The tall African American man made his way slowly up the steps on the amphitheater’s south side. He was holding hands with his little girl, who was perhaps ten or twelve. As I jogged my way down, I slowed as we passed.
“She making you work off that big smorgasbord you’re gonna get for Father’s Day?” I grinned.
Slightly taken aback, he paused, then his face split wide with a smile.
“You got it,” he said with a laugh. I waved and continued my way down the some 400 steps that line the southern side of Denver’s favorite concert and workout venue.
On the way back up, a fireman-this one white- in full bunkers was making his way down. His slim teenage daughter, her light blonde hair pulled into a swinging pony tail, walked proudly next to him. I made the same lame joke and they both grinned back.
“Yep,” he said, “I’m in for one very big lunch today.” She gave him a smile that would melt any father’s heart, full of love and admiration.
My Dad is a hero.
After a few scorching weeks, Fathers’ Day in Denver would barely reach in the low seventies. The bleachers and stairs were carpeted with folks working out. It was clear that a great may of them were dads their kids in tow enjoying the rare cool summer day.
When I was a kid I worked for my father. Like my brother I had chores, some of which included taking a scythe to the five-foot weeds which choked our pastures. I packed eggs, threw hay. And I also delivered eggs with my father door to door, which was his specialty. Fresh eggs on people’s doorsteps right from the farm. My run was Monday-Wednesday-Friday, my brother’s covered Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday.
Dad taught me about sales, customer service, and public relations by example. He was well-liked, well-respected and trusted in our small mid-Florida town in the Sixties. A Cornell graduate, he was extremely intelligent, with a passionate love of the classics. Every week Dad would drive me to our small town library where I would check out the limit of seven books every week. The bookcases in our house were chock full of Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, then novels of our time. I finished Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye before I was ten. My father fed the insatiable flames of my love affair with books.
On our fireplace mantel sat a massive Webster’s dictionary with gold-embossed pages. If a word was used at the dinner table and it flummoxed the kids (like for example, flummoxed), one of us had to drag the dictionary to the table. I came to love words, the origins of words, the beauty of words. I consumed books the way my father consumed what would eventually kill him.
But we never exercised together. Dad smoked heavily, drank heavily. He had been gifted with an athletic body which, like many in his generation, he assumed would serve him all his life.
Until it didn’t.
My father did exercise my mind, my nascent love of writing. He exercised the lifetime love of books and good wordsmithing which would become the backbone of my career. While he didn’t work out with me per se, he exercised parts of me that would serve me my entire life.
When my father reached his mid-sixties, where I am today, he could no longer change a tire. Without meaning to, Dad incited in me a commitment to living a very different physical life. When I began to develop real muscles,it startled my father into accusing me of taking steroids. Not on your life. But that’s the difference in our generations. I was willing to make the commitment to workouts and good diet. I didn’t want to reach this age unable to change a tire.
Or move a couch by myself. Or for that matter, climb a very tall mountain or kayak icy oceans or ride horses across the desert. By the time dad hit this age, his body was done. That lesson was one of his most important. He motivated me deeply to push farther, be more, and keep challenging myself. I’m not always very good at it. But I don’t stop. That has made all the difference. It’s not the most talented who get the furthest. It’s those who will not be defeated.
Dads “exercise” in us a great many reactions: motivation, skill development, a deep desire to please them or live up to their expectations. They can also engender resentment, anger, bitterness. It’s our choice to take from them and their examples the gifts that they offer. Sometimes it takes time and road rash, as well as parenthood, for us to see what we might have missed in our youth.
The simple truth is that every dad pounding the steps with their kids today at Red Rocks was exercising a lot more than their legs and lungs with their daughters. They were building pride, confidence and instilling a connection with their baby girls (and boys, of course) that will last a lifetime. The look of beaming pride on these young women’s faces was wondrous. This is my father, and I am SO proud of him. As you should be.
As you well should be.
Part of me envied them. Just a little. However my life is what it is in large part because of so much of what my father instilled in me. Our relationship was challenging, difficult, and even estranged at times. But his lessons live on. I will forever be, proudly, my father’s daughter.