(This is the first essay in a three-part series)
A commentary on this series:
I started writing these pieces as a way to document events, and analyze the effect of experiences on my personal life particularly concerning my relationship with my parents and my idea of home (which in doing so, I have learned are all interconnected.) When I had written these essays in the spring of last year, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with them. At the time, I hadn’t moved to London, and my dad hadn’t been planning to move to Portland, but since those two events have occurred, these essays seem even more poignant, especially due to the proximity of October 12th (the anniversary of my mom’s death).
I spoke to relatives on both sides of my family to gain knowledge and insight into times that I was not there to witness as well as memories that have become blurry with the passing of time. I have learned about the impact of personal storytelling and the principal purpose which these written accounts serve.
I have analyzed the difference in memories based on the state of one’s being (alive or dead), the differences between mother and father, and the how these factors impact me. The first and last piece of this portfolio (the ones about my father and my mother) have their own introductions which help provide background and insight into the thought process of writing them. However, as an aside, I will say that on writing about my parents, attempting to remember memories has been much difficult for my mother than that of my father. I think that this is in part because I have spent more time with my father over the years simply because he is here, but also because I have tried to forget a lot of memories because trying to unearth them is painful. Memories, whether happy or sad, have the ability to do that.
Although some memories, especially the ones concerning my mother, took some time to remember, others have occurred subconsciously. Many of them have been embellished by additions from family and friends. It’s like a long game a telephone where each time some details are added where other ones are forgotten. I have written these down many memories as not only the documentation of important parts of my loved one’s lives, but also as a starting place for further discussion. Looking forward, I hope that these essays foster new discussion and open conversation between my family and friends and serve as a written record of experiences with people and places I love.
* * *
Too often I fear that to write about an important relationship, we wait until that person is gone -whether it be the passing of a family member or the conclusion of a romantic relationship. We write about people to solidify a memory and create a legacy, ease the guilt of not reaching out before it was too late, or to help bring clarity to the realm of the unknown. This type of writing can be therapeutic in it’s own right and assist in creating closure. To write this kind of reflective piece, one has to ask for secondary accounts of an experience and draw on deep-seated memories that have often faded through the years.
The first book that I ever read that made this fact brutally clear to me was Annie Ernaux’s La Place, which I read in a French class in college. This book was a reflection on Ernaux’s late father’s life and the relationship that she had with him. In it, she examines the distance which evolved and grew between her and her father as she got older.
As children, we do not understand why or how our parents act in certain ways. On a superficial level, we can’t understand why we can’t go out to the ice cream store down the street every night after dinner or why as a six-year-old we aren’t allowed to see Britney Spears in concert. On a more serious level, we also question our parents’ shortcomings; we see them struggle with decisions, finances, and relationships. Without fully understanding the levity of certain events that becomes clearer with age, we become disappointed and heart broken when as children have the realization that our parents, like everyone else, are merely humans and are prone to err.
This is not my attempt not to reflect on lost loved ones and experiences, but rather to reflect on my relationship with my father. This is not to function as a eulogy but as a pounding of the fists (i.e. high five) to the unique experiences and relationship that we share. I do not want to examine the distance that has grown between us as time has passed as Ernaux did, but rather the distance which has shrunk as I have grown older and, in some ways, he has grown younger.
* * *
Growing up, there was always a general idea that I was expected to do well and try my best. It was never explicitly controlled like some of my friends who were given money if they got A’s or were grounded if they didn’t. I wasn’t lazy, and I was productive during and after school, but at the same time, I was never punished for doing poorly on an exam or not participating in a set amount of extracurricular activities. My dad wasn’t strict, I never had a curfew, and there were few rules. He would later describe his parenting tactic as reminiscent of a toy sailboat in a bathtub: gently blowing it in the direction that he would like it to go, without actually picking it up and changing its trajectory. Despite being allowed to do whatever I wanted, I never felt the need to stray, for fear of disappointing him.
