There are so many ways to tell a story. We just had an intimate celebration of my Dad’s life for those who knew him. It started with cocktail hour and then it was story time. I heard so many stories about my Dad that I had never heard. I loved hearing about his life as a boss, a friend, brother-in-law, Bumpa and of course as a father. In the words of Eben Alexander in his book, Proof of Heaven he writes, “A story–a true story–can heal as much as medicine can.”
So how was I going to talk about Dad in 10 minutes or less and really give a sense of who he was to me? I was thinking about the text, “Days With My Father” which started on line and is now a book, but that did not exactly capture what I was hoping to do as it only reflected the end of his father’s life. I wanted more than that. And then I thought back to the last time I wrote about my Dad, using Wallace Steven’s, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. I wrote up 13 Moments with Dad and took it to the service.
I only got through maybe half of them, but then as I went back to the piece I didn’t like it. I envisioned something different and then I remembered the book, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. If you have not read this book then it must go on your list to be read. I scoured my shelves and re-worked the piece again. I am thrilled with the possibilities and so I will share a few of them and they are rough. There are so many that have yet to be written, but this is where I am now and I am still struggling with each subtitle as well as how many to write. Yet another piece of writing that is never done, but is just done enough for now to make my point here on this blog, that writing and thinking takes time and that honoring where our students are in that moment is priceless.
And again, while I realize this is a very personal piece on an educational blog and even somewhat self-indulgent, I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.
So here we go…
A Daughter’s Encyclopedia of Her Dad
A for Always
“You need to leave the hospital right now, ”Dad’s voice echoed, quiet yet firm. After 13 days of never leaving my leukemia-ridden 3 and a half year old Emma’s side, she was overdosed in one of her surgeries. My Dad was the first to arrive and he was the only one who told me to leave. And so for the first time I left. Dad drove me home to see Zachary and spend one night out of the hospital.
What I have come to realize after his death is that no matter what Dad had my back. I just knew that if I ever needed anything he would have been there and just knowing that keeps you from ever really needing anything at all…
“This too shall pass”, my Dad’s words of wisdom he shared with me when in the throes of Emma’s illness. And eventually it did.
B for Best Friend
My best friend, Krissy stopped by to say goodbye on her way to her new prep school hours away, Northfield, Mount Hermon. As we stood in the driveway sobbing together and lamenting our impending separation she said, “Why don’t you come too?”
And so I went and checked out the school, knowing that we did not have the money for me to go to private school, but interested to see where Dad had also gone when he was younger. (That was a story we all knew too well. How he hitchhiked there 3 times and begged them to accept him and yes, they finally did. “It changed my life,” he would say. ) Did I need my life to be changed?
He walked into my bedroom, pitch black and through the darkness he just said, “If you really want to go to Northfield, we will figure out a way to make it to happen.” And then he left the room.
I did not go. I didn’t need to go. I think I just needed to know I could go.
C for Call
I picked up the phone to hear Dad’s voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” And I would tell Dad what I had been up to and he would listen and respond. One day I was telling him the latest woes of parenting and he stopped me and said, “You have raised great kids.” Again I was left silent. The man of few words was speaking… and he was saying something from the heart. “No, I mean it. They are great kids. You have done a really good job with them.”
What he could not see were the tears running down my cheeks as I flipped the bacon and then Mom got on the phone. Per usual at that point he would make his exit and say with sarcastic contempt, “Well I will let you two talk for the next few hours” and he hung up.
And what he needs to know is that he too has raised 3 really great kids.
D for Dancing
I made my Dad do a Father Daughter dance at my wedding. My mother had often lamented at the lack of dancing and nights out on the town with my father. He resisted the idea of that dance, but just like one day when I came home from college and hugged my parents and forced my Dad to hug me back, I forced him to do that dance with me. Not only did he dance, but he even did it with a smile.
But you must know that dancing with my Dad was more like standing in the middle of a floor where there was music playing and making slight shuffles to the right and to the left. Rhythm was not really involved, but even standing there as he held me in dance position, right arm up left on my waist was enough. And Mom, I don’t think you missed much not making those nights out dancing with Dad!
