I talked to my dad twice yesterday because it was his 70th birthday, and I couldn’t be there to make him a chocolate sheet cake and spell out 7-0 with candles (because 70 candles would poke too many holes in that delicious frosting!) But that’s probably why I woke up this morning thinking about him. My dad is a wonderful dad, and probably the last thing he would want is for me to write a blog post about him. He is a quiet type in most settings—a known introvert and a person with, what I suspect, is a full internal life.
The memories I have of my dad from my early days are him working out in the garage, building furniture, cabinets, then a new garage, then a barn in the back. He is absolutely a creative type, though he shies away from that label. To entertain his little girls in church, he drew faces on the program with faucets for noses, both silly and accurate. I remember the feeling of his hands, thick fingers with rougher skin than mine.
He loved having girls and always said (and still says) without reservation that he never felt bad for not producing a son. I remember as I was preparing to leave for college, he told me that he wished they had more children because the years we were at home went by too quickly. But my dad, always independent, raised independent daughters. We never felt bound to the place of our birth, in part because of my dad’s example.
When he left the actual, physical homestead, the one started by his great-great-grandmother and her sons, my dad left to pursue the life and career he wanted, and my grandparents encouraged him to do it. When my parents moved across the country to Tennessee for his first job, my Grandpa Whipple gave my dad a bag full of change and asked him to call along the way. Their family culture was imperfect, like all families, but this aspect has become very important to me—the culture of being held and free at the same time. I believe this was created in the the union of my dad’s parents. I see it in the combination of what I know about their family-of-origin cultures. And it was practiced by my grandparents throughout their marriage: held and free.
Dad retired from his work at the University of Wyoming around the same time that I left my marriage. For the past few years, many of our conversations have been a commingling of our explorations and experiments walking a new path in a new phase of life. My dad spent all of his adult life until retirement at institutions of learning. I might have expected someone in that situation to want to take a break from new ideas but he has not. When I went through my Brené Brown phase, he read everyone of her books along with me, not because I asked him to, but because he wanted to understand what I felt so strongly about. He has read and listened to many of the things I have spoken about in the past few years, not because I asked him to, but because he wanted to know.
He coached me through buying my first house, through home repairs during the pandemic when he really wanted to come fix these things himself. He has empowered me, bought me tools, sent me YouTube videos on how to replace my spark plugs, even told me, “Michelle, I am an old man so I have opinions about lots of things but that doesn’t mean they are right for you. Ultimately you are the best person to decide.” He has listened to me, watched me make painful choices, and been interested in how I think about the world and myself and god and the universe as I turn all these things over and examine them closely for the first time.
I remember sobbing to him and my mom on the phone a few years back when I was sorting through my feelings about my marriage. The world felt so small and scary and tight. He said, “Michelle, you’ve gotta be happy.” After years of my happiness being secondary, if considered at all, it was a permission slip to freedom.
I guess this is the biggest gift from my dad so far—he trusts me. And by doing that, he has been teaching me that I am someone worthy of trust, so I can learn to trust myself. This gift is enormous for anyone, but especially for a woman, and probably the best gift any parent can give to a child.
Happy seventy to my dad! The man who plays war with my 6-year-old over FaceTime. The mountain-biking, 4×4-exploring, builder, craftsman, all-around-handyman, ice-cream-loving champion of me. I am blessed.