I’m wandering through an Upper East Side bathing suit store to pick out the perfect swimsuit to give my dad for Father’s Day. My younger daughter has wrapped herself around my leg as I haltingly inch forward. Does my dad even want another bathing suit? I wonder. I don’t have time to find him the perfect gift with four kids of my own to manage and my podcast to produce. It’ll have to be good enough.
As I shop, I realize that my dad might not realize the many small yet important things he has done over the years that that have really stuck with me. The things I mention in passing to my own children. Little moments from when I was his little girl.
I decide to make a list.
1. Milkshakes! When my dad tucked me in at night, he’d wrap the blanket tightly around my shoulders, lean over and ask, “Which flavor, Monk?” (He calls me “Monkey” because when I was born, that’s what I looked like.) I’d giggle and call out, “Chocolate!” He’d look right, look left, then look down and start shaking me, saying, “Chocolate…. milkshake!!!!” I’d squeal with laughter.
2. Myrtle the Turtle. After bedtime books, my dad would make up magical stories about the Adventures of Myrtle the Turtle. One day Myrtle would be a spy. Another day, a ballerina. Every night, something new. I hung on every word, every time. At some point, my dad decided to buy us an actual turtle named Myrtle. Myrtle sat in her glass tank on my dresser for years, watching me grow, reminding me of the power of a great story.
3. Thumb wars. Whenever my dad and I went anywhere together - a dinner out, the high holiday services at our temple, a play — he would casually, stealthily, extend his closed hand to me, curved like the shape of the letter C. He wouldn’t look at me, or look down. He’d focus straight ahead, perhaps a small smile on his lips. I’d immediately engage, hiding our secret game from everyone around us. It was just for us. Our world. One. Two. Three. Four. I. Declare. A Thumb. War. I braced for sneak attacks. I never wanted thumb peace.
4. Our “adventures.” Once we went to Colonial Williamsburg, just us. He remembers driving rainstorms. I remember sitting at an old country inn together, insanely happy. Another time we went to Washington, DC. He remembers carrying me on his back. I remember learning about the FBI. The capitol. The treasury. There may have been three or four nights total that we traveled together, but they are my happiest, most special memories with him. Just the two of us.
5. Glaciers. When I was in high school, my dad tried to help me understand what a glacier was, a concept I was inexplicably having trouble grasping. He extended his arms out like an airplane, bent down at the waist, and slowly started moving across my bedroom, over my bed, making “whooshing” sounds.
6. His advice. Friend or relationship issues were his domain. I’d perch on the edge of my bed while he listened thoughtfully to my problems. He always looked me in the eye and acted like my tiny grievances were the most important global issues. He gave me advice, free of any judgment, always full of love and insight.
7. Closing my eyes. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, my dad would sit next to me and whisper, “Shh,” and, with the middle of his index finger, stroke my eyelids closed. One eye, then the other. One eye, then the other. Until the fluttering ceased and I dozed dreamily.
8. Funny animal noises. My dad made the most ridiculous sounds. If I said I was going to the movies with friends, he would say, “Ah, you’re going to the moooooo-vies,” with a long, deep, sonorous “moo,” and then laugh out loud at himself. I would shake my head, smiling. Even a standard event became something looked at in a new (moo?) way. (He still does this.)
9. Rescuing me. During a summer trip when I was 14, a summer in which I was having a tough emotional time and could barely speak, my dad came over to France and whisked me away from the language-immersion group I was with. We spent the night in a quaint hotel in the south of France on such a hot day that the butter melted in its dish at dinner. I didn’t care. He had saved me. He had come.
10. Always taking my calls. No matter what he’s doing at work, he always stops to take my calls. The other day, I called and he said, “I'm at the White House, Monk. Is it urgent?!” Nope, I was fine!
11. Our flight. Last month, we had the unexpected joy of flying home together from Los Angeles. He was there for a conference and I was there with my husband. The two of us had to come home earlier than our spouses so we took the overnight cross-country trip together. After sitting side-by-side, reading and working, he looked over at me, his reading glasses perched on his nose, and said, “Okay, Monk, time for bed!” And just like those decades ago, those quiet nights in the 1970s and 1980s, my dad put me to sleep and kissed me goodnight.
Just the two of us.
Back at the store, my daughter pulls out a bathing suit and snaps me out of my reverie.
“I think he’ll like this one!” she says, holding up navy print trucks.
“I think so, too,” I say, bending down to look her in the eye and hug her, giving her my full attention. After all, it was just the two of us in the store. My daughter and me. An errand in my head, but perhaps a lifetime memory for her.
Just the two of us. Time together: the gift my dad gave me that I'll be sure to pass on to my own kids.
Happy Father's Day, Dad!