E for Employee
As a new summer employee at my Dad’s newspaper, The New Hampshire Business Review, I was excited to finally be a bigger part of the family business. I envisioned learning the ropes of journalism and seeing what made a company tick. I was assigned to work for my sister under the term “data entry”. Day after day of entering information and categorizing it. God forbid I actually ask a question of my beloved “boss” as she would look at me in disgust and say, “I already told you how to do that!!” Never before had I felt like such a peon in a job. Even waitressing was easier than trying to fit into this very tight system that had been established so many years ago where I quickly realized that being a family member only meant there were higher expectations of you and no family bennies whatsoever. In fact, it began to seem like being family was more of a curse than a blessing…at least at the office!
One day while I was sitting in my Dad’s big black chair and spinning around like I used to when I was little I opened his top drawer to find a pen and instead I found a one and a half inch stack of checks. My gut sank as I looked to see that the check on top was made out to Don Madden. As I flipped through them all the same name appeared over and over and over again. A flipbook of Don Madden checks and the implications that he was paying everyone else made me gasp. His investment in this business ran deeper than I had ever realized.
I finished that summer and never complained again. It was my last time working at the paper.
F for Faces
Hey, do you see the face?” Dad would ask as he pointed at a picture, a painting or even out the window at a tree. Whereupon we would all look and sometimes we might see it and others we would have no idea what he was seeing. He “saw” things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.
Since my Dad’s death I have started to “see” faces everywhere!! I am taking an intense course to become a yoga teacher and in that course we are studying anatomy and all through the lessons I see faces. Faces on ovaries, kidneys with eyes staring at me and then the profile of a young man peering out of the liver. Every time I see one I say hello to my Dad and am forever reminded that we must look, look and then look again with an open mind and you never know just what you might “see”.
H for Hugging
Hugging. From that day forward every time I saw my Dad I hugged him. Over time he came to expect it and dare I even say that he might have even leaned in first once or twice himself! He was an interesting hugger, more of a leaner really, but still I didn’t care. Some say huggers are buggers, but eventually they give in and realize that hugging isn’t so bad after all.
I for Indulgence
“Daddy, will you PLEASE do your Donald Duck voice?” we would plead for hours on end and usually the answer was no. To this day is amazes me how few times we actually heard it and it was something that tickled us pinker than pink as we would laugh and laugh. What was it that kept him from wanting to do it more? To indulge his kids just a few more times and yet if you think back, it made it all that much more incredible when he did it. “Less is more,” he would say if he was helping me with my writing. “Less is more”
L for Late
Driving home after curfew one night in the yellow bumblebee I devised a plan to pick up some speed down Page Road and then cut the engine and drift into the driveway with the lights off in hopes that I could “sneak” in and not be discovered. As I turned in, the car slowly moved towards the barn, activating the sensor bathing me in bright light. Damn, I thought as I began to open the car door and realized there was movement all around. As I looked closer I realized I had coasted into a sea of raccoons. Big raccoons, little raccoons, raccoons swarming the car and coming towards me. I slammed the door and began to scream, “Dad!!” “Dad!!” Of course he couldn’t hear me and so I layed on the horn. Eventually Dad appeared in his boxers and shooshed all the raccoons away, saying, “Get outta here ya saps!” As he was getting rid of them I made a dash for the house. He followed me in and said, “You’re late.”
M for Moving
“I am calling to check in with you because we looked at a house in New London and well, I just wanted to be sure that you were okay with that.” I paused in disbelief. Was my Dad actually calling to ask me about their life decision? The silence lingered and he said, “Are you there?” “Yes Dad, I am here.” “Well, you and your mother spend so much time together and well, I just wanted to know what you thought about us making this move.”
“Do what you need to do Dad, and I will be fine.” And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me that our relationship had shifted so dramatically over the years but that I hadn’t even realized it. The older he got the more he said and the more he said the more I listened. I am so glad they lived nearby for 10 years.
