This is a long way to say that my father and me go way back. And if my memory of those past events play a few tricks on me, then I hope you'll forgive me. My father immigrated to the U.S. from The Netherlands in 1946. His entire family miraculously survived WWII and, together, willingly or not, they left war-torn Europe and set sail for a pastoral life among the farmlands of western Iowa. They spoke no English. They had no prospects. But they were able bodied and they had each other. So they worked. They made their way, working, moving again and again, from Iowa to Colorado to California to Michigan and back to Iowa again in search of new jobs, new schools, and better opportunities. These children grew up, as they do, settled down and started their own families. It is no surprise I have family scattered in every corner and crossroad of this country. It is little wonder that I do not live anywhere near the town where I grew up. (Indeed, neither my father, mother or brother lives anywhere near their home town.) It is no surprise I feel right at home wherever we happen to be on our loopy road trip.
Today, my father lives in Houston, TX. He is a retired factory worker, scholar, minister, social worker, and probation officer who currently moonlights as a substitute teacher by day and church social scenester by night. His is married to a wonderful woman, Mary, who is the hub a large and vibrant family of her own. Their families inexorably intertwined, their home is filled with an ever-changing cast of visitors and guests. The doorbell is always chiming. The phone is forever abuzz. And everyone is always welcome. It is a place where strangers become friends, and friends become family. It is a house filled to overflowing with love.
No sooner had our bags hit the floor, we were off to see the greater Houston area and meet as many members of their extended family as would meet us. It was a week where both past and present merged into one rolling event.
It began with a tour of the shipping channel that flows into Galveston Bay, one of the busiest ports in the U.S. and a visit to the historic San Jacinto Battlegrounds (where the Texans routed Santa Ana's Mexican regulars in 1836 and earned a short-lived independence)...
... complete with a solemn study of the mothballed Battleship Texas, the veteran of many a world conflict.
A Sunday morning church service (where we were warmly welcomed from just about everyone in their congregation) and an early afternoon filled with family fellowship, followed by a boardwalk afternoon by the bay...
... capped with a bay-side stop to feed gulls on-the-wing.
Not to mention a swing through Galveston island...
... and a tour through the the butterfly sanctuary in downtown Houston.
Of course, the evenings were filled with fine dining (thanks Diane and Mary!) and the fellowship of friends and family.
After leaving my father's house, I am struck by the memory of my father. I don’t see my father as often as I’d like or as often as I should. And I regret the accumulated years of silence between us. This is what happens when sons discover that they, too, can be men. It is an unchangeable truth of our personal history. But while I was busy trying to be a man, my father was always there, not hovering or haunting. Just there. Patient and waiting. Knowing, I’m now certain, that as I got older, as I grew up, that I’d remember at least a few of the lessons he taught me.
He knew I would remember that he, along with my mother, had attended every school music recital, sporting event, and ceremony I ever took part in. He knew that, through his good works in the church and social services, he had shown me what community service actually means. He knew that, as I struck out to find my own way in this world of endless choices, I would take the life-lessons of an immigrant as my boon. He knew that I would do my best in the world of work, that I would both flirt with failure and also enjoy the pleasures of success. He knew that he had taught me how to love my family with all my heart and to love strangers as best as I am able. He knew that I’d understand, finally, what he has known all along. That we are mortal. That we are flawed, all of us. That love binds us together for all our years but also frees us. That we are family.