Stories are the lifeblood of my emotional existence. Short, long, big, small, scary, happy, true or not true or, my favorite, ambiguous; told in song, on the fly, or second hand; read out loud, whispered around a campfire, or read in silence…stories help me understand who I am, how I got where I am, and, sometimes, offer a map to where I’m going.
My favorite storyteller is my dad. He recently moved into an assisted living facility, and everyone he’s met there says the same thing: “He’s a talker.” Not a busybody talker, but the kind who reads his audience and can tell a story that is sure to stick with them a while.
In honor of Dad, who will turn ninety years old in two weeks, here’s one of my favorite Dad moments. I’ll have to print it out and send it to him since he never wanted to learn his way around a computer. But that’s OK. He’s still hip to me.
The summer before my senior year of high school, Dad and Mom allowed me to visit friends in Jasper (MN), where we used to live, as long as I stayed with my aunt Mavis or with one of my grandmothers. Jasper was about 200 miles from where we lived, and the one and only time I took the bus, my grandma Signe picked me up at the bus stop in Pipestone, eleven miles north of Jasper. She drove thirty-five miles an hour on the highway all the way to Jasper with her feet on both the gas and the brake. After that, I convinced Dad to let me use the Mustang on future trips. For my own safety, of course.
By “Mustang,” I don’t mean a sleek, sweet muscle car. Ours was a 1974 bare bones hard top four-speed manual with AM radio, black vinyl seats, and no air conditioning. On a hot day, you could detect a faint smell of Wild Turkey, which Swedish exchange students spilled on the carpet on our way home from a hockey game.
My family only owned one car at a time (Mom never had a driver’s license), until one Saturday morning in 1980.
“Lynnie, wake up!” Dad called through my bedroom door.
Dad never woke me up, and especially not on a morning when I didn’t have to work.
I opened one eye and looked at the clock. Eleven o’clock? Is he nuts?
“Get dressed. I want to show you something.”
This better be worth it, I thought, fumbling into clothes.
“He’s waiting in the car,” Mom called from kitchen.
“Where’re we going?” She didn’t answer.
I walked out the front door and stopped. Dad was in the driver’s seat smoking a cigarette. The window was rolled down, but he knew I hated riding in the car when he and Mom smoked.
“Get in!” he said, crushing his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
“Are we going for donuts?” I asked, changing the radio station. When I was little, Mom slept in on Saturday mornings and Dad was in charge. He let my little brother and I dress ourselves in whatever we wanted to wear – usually stripes on plaid – and we’d eat donuts at the bakery before going to the car wash or the hardware store.
“No donuts today.”
Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a used car dealership.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“About that.” He pointed to a red car.
“That?” There was no way we’d all fit in a two-door. “Did you buy it?”
“No,” he said. “But I’m thinking about it. Let’s take it out for a test drive.”
“The keys are in it,” yelled a salesman across the lot. Dad waved.
He eased into the driver’s seat, tucking his head to avoid hitting the frame, and in that moment, he was no longer my father, the station wagon family man. He was a…guy.
“Hunh,” I grunted and got in the passenger seat. When I saw the stick shift, I was convinced he was having a midlife crisis.
Dad moved effortlessly through the gears while I messed around with the radio. A few minutes later, he turned into a church parking lot and turned off the engine.
“If you can drive back to the lot, I’ll buy it.”
Dad looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for me to catch on.
“Oh,” I said flatly. “So you’re not getting rid of the station wagon.”
“I…um…You know I don’t know how to drive a stick.”
He opened the door and got out of the driver’s seat. “Well, now’s the time!”
After a ten-minute lesson, I lurched, stopped, killed the engine, and lurched, stopped, and stripped the gears back to the dealership, but damn it, I got us there, and true to his word, Dad bought the car for $1,300.
Watching Dad drive the Mustang home, cigarette smoke flying out the window, he became a little more hip, a little more Rockford, a little more than just Dad.