S for Swearing
Dad announced as we sat on the lime green carpet during a major heat wave in 1975 that we were going on a family vacation. Lisa, Jamie and I screamed and shouted with joy as visions of Disney rides and beaches and pools danced through our heads he said we needed to pack as we would be leaving at 4 in the morning just to get a good head start.
We woke at 4 filled with Christmas morning anticipation and settled ourselves into the blue paneled station wagon. Lisa and I settled into our makeshift bed in the very back complete with blankets and pillows and Jamie in his own bed in the middle seat with the cooler. Little did we know that we would never get out of the car except for the occasional bathroom break and over 14 days and 4,000 miles later having seen all of Newfoundland and even Labrador. Oh the stories from that trip!
It was the first time I ever heard Dad swear as he got back into the car at a random gas station as Mom was handing us snowballs and candy bars to keep us quiet and we were fighting over them and anything else from being in such a confined space for too long when Dad snapped and yelled, “All you kids do is fight, fart and swear!” I remember thinking…did Dad just say fart?
T for Tomasen
My name. Thank you Dad for making up the most incredible, bestest, most awesome name in the world just for me. Something about having my name always made me feel like I was different. (It also helped that Lisa was actually a tiny bit jealous of it too as I was jealous of most everything she had, especially that incredible cassette recorder she had in Weare, but I digress!) What I love most about my name are all of the stories it has generated. As a man of stories, and as a great storyteller I would imagine you might have thought, what kind of name would bring great stories?
W for Wondering
“I would like to come over, there seems to be something wrong with my computer.” He would arrive, laptop under his arm, and I would pour the coffee as he would begin to describe in detail just what was or was not happening with his laptop. We would sit together and I would map out the steps, write them down and he would thank me profusely for being so patient with him. “We always knew you would be a teacher,” he said. “The hours you would spend in your room with all of those imaginary students, we just knew you would be a teacher.
During one of those visits he told me that he was ok with dying. He talked and talked and told me that I was the “listener”. I didn’t know what to do with that information today as I wonder…years later…if he would have said the same thing on the day he died.
So, as you can see there are many pieces missing, many in process, and just a sampling of an attempt to remember the stories of my Dad.
Jeff Wilhelm in his book on narratives tells a story about a decision-making process one of his kids was making and asked this question, “Which decision will make the best stories?”
My Dad’s life in stories was what he would have hoped for. Of that I am sure. What I am not sure about is how many stories are still out there, untold, about my Dad and about all of those students we work with.
We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period. I mean, in the end, what else is there really?
Very beautiful tribute. Especially touching since I just lost my own father two weeks ago. I think I will do my own Encyclopedia for him.
Thank you and I am sorry for your loss. I never knew how large the gap would actually be.
Writing helps in so many ways. Go for it!
Tomasen, thanks for sharing your wonderful memories and stories that give me a glimpse into the relationship between you and your father. Sorry for your loss and touched by the relationship you had/have with him.
Hey Brother In Law! Nice to “see” you here.
Thanks. He is missed greatly.
Thanks for being willing to share such personal thoughts…I agree with you. Writing is important work, and teachers need to offer time and space for students to write.
Your need to write about your dad is completely understandable to me. When my dad died twelve years ago, I worked for weeks to put together a booklet about him. In it I gathered memories that his six children and various Irish relatives had written about dad. Included too were poems, tributes, and eulogies recited at his celebration of life. We also typed up memoirs that he had written about emigrating to America at the apex of the Depression. There are also various pictures of dad scattered throughout the little booklet.
Each child and grandchild was given a copy of our remembrance…The words and memories are immortal.
Thanks for writing. That booklet sounds amazing!! I think so often we forget our heritage in this country. This is making me want to investigate more and learn as much as I can about his past and thus our family’s past.
Did everyone get a copy of this booklet?
Hope you are well!
Hi, yes. Every child and grandchild received a copy.
So true that ‘living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other, face to face.’ Thank you for sharing your stories here. Deeply moving.
