Today the man I called Dad would have been sixty years old. It's crazy because no matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine him as an old man. Maybe because the last time I saw him was more than a dozen years ago after he and my mother parted ways (amiably), or maybe because he was just so young-at-heart that I cannot imagine age lines on his face defying that.
He was not my biological father, but he filled the role anyway. I remember the day he pulled my brother and I aside after school and asked if we would be willing to stop calling him by his first name and start calling him Dad like it was yesterday. I must've been in the first grade. We had not yet moved to the city I would associate with the best times of my childhood.
The first time we met we were camping with my mother up near Hell Creek. We were sitting around the campfire toasting marshmallows when he came over with a few other people (I think Uncle Larry was there and maybe the guy who did our taxes) and started playing guitar. I suppose my mother has always liked musicians, these days she's married to a drummer. He was the person who later taught me to sing and play-by-ear. Twelve years in a professional choir are owed entirely to him. I was enrolled in several after school activities, ballet, violin, tap, jazz, but choir was the only one I was passionate about.
He didn't just play the guitar but a myriad of instruments. I'm pretty sure he could play any instrument he picked up well, even if it was for the first time. He was not a musician professionally though. He worked for a major automobile company. It was hard work, but it paid well and he was a good supporter. I'm sure he'd have loved to put together a band and play gigs at his leisure instead, but he knew there were people who depended upon him and he owned up to that.
It wasn't just my brother and me, you see, he had three children of his own from a previous marriage. I didn't like that prospect originally. I didn't want to share my time with him with other kids. After meeting them however, I realized this is what our family was meant to be: large! His oldest daughter was a bookworm; his son, one year younger than me, played a lot of video games; and his youngest daughter would quickly become my very best friend in the whole world. We were inseparable. I got along better with them than I ever had my actual biological brother.
For a while we all lived under one roof. All seven of us, along with two dogs, a cat, three birds, and an aquarium full of fish. The four of us, my brother not included, ran the neighborhood. Our days were spent roaming wild and our evenings were spent with Mom and Dad. Watching The Simpsons or singing and dancing as Dad played an instrument for us. His favorites were the banjo and keyboard.
Every time there was a local event, be it a street fair or a carnival, Dad made sure we all got to go. No matter how expensive it must have been to buy ride tickets for five children. And the city in which we lived held a street fair for just about any reason. Every holiday, no matter how minor. There were even fairs to celebrate things like the sun and water (we lived along a river). Once the Budweiser horses came through the city and he took us all to go see that, because I adored horses and it was his favorite beer afterall.
Every Friday we would walk to a nearby tavern for the Friday Fish Fry. Even though at least two of us didn't like fish, we were always psyched to go. It was time together, as a family. We all looked forward to it. Saturday morning he would watch cartoons with us. At the end of the week when he gave us our allowance, there was no protest when we immediately ran to the penny candy store and spent all of it on candy.
When he realized just how much I enjoyed swimming, he bought us a pool for the back yard. Twice a month or more we'd go camping at the Creek where I first met him. Aside from playing banjo he'd tell us stories around the campfire and help us find the perfect sticks to toast marshmallows on. He'd take us canoeing and swimming. Life was an adventure.
Once while camping, my little sister and I were walking along the shore of a pond catching fish and frogs and other small creatures. Since we were by the water we had of course kicked off our shoes. Carefree and barefoot we went running through the field beside the pond like a pair of young wild horses. I stepped on a bee; I am severely allergic to bees. I fell to the ground reeling in pain. My little sister realized right away something was wrong and ran as fast as her legs could take her back to our campsite, a good half a mile away, to tell an adult. Luckily the bee hadn't stuck me very well and the epi pen did the trick. Dad carried me all the way back to camp.
Sometimes though, two adults who love one another very much cannot simply be together. Even after their divorce my Mom would take me to see him every other weekend though, when he had his own children over and we'd all spend the weekend together like old times: a family. Up until our sudden move out of state, when we lost touch entirely.
I wouldn't hear of his untimely death until several years later, after I reconnected with my long lost siblings (thank you, Internet). It struck me just as hard though. I was taken back to a place where I was eleven years old again, realizing we'd never go camping and I'd never again hear him play the banjo for us. This is my little way of remembering him, writing some of my fondest memories of our time together, so the world knows this man existed and that he was a good person and that he was a great father even to kids who weren't his.
Gerald "Jerry" Sitten, this Bud's for you.
(Photo coming, as mine were stolen by Mr. Tan)