Nine years ago today we lost our wonderful dad. Wanting to evoke a sensory connection to him through the nature he loved, I thought I’d go out to the old cemetery for awhile. But I was disappointed to see that it had gone from au naturel to unkempt. More markers had tumbled, the grass had died, fake flowers had faded, and tiny cheap flags had fallen over. The latter was appalling, especially since Dad was a World War II veteran, but given that he’d battled gophers all his life on the farm, he’d have felt worse about the dozen holes that riddled the ground right next to his stone. It was kind of depressing. So I decided I’d get back on the country road that connects the cemetery in Santa Cruz to my home “over the hill” in San Jose.
“The hill” is the local phrase for the entire Sierra Azule, a range of mountains spiked with redwoods and puffed with native sycamores and oaks; on a steamy June day like this the drive is redolent with the musty scent of hot leaves and needles. When I was sixteen my home was at this end, on our farm in Santa Cruz, and I drove to work in San Jose with Dad. He’d gotten me a job in his office, which did me a world of good and gave me some much-needed time with him. We always, always drove the back way home. In fact, 34 years ago today we’d be taking this road from the other direction at about this same time, 5:30. I remember these same backlit tunnels of trees, these same ferns frothing out of the limestone walls. I remember this same profusion of new moths flickering against the amber light, iridescent, like bits of torn foil in the still, hot air.
I had my learner’s permit that summer, and Dad let me take the wheel of his Chevy sedan. This road is where he taught me as much about life as about driving: how to take the tight turns, how to honk before a blind corner, how to brake before entering a curve. How to pull over for people who wanted to go faster than we did – people who didn’t appreciate the meaning of the back way: enjoying the journey, reaching your place in peace.
Dad’s glove compartment was stuffed with goodies Mom forbade at home, like Hershey’s bars or M&M’s. Sometimes we’d stop at the only market on the road, Caselegno’s, for an Orange Crush to wash down the chocolate. Casalegno’s was an old building, even then, with a quaint interior and an owner who ran the store from his wheelchair. Today I thought I’d stop there and get an Orange Crush and a bag of M&M’s to celebrate Dad.
It was much the same inside, but with Sunkist instead of Orange Crush, and a new owner. She was a pretty woman with two young children at her heels, and she was working hard at stocking the shelves and commanding or shooing her kids. I picked up some M&Ms and started looking at the fresh-made sandwiches, thinking, you know, maybe I don’t have to have both an Orange Crush and M&Ms. I asked her where the vegetarian sandwiches were and if she had salt and pepper and then, just because she seemed like a real person and I felt the urge, I told her why I was there. That I used to stop at Casalegno’s with my dad, and that today was the day that I’d lost him nine years ago.
She said, very matter-of-factly, with a bit of a snap to her voice, “Lost mine too, a couple of years ago.”
I told her I was sorry.
“Oh no, no no no no,” she said quickly. “It’s part of life.” And while I was considering that perhaps she hadn’t had such a great relationship with her dad, she added, a little softer, “Grief like that is how you get your stripes.”
That’s true, I said, touched. Those “stripes” gives you empathy you never could have shared before. I asked her to tell me about him, and she began to describe a dad like mine. A man who appreciated nature. Someone who spent real time with her, who treated her like no other man’s ever treated her. Her back was to me as she shoved eggs in the refrigerator, but I thought I heard her choke up a little. So I told her that he sounded like a great dad, and that people like us were lucky. That not everybody missed their dads – and with good reason. She went behind the counter to ring me up.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my dad,” she said, sliding a mismatched salt and pepper shaker toward me and turning away. “Not one day.”
She gave her kids some orders and went in the back. I walked out of there thinking, what did I go in there for? Orange Crush and M&Ms? I’d stopped to relive a taste, a voluntary memory, as Proust would say; a sensory experience that would connect me to my Dad. Instead I got another human being who had a dad like mine.
Now I’m back on the road, pulling over for every car behind me. And I don’t know why I’m crying; I’ve been over his death for a long time. And after all, it was just a little moment in a little grocery store.
But that’s what our dad was all about: pausing for the small things, ordinary people, little moments – knowing they’ll turn out to be bigger than you think.