What a beautiful tribute to your dad! I feel like I got to know him, and I learned a great deal about your relationship with him through these snapshots. I love the line, “He ‘saw’ things that others did not see be it in the visual, looking out the window or into the future political arena.” You really captured his spirit through these pieces.
In the beginning of the post, you say, “I have come to realize that living a literate life is very personal and that we need more of these personal connections to allow us to see each other.” This makes me think about the stories I choose to share with my students. As a new teacher, I used to worry about sharing pieces about my mom in class because I thought they were too personal. I certainly didn’t want to cry in front of them while reading my writing, and I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position. But as time went on, I realized how important it was for me to share this writing with them. I still remember the first time I shared a quickwrite about my mom’s illness with my ninth graders in class. The silence in the room was deafening, and I worried that I had traumatized them all! But a few weeks later, in a writing conference with one of my students, she shared her piece about her grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. “I really liked your piece about your mom,” she said, “And so I decided to write about my Grandpa.” Often when I share my own stories with them, they find the courage to share their own deeply personal stories too.
I also LOVE your line, “We are only as good as our stories and honoring those should be a part of our daily work with students, whether reading them, writing them and absolutely always celebrating them. Period.” I know I wrote this in one of my other responses, but our students need to see us as human beings with our own lives, stories, and imperfections.
Thank you for sharing these powerful pieces about your dad and reminding me of the importance of making time to share my own stories in my classroom.
You say: “Often when I share my own stories with them, they find the courage to share their own deeply personal stories too.” Yes! I too have found this to be a way in for some students…another doorway, or portal, if you will for students to write about what they need to write about. In some ways we have sterilized education to make sure it is “safe” and while done all with good intentions, my sense is that it has also alienated students. Sometimes stripping down to the common experiences of being human is all the connection we need. I would even argue that will be the case even more with these times we are living in and the trauma many have endured during this pandemic. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Loved hearing about your experience with this!
I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t start my response with a nod to your father. What a wonderful gift you have to be able to make him come alive through your words. I can tell how much he loved you and how much you loved him. I can only imagine how proud he was of his family and of you.
A is my favorite story! I can’t help but wonder, was there any question in your mind as to which story you were going to start this piece with? Hence, you made the title fit the letter?? What I love about this particular story is that it really allows the reader to feel the mutual love. Who else but your father could have gotten you to leave? Who else but your father would have said it to you like that? And, who else would you have listened to? In that moment, he was caring for his daughter just like you were caring for yours.
On another note, I am intrigued by the idea of doing my own ABC writing. It’s hard to imagine as a kindergarten teacher that I never thought of this before! I love the way it allowed you to put all of your stories together without them having to be connected. One story can end, and a new one can begin, with the freedom to start at any point you choose. Seems like a fitting way to write about your father 😊
I can’t figure out where I should start. Should I commend your nod to embracing personal writing (because goodness gracious, who are we as people or as writers if we are not PERSONAL–must we put ourselves in simplified boxes)? Should I remind you of my shared love for AKR and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? (I teach a writing project based on it every year and they always turn out SO WONDERFULLY). Or, should I talk about my appreciation for the very specific, very difficult, yet very beautiful genre of writing about someone you love who has passed on, and what it’s like to try to capture their essence in a finite number of words? I can’t decide; it’s probably impossible to give each of these topics a proper nod without writing a full on essay on this blog piece, so I’ll attempt to get right to the point. I’ve written pieces for each of my late grandparents. The writing I’ve accomplished in memory of each grandma and grandpa encompasses some of my proudest moments as a writer. While each of them is riddled with stories, each of them reads like an essay. I think if I’m honest about these pieces, I’ll admit that they exist primarily as a tool for me to process. I’ve presented each of them to my family members (my goodness, the tears), and so I know they represent collective processing as well. While I know there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, reading your piece today made me think about how many more stories I need to tell about my loved ones that exist just to honor THEM and who they were and still are to me. It’s not like processing won’t also happen in this process, (hah, processing process) but I think the intentional shift from essay writing to straight up storytelling will have sort of a different effect, if that makes sense? I worry that there are so many stories that have left my brain, and I worry that I won’t be able to recover them. Taking a class with you, Tomasen, has taught me that more memories lurk within the corners of my brain than I give myself credit for. If I take time to let my mind stray from my daily to-do list, and if I do this with a pen in hand, sketching, free writing, and losing myself in the process, I might be surprised what stories about my grandparents reoccur to me. As teachers, as humans, and and as writers, we have endless stories to tell, it seems, but I believe now, more than ever, that the ones that matter most will show up in the blank spaces of our notebooks if we allow them to.
