Dad

My dad in the mountains, photo by Jeanne

My dad is living his dream, and I’m taking notes on how to prioritize this.

At 82, he lives quietly in the Eastern Oregon city of La Grande. She’s a town smaller than Pendleton, famous for blankets and a round-up, and without the it-factor of Bend. La Grande is a town with a Walmart but no airport, train tracks but no station. There’s a main street, a small college and a hospital on the hill. My dad and his wife bought a cozy house near this hospital, surrounded by trails, rivers and wilderness to explore. Faint tracks of the Oregon Trail can be found in its vicinity, and the town’s perimeter is flanked by the Umatilla forest, Anthony Lakes and Wallowa regions.

Biographies and sewing projects fill the house, their own landscape photographs are framed on the walls, Saturday Duck games play on full volume, and there are cooking and house projects. My stepmother, Jeanne, has endless energy and keeps my dad far from sedentary. They are visited by grandchildren. Happy hour is often a single gin and tonic at 5pm, with a cereal bowl of Ruffles, and sometimes they’ll sit by the outdoor stove. Some nights, just to mix it up, they’ll sleep in the guest bedroom; a room paneled with dark pine and windows that look out on the Wallowa mountain range.

My dad was about my current age when he remarried, and now he has been married for 33 years (his first marriage, to my mom, lasted 14 years — in sum he’s logged some serious years as a married man). The math I muddle through puts him getting married part deux at 49, a couple of years older than me now, and this perspective helps me adjust my own longevity.

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My mother’s sudden death last year has gifted me a few things. Weird to say, I know, but I have to embrace that truth. Like having a greater understanding of the brevity of life, the value of “things” versus “experiences” and letting go of the web of hypothetical worry. And of course, to appreciate those who are still here, like my dad.

See, my dad has always been like this: stoic, loyal, and like a rock beneath me that’s always there yet sometimes I forget to appreciate because it’s unmoving and still, unflashy. Sometimes he’s like a rock in that I have to work to eek out an emotion, something my mom gave me in spades.

The gifts my dad has given me, and continues to offer, are not tangible but have molded who I am at the core. And, in turn, I gift them to my children.

My dad taught me to harbor a deep, innate love of the natural world. I grew up hearing stories about Dad hiking the Idaho wilderness, running into bears on the trail or backpacking alone. He drove from Oregon to Alaska with a buddy when I was young, and took our family into the Wallowa mountains to swim in the glacial lakes. There are countless photos of me as a kid, usually with a berry-stained shirt and a 1970’s shaggy haircut, walking a dirt trail in the wilderness. When my boys were around four and two, my dad and Jeanne took them into the Northwest mountains for camping — no parents allowed! They did this annually for years, until summer ball and jobs got in the way.

He taught me how to play. There was Monster, Bicycle, and endless drawing games. He taught me how to play Poker, 21, Hearts and Pig. Board games for days. Charades. He thinks pranks are hilarious. He thinks people falling down, pratfalls and physical comedy, warrant a deep belly laugh. He has weird personas that come out like The General who sits at the dinner table and eyes your poor table manners. If we toss the cards too hard when dealing a card game, he complains: you would get shot in Vegas.

Travel. I would beg him to tell me stories about his adventures across Europe and in Africa. There was the time he found a watch and sold it so that he could afford a train ticket to meet his parents for their trans-Atlantic trip back to the US. How he attended high school in Turkey, and later when he married my mom, bought an old VW and drove it around Holland. There are tribal carvings and paintings in our home from Kenya, and I still wear gold leaf earrings he bought for my mom in Somalia.

A love of movies. Not films that would make the NYU film school list, but the movies that stuck with you as kids. He brought me to the theater for The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future, ET, and Castaway. We’ve watched all of the Indiana Jones movies countless times. My dad has his PhD in Anthropology, and spent time in the CIA so yes, I think he has a strong belief that in an alternate universe he was Indy.

Story. This pairs well with the aforementioned love of film, yet goes beyond that medium. As a child, my dad would tell my brother and I stories. He would sit on the edge of the bed, tired after a long day of work, and tell us adventure stories. There were always mountains to cross, horses to ride, and dark villains to fight. I know this is where the fire for story lit in me, in all forms, whether it’s read, watched or listened to, and now I find myself teaching storytelling to kids in school.

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When my dad was nearing 50, my age, he had already lived a full life as a Korean war veteran, a stint as a CIA officer, hitchiked across Europe and attained his PhD in Anthropology. He lived with loggers in Idaho, studied tribes in Kenya, and learned a fair amount of German and French.

Around 50 he was working as a database engineer for the county health department in Portland. Not quite as intriguing as the CIA, right? But he was self-taught, and had the foresight to understand that computers were the future, and worked for many years for the steady paycheck. He married my stepmom, a graphic designer, in 1989, and over the years they built an online business designing and manufacturing beer, wine and food labels. This exploded with popularity and made them not only financially stable, but successful. After two decades of running the business, they moved to that small town in Oregon to escape the packed freeways of Portland (and a whole mess of other stuff that city suffers).

So my dad was 75 when he and his wife moved four hours east of Portland and built their quiet life in the clean air of that small town. When I go up there with my kids, we spend afternoons swimming in the chilly Grande Ronde river, hiking high up the rolling hills, or exploring the historic main street with its single movie theater and new hip coffee shop.

A cool morning with best friend Buddy, moment captured by Jeanne

How do I nurture those parts of me that I love, that ultimately he gifted me? That list brings me joy, and I need to prioritize joy. I think, that prioritizing joy leads to living your dream. Doesn’t that sound about right?

I ask myself what I want with my remaining time with my dad. He seems so far away, all the way up north in Oregon while I remain down in Southern California. I’m relegated to seeing him 2–3 times each year, but a choice I made 25 years ago. And how many years do I have left? I guess, how many years do any of us have left?

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Morning job: writing, meditating, yoga. Day job: teaching kids how to collaborate and write stories. Night job: reading + watching stories. Always job: mama.

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Tess Williamson

Tess Williamson

Morning job: writing, meditating, yoga. Day job: teaching kids how to collaborate and write stories. Night job: reading + watching stories. Always job: mama.