My father grew up under a similar underlying expectation. He was never told that he could or couldn’t do something, he rarely got in trouble, and his parents never worried about his trajectory. Similar to my experience, expectations were never laid out; rather, they were simply present. He would skip out on events with friends or try new things because he was scared of dissatisfying his parents. When he was in middle school, his grandmother taught him how to sew. Once, his friends asked him to come throw the football around, and he said he couldn’t because he had to sew (an incident which he never lived down). In junior high, he won a competition in class for creating the toothpick bridge which could hold the most weight. In high school, he was president of the Science Honor Society and in 1980, he graduated second in his class, and was off to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.
* * *
“I feel like I missed out on a lot of my childhood, and that’s why I am so down to try new things as an adult,” my dad told me while drinking a glass of wine, thirty years post high school.
He’s wearing cool” hipster” glasses with wooden frames, red corduroys, vans and a designer button down shirt that he found at Nordstrom Rack. He’s 53, but he looks and acts like he is 35. I’m used to comments from my friends on his good looks and how he doesn’t look his age. I rather enjoy it to be honest. Not only does it give me hope that I will age well, but it makes me happy to know that my dad is in good shape and taking care of himself. I like to brag about how he acts like a young person, but not in a way that some older people do who have held onto their childhood and act immaturely. He isn’t immature (most of the time), and understands his role as a father, physician, and adult. However, he has been able to “stay young” in a sense.
“Wait,” his friend who sits across the table from us replies. (Note: this friend is also 53 but looks about 45). “You think you are having a second childhood because you were scared to have fun when you were a kid?”
“Yeah, I think I am,” my dad said as he tells us about his most recent purchase of a skateboard, which he occasionally rides to work.
* * *
Most children who participate in illegal activity do so without their parents knowing or without their parents in attendance. However, my father and I can both say we were not in that majority. Before my dad went to college at his father’s alma mater, my grandfather owned an orange 1975 Corvette which he gave to my dad to drive during the summer. At the end of the summer, my dad made sure bring it back cleaner than when he had left it. Of course, my grandfather never specifically said that he had to, but being who he was, with a desire to please his parents, my father decided to do this on his own. While he was cleaning out the car, he found the butt of a joint. When he got home, he carried the roach into his house. He went into his parents’ bathroom where his mother was getting made up for the evening and showed them the joint he had found in the car. His mother immediately covered her mouth with her hands and started shrieking: “Oh my god, Oh my god!” My grandfather on the other hand just burst out laughing.
Later, when my sister and I were teenagers, my father illegally snuck us into a Sean Paul Concert in Costa Rica. My dad had heard on the radio that Sean Paul was coming for a concert at this festival about an hour away from where we were staying. Naturally, he thought driving to a part of a country we know nothing about to see a hip hop artist that we didn’t particularly know, would be a brilliant idea. We showed up and immediately were turned away because my sister and I were clearly under 18. He tried to barter with them in Spanish but they wouldn’t allow it, so we got back in the car and started to drive away. As we were leaving, we drove by a big pick-up truck with the festival’s name on the side of it. They flagged us down and motioned for my dad to roll down his window. They asked us in Spanish: “Why are you leaving? The party is the other way!” and my dad explained the situation. They replied that they worked for the festival and if we got in their car they would drive us inside. I don’t know in what world this was a safe idea, or how it was setting a good example for his young children, but my dad decided ‘yes, lets get into a stranger’s car and hope they bring us to a Sean Paul concert.’ To say the least, it worked out fine, and I was the one freaking out the whole time that we were going to get arrested and thrown in a Costa Rican jail.
* * *
In 1981, my father moved into his freshman dorm in English House on 36th Street and Sansom in Philadelphia, (a ten-minute walk to where his father had lived several years before him.) His parents flew up from Florida with him to help him move in. Months passed, and when the leaves changed on the trees, my dad, who had never experienced a real autumn, was so excited that he sent his mother an envelope filled with orange, red and yellow leaves that he had collected.