You say: “reading your piece today made me think about how many more stories I need to tell about my loved ones that exist just to honor THEM and who they were and still are to me.” We ALL have so many stories trapped inside us and sadly it often takes losing someone to conjure them up. I always thought…wouldn’t it be cool to hear the stories people would tell of you at your funeral? We, ourselves, would be the best audience!
Thank you for sharing these stories, especially since you see them as “rough” versions. I love how vulnerable this piece is. Once I saw the title, I immediately suspected that there would be a nod to AKR in there. Reading this I was reminded of my grandfather’s memorial service. My Aunt Mary delivered the eulogy and afterwards everyone shared stories about him and I remember laughing and thinking–what is wrong with me, I am laughing at a funeral, who does that? And that moment really stuck with me for two reasons: one, I am reminded that stories can have such an impact on emotions, and two, I often think about what stories I will one day share about my own parents, but I have never written any of that down Your writing has inspired me to try. I think it is Penny Kittle who always says something like “you have stories to tell that no one else can tell,” and I just love that sentiment. Your stories about your dad could only be told by you, and that goes for everyone, about everything, ever. What a wonderful thought that there are an endless amount of stories out there just waiting to be told.
You say: “there are an endless amount of stories out there just waiting to be told” I could not agree more…so many stories hiding in our memories waiting to be tapped and set free!
Oh. My heart.
These memories. These stories.
I love how your stories unfold, so does your relationship with your dad. That he learned to “hug” or lean in more often, that he shared how certain he and your mum were that you’d be a teacher, and how thankful he was for your patience. These are beautiful stories to hold on to.
I will always remember the woman who stood up at my grandfather’s funeral. She said the day she met him, she was walking down the road in her neighborhood and heard the most beautiful whistle she’d ever heard. She had to stop and figure out where it was coming from to compliment the musician, and it was the beginning to a wonderful friendship.
I watched my grandmother quietly nod her head as tears streamed down her face. Come to find out, it was the same way she met him when she was 12 years old. They had been together ever since. I’ve never heard a meet cute story more picturesque. And that was Bobby. The happy whistler. The generous Oreo-cookie giver. The “I-ran-so fast-from-the-big-bad-wolf-one-day that-my-hair-flew-clean-off-my-head”-storyteller.
Thank you for sharing these wonderful glimpses of your relationship with your dad. Just like Kim mentioned, this most definitely happens when a teacher is willing to be vulnerable with her students… more stories follow.
I was amazed that the word I chose to put on my layers page on day 2 of our course was vulnerable. It seemed to happen so quickly. Allowing one’s self to be vulnerable invites others to do the same and share our experiences of being human.
These are lovely memories of your father, Tomasen. People always say that writing is a great way to remember and to process grief. Each of your “encyclopedia entries” paints a clear picture of your father. I feel like I know him and like I’ve experienced your relationship. The “E for Employee” entry really struck me. As we move from teenager to adult, we often come to realizations about our parents. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just too real. I think you captured that experience perfectly. Ugh. Your writing about your family is so good! I’m stealing everything!
STEAL away! As writers and composers we are SO good at this! Let those stories break free!!
I really do love reading about your father, Tomasen. He seems like such a great man! It was these few stories that really connected me back to memories with my dad that I had forgotten about. It can be so cathartic to write these memories down–they become eternal. It feels so special to get a window into your life through these entries and I’m so grateful to get to read all about it.