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Celebrating Dad
by Mary Jo Balistreri

Dad lowers the bamboo shades on the porch, dims the sun to a striped glow.
He pours two glasses of Pinot Noir, and we listen to the first CD he has
chosen for today's four o'clock ritual. "Can it get any better?" he says as
we sit together in the quiet, about to settle into our books for the next
two hours. In the ambered light, the duet of "The First Time Ever I Saw
Your Face" winds around the words in my book, brings an ache as I see the
face of an old love, a wound that never quite healed. As I look up to get
some distance, all I see is my father's face.

He is intent and content as I watch him read, sip his wine. At
eighty-eight, his face is creased with roads he traveled, roads he didn't.
I wonder down the lane of the young singer, hitch-hiking his way to
Minneapolis from the Dakota plains, singing his way across the country on
the night club circuit where he met and married my mother. They left that
life for the stability of a family. He said he was never sorry, but it was
also his biggest regret. Yesterday, after he practiced karaoke for the Sun
City Singers, he played the old recordings. When I heard his clear tenor
sing "Dream" and "Melancholy Baby", I remembered how I loved that voice 
in my childhood.

He reaches for the dictionary, the one book he cannot do without. He reads
voraciously. His affair with words has its own twists and turns. A high
school graduate, his limited education bothered him, especially as he moved
up the corporate ladder. Words were his lifeboat, his chart into deep
water. He wrote out definitions that he kept on index cards in a recipe
box. He studied them, and over the years, filled boxes to bursting. He
talked about words like favorite friends. They never left his side. He
loved the sound of insouciant, the way inchoate looked like confusion. He
admired their shades of color, their subtlety, the way, like mathematics,
they were exacting–the right word for the right thought. As he looks up
now, he asks, "a penny for your thought?" and I tell him how much I
disliked looking up words that he knew the meaning of but wouldn't tell. 
We laugh at his ploy.

I can't help but wonder how much longer I will have this man, his quiet
strength like autumn trees in Wisconsin. He has shed all but the essential,
lives his days simply, in a way that he hopes my mother would be proud. He
learned to cook using her recipes. Her chicken chow mein drifts in and out
of thought. His dinner table is set with her cloth napkins. There are
always fresh flowers.

Soon night will arrive. We step out into the silence of a faded blue
October sky. He points to the shoal of stars before we come in to eat. He
holds his Pinot Noir, comments on the taste of ripe cherries. I think about
his age and a path he will walk without me. He speaks of afterlife, tells
me he couldn’t live his life without it.

I ponder his words, roll them around my heart like a lifesaver, know how
scared I am of loosing him. My words get caught in the loneliness of my
own lost love, in the risks I didn't take with music, the fear of my own
death. I cannot speak, do not have the right words or his strong belief. I
look at him like I did when I was a little girl, when he let me sit on his
lap and steer the car. I never worried about the curves and hills of
Duluth. I knew my Dad was with me. I knew that this was enough.


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