Published in the Tri-Valley Herald June 17, 2008
For Father’s Day we drove down to Los Gatos to hang out with my dad and mom. My parents are in their mid-seventies and just celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. They met as teens in southern California, but they’ve lived most of their lives in the same house in Los Gatos, built in 1914, where we moved when I was in third grade.
My dad enjoys our visits, and especially likes to goof around with his grandkids. He’s been overheard asking my daughters such questions as “Did they suck your brains out at school?”
In fact, he’s known in the family for funny and odd phrases repeated over the years. Two summers ago my mom typed up every repetitive expression we could think of that my dad has uttered. She then surprised him with a book for his birthday dedicated “to all who have heard Bill’s words and remembered them over the years.”
My mom gathered the expressions through email. For several weeks my brother, sister, and I emailed my mom with memories as she secretly recorded each phrase. "How could we forget ‘Cool at the motor pool,’” my brother emailed. “Or ‘Thank you very little,’” my sister recalled.
The book is 14 pages, categorized into sayings, rules, advice, songs, and behaviors. Two of his rules, for example, are “Park away from other cars” and “Get rid of old magazines.”
His advice runs the gamut from “Never say no when you can say yes” to “Don’t buy it unless you need it, then don’t buy it.”
A Depression-era baby, my dad was born in 1930 in Buffalo, New York. His mother died when he was three, and his father worked in a steel mill. After high school, my dad enlisted with his twin brother in the Air Force and then went to college. He became a History and English teacher, and later a guidance counselor at a community college.
No doubt his career informed his perspective about education, whose purpose, as my mom quotes in the book, “is to teach people to think critically so they can make considered decisions that affect their lives.”
Yet in spite of the occasional erudite pronouncements, my dad’s phrases are mostly humorous, such as: “I think I slipped a disk in my brain” and, holding up a fist, “How’s about a knuckle sandwich?”
As I thumb through the hand-crafted book today, stories well up around certain phrases, such as one that simply reads: “The tree’s a-fallin!’”
This expression came from a stormy night in 1971 when rains and torrential winds threatened the grand old sycamore that grew between our house and the house next door. The winds were so strong that the tree was bumping into both homes.
As legend has it, our neighbor, Mr. Cunningham, rose in the middle of the night to pull on his rain boots and heavy coat and hat to come over to our front door with his dire news about the faltering tree. Picture if you will Mr. Cunningham with a wild look in his eyes and his hair all sticking up and crazy. (I know I just said he was wearing a hat, but childhood memories are like that and besides, I slept through the whole thing.) He bangs on our door, and as my mother and father stumble half asleep to answer, Mr. Cunningham, like some character in a gothic novel, cries out--as if something could be done about it--“The tree’s a-fallin!’”
I’ll never forget the image, in the stormless quiet of the morning, of my sister standing on the fallen massive tree in the long driveway that leads to the back of my parents’ home, its long dark branches silent and helpless.
Such are the memories captured in my mom’s little book. And such are the expressions stored in some lobe of my dad’s wondrous brain that under a microscope surely looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption.