asking for advice on job applications. I found a wedding to-do list with my soon-to-be married name written all around the margins. Also included were articles my dad had loaned me, evidence of the growing intellectual companionship we formed as I matured. I found a bookmark that had been enclosed in a radical piece of left-wing literature, my father's favorite reading material. On it Dad had scrawled: "If you read this thoroughly, then you will see what still can happen as you build your own big picture ... your own future vision of your world and your place in it."
My intellectual sparring with my father doesn't have the intensity it once did. But I know exactly where to find my dad. His presence among these papers is tangible. Leafing through them helps me recapture our relationship at precise moments in time.
This box from my past was a priceless gift from a father to his daughter - a treasure trove of memories of my life with evidence of my dad's steady, gentle presence year after year.