Thirty-one years later, I flew from Colorado to the University of Pennsylvania with my dad and sister. This would be one of many times that he would visit me at college. I moved into my freshman dorm at Kings Court which was connected to English House, on 36th Street and Sansom in Philadelphia. Once every few weeks or so I would call my dad back in Colorado to tell him about my experiences at his alma mater.
I came home after the semester, and my dad asked me about partying. He had been at Penn years before, so he knew what it was like and wanted to know how it had changed. This was the first time he had asked me about this. The first time your parents ask you about drugs, sex, and alcohol you lie because you aren’t sure how they will react. You aren’t even sure how they feel about the concept in general, let alone when it concerns their daughter, their legacy. So, naturally, this time, I lied about it. “Yeah, sometimes I drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs.” The topic came up once again when I came home for the summer after my first full year. This time, I didn’t plan on lying but just to be safe used the classic “I have a friend who…”. I told him that I hang out with my friends when they smoke weed. He turned to me, looking kind of troubled and asked, “Do you smoke when you are with them?”I was cornered. I didn’t want to lie to his face, but then again, with that expression on his face, I was concerned that I was going to be reprimanded. I decided to be honest, and take my chances that maybe my dad, the son of a man who smoked pot well into his 80’s, would be alright with it. I said, “yeah, sometimes I have smoked with them.” He smiled, looking relieved and responded: “Oh good! I was worried you were the weirdo who just watches doesn’t partake!”
* * *
In the summer after his graduation in 1984, my dad moved out of 313 South 40th street. This house was across the street from Allegro’s Pizza, a popular place which received more business after midnight on weekends than during dinner time on weeknights. After a night of partying, stopping by for a slice of pizza was a lasting tradition. He lived with eight guys, and they had spent the week before graduation cleaning the house before their parents came. Regardless, my grandmother still refused to use the bathroom, deeming it “disgusting.” My dad couldn’t understand why she found their house so repulsive considering they had spent so long cleaning it. Years later, my dad reflects on those four years in College as the four best years of his life. By the time he graduated, he subscribed to the work hard, play hard mentality. He then went to medical school and residency before moving to Colorado Springs.
* * *
My dad bought me a sticker that reads “Keep Colorado Springs Lame” that I have on my laptop. The phrase is a spin off of what more fun and hip cities use to draw people to come to their town like “Keep Austin Weird” or “Keep Boulder High.” The tongue-in-cheek sticker reminds me of my dad’s sense of humor and our ability to laugh at ourselves, and especially our own town. (However, I do have to say that over time, a few cute coffee shops and hipster bars have opened around town which has helped Colorado Springs be a little less lame.)
Although I didn’t grow up in the downtown area, it reminds me of my childhood and my dad in particular. It is the location of the hospital that he works at, and where my sister and I were born. Memories in Downtown Colorado Springs smell like the chlorine of my dad’s black and yellow mesh swim bag that he would leave in the 1999 Subaru Outback after swimming in the morning and the somewhat moldy smell that the car pushed out of it’s air conditioners when it was too hot in the summer. They feel like the black leather seats of the cars sticking to my legs. They sound like early 2000’s pop like Sugar Ray’s “I just wanna fly” and the pre-recorded voice on the radio station which told you the weather, saying phrases like “partly cloudy” with an emphasis on the “au” sound in cloudy.
When I was in elementary school, I used to sit on my dad’s lap when he would read emails from work. His secretary, Gloria, would send him an email every night with the schedule for the next day and sign the end of the email “G.” I thought this was hilarious and after watching Ali G (a Sasha Barren Cohen TV show) probably at far too young of an age, my dad and I started calling each other “G.”
Despite the clarity with which I remember cute memories, they are not used as a mechanism to give a false sense of sentimentality. My father did not cry when he saw me in a prom dress, and his immediate response to almost anything could be summed up with a quote from an Austin Power’s movie. His brash jokes and comments could come at any moment, and he rarely had a filter.
