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Jane Ahlin, Published June 16 2012

Ahlin: Good memories the glue that keeps families together

My advice to adult children: Be specific. If you are going to call your father to wish him a happy Father’s Day, do some thinking first, and maybe write a few things down. Leave today’s concerns for later and think back. In fact, think way back to when you were a kid, and concentrate on small things your dad did or said that made him the most important man in your life. If you find yourself a wee bit sentimental, don’t worry about it. Enjoying good memories is part of the glue that keeps families together.

Were my dad still living, I know where I’d begin our conversation. I’d start with Sunday mornings when my brothers and I woke up to the big-band sounds of “Les Brown and his band of renown” playing on the hi-fi. Or it might be Les Elgart or Les Paul and Mary Ford. (What was it about the name Les and the big-band era?) It could have been the Dorsey brothers or Harry James; the only exceptions came in December, when Dad was inclined to forgo his favorites for Christmas music. He’d turn the volume as loud as my mother would put up with and, most often, sing along.

Those were the Sundays he was likely to have the griddle out, bacon frying, and pancake batter at the ready when the rest of us got home from church at noon. Never keen on church himself, he seemed to enjoy getting us up and out the door, then having the house to himself for those Sunday morning hours. (Big-band music and the smell of bacon frying still leave me assured that God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world.)

Next, I’d mention water skiing, something Dad learned to do right along with us kids after my grandparents bought a lake place. I was 11 at the time, and it took me 17 tries to get up and stay upright on the skis for a short distance. But what a victory – the most exhilarating thing I’d ever done. In no time at all, we were learning to slalom, Dad, wiping out and getting a nose-full just like we did. I suppose he was about 40 years old, and yet, I’m quite sure he didn’t look at trying something new at that age as setting an example for his kids, although that’s just what he did.

Words – new words – made for other family memories. Maybe lots of dads kept dictionaries by their kitchen tables, but the only one I knew was my dad. No doubt looking for an alternative to the bickering my older brother and I were prone to at mealtime, Dad’s idea was that we’d learn a new word and its meaning and practice using it in conversation during supper. A week or two later, he’d return to this word or that to see whether we’d actually learned the word or just memorized it briefly, only to forget. As words piled upon words, trying to remember those from previous weeks got to be very funny. Why “epitome” and “efficacy” became so hilarious, I’m not sure. But if I said those words to my brothers today, the first thing they’d do is laugh out loud.

Dad thought we should be able to recite the U.S. presidents in order and know the capitals of all the states. Maybe he thought it was basic stuff every kid should know, or maybe he was just keeping us busy. Maybe it was a bit of both. In thinking back, the “why” isn’t the important part of the memory.

It’s natural – in fact, it’s important – that our relationship with our parents evolves and changes as time goes by. If we’re lucky, there’s a period of years when both they and we are adults and some of our family bonds morph into friendship. If we’re really lucky, that friendship holds up when the parents who took good care of us need to be cared for.

That role reversal may be the hardest part of life’s trajectory. On its own, it’s not easy to navigate; however, for middle-aged children whose own children haven’t fully assumed the responsibilities of adulthood – the so-called sandwich generation – it’s particularly hard.

If I could call my dad today, one more thing I’d mention was a time in high school when I bumped up against life’s unfairness. One night when I was particularly upset, he came upstairs, sat on the edge of my bed and we talked about it. He couldn’t change anything, but he made clear he was on my side.

I’d like to think he knew that meant the world to me. But neither he nor I ever brought it up again.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.