When I shadowed as a volunteer at his hospital, I would introduce myself as “Dr. Kellner’s daughter.” Without a doubt that answer would elicit a response of a smile and followed by either: “you know he has the dirtiest mouth in the hospital?” or a joking “Oh, I am so sorry.” The person was always amused and happy to talk about my father. Sometimes in the OR, different physicians would put on music during cases. He would threaten to stop the case if someone played undesirable music such as Journey or Nickleback. The first time I ever heard “Gold Digger” by Kanye West was because my dad played it to me in the Subaru Outback after discovering it in the OR. He commented about “how filthy” the song was even though neither my sister nor I had the slightest idea what the hell Kanye was rapping about.
Another one of my favorite stories of my dad was when he was putting in an epidural into a woman in labor, and he used the term “tramp stamp” to describe where he would be inserting the needle in relation to her lower back tattoo. This woman did not like this term. There on after he was very sensitive in his use of terminology when regarding lower back tattoos on pregnant women until one day when describing the procedure to another woman she corrected him saying: “it’s a tramp stamp. Call it what it is!” My dad was ecstatic and told her about what had happened previously.
For lack of better terms, (and because it allows me to use pop-culture slang in describing my dad), he “keeps it real.” He is open with how he feels and doesn’t sugar coat – a quality that I not only hope to emulate but appreciate in other individuals. There is something to be said in the transparency in which he carries himself. He isn’t malicious, and all of his commentaries is in good fun. If anything, growing up around this kind of humor has helped prepare me to be able to sit in a room full of boys and shoot the shit. Sometimes, I will say something as blunt and crude as something my dad would say, causing even boys to laugh hysterically at this little girl making ridiculous jokes and stabs at friends. Whenever this happens, I feel like if my dad were there, he would certainly have given me a high five.
Naturally, some people don’t find his sense of humor amusing. Growing up in the city which U.S. News dubbed as the “Vatican of Evangelical Christianity” wasn’t the best environment to hide my father’s outspoken atheist opinions. It was all a part of the irony that was my dad: a hip, young, Jewish and very atheistic doctor who lived in the lame, extremely Christian city. In some ways, he was trying to pick a fight in attempts to point out how ridiculous the whole concept was. He is deep rooted in logic and the scientific world, and because of that, the entire institution of religion puzzles him. If we ever go to a friend’s house for dinner and they say a prayer before the meal, my dad does not bow his head and close his eyes as is customary and rather keeps his eyes open looking around the room. His argument is that if anyone sees him then, it means that they weren’t closing their eyes and really praying. (Touché.)
In 2006, the head of the evangelical church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard, was accused of having sexual relationships with and buying crystal methamphetamine from a male prostitute named Mike Jones. Unfortunately, for many years before this incident, Ted Haggard, who was married with children, had been preaching against homosexuality and drug use and this incident made him the biggest fraud that the Evangelical Church had ever seen. The Evangelicals were outraged while my dad was metaphorically rolling on the floor laughing. This, of course, coincided with the year that my sister and I were finally allowed to get pet gerbils. I named my gerbil Mickey after Mickey Mouse, but my dad being the child he is, thought that Mickey was close enough to “Mike” and then convinced my sister to name her gerbil Ted. This sealed their fate as gay evangelical gerbils before my sister and I even understood what had happened. (Thanks, Dad.)
According to society, fathers are supposed to be overprotective and cautious of their daughters. My dad was supposed to open the door for my first boyfriend with a rifle in his hand threatening: “if you do anything to hurt my daughter…” — but my dad doesn’t own a gun and called my ex-boyfriend “Dude Brah” to his face. My dad’s vulgar and crude sense of humor has resulted in daily conversations and poignant jokes about the lack of censorship exhibited in our house. It’s unconventional but thank god it is.
* * *
To this day, my favorite party trick is after explaining to friends how cool my dad is, calling him on the phone and having him answer, without fail, with: “What up G?” I may not have been to a father-daughter dance with him, but if that one phrase doesn’t tell you about our relationship, then I don’t know what will.