Frequently I have used this column to recount various exploits of my father and his cherished influence in my life. In the short 20 years I had with him on this earth, he crammed an unusual amount of wisdom into me, but also left me with substantial regrets.
Although he asked me to join him in maintaining the family car numerous times, I never did and subsequently never learned to change the brakes on a car from him. “Your old man may not be around to show you how to do this one day,” he admonished me several times in my youth.
Even knowing that, you might think it odd that thoughts of replacing the brakes on our car looped through my mind repeatedly on the day we buried Pop. But they did. Given the opportunity again, I would be covered in grease and brake dust and savoring every moment of it.
Regrets … and joy.
Pop was as sharp as they come, able to see past the surface of things to glimpse the deeper reality that lay beneath.
I fondly recall one Easter Sunday when my little brother and I were hunting eggs. At first, I raced ahead loading my basket while Pop stayed behind with him. My brother was much younger, and I quickly realized he was struggling to find as many eggs as me. So I subtly began leaving more obvious ones for him to find and taking only those he had missed or that would be difficult for him to spot, all the while keeping a mental count to make sure we each finished with a basketfull of eggs.
At that age, I was a prideful tormentor of my siblings and took an inordinate measure of satisfaction in it. I excelled at infuriating both my sister and my brother for sheer entertainment. I certainly would never have admitted to an intentional act of kindness toward my brother out of fear of damaging my reputation. That was a chink in the armor I wasn’t about to expose.
Pop was onto me, though, and approached me afterward. Placing his hand on my head, he looked at me and said, “You’re a good kid.”
I feigned innocence and shrugged my shoulders, asking, “What?”
“You know what,” he replied matter-of-factly, and walked away.
I was 11 years old, had nine years left with him, and we never spoke of it again.
It is and always will be one of the single greatest moments of my life. He looked through me and saw goodness there and reinforced it. That moment stuck with me and I can only hope to have the same impact on my kids.
Yet perhaps I have impressed upon you that my father was a bottled perfection when it came to parenting. Not so! I should clear the record. Pop made mistakes – occasionally a whopper.
One such mistake occurred on an even earlier Easter morning. A mistake big enough that the tale was recounted to me only years later when I was “old enough to handle the shock.”
It seems that very early that morning around 3:00 a.m., well after the Easter Bunny had made his deliveries with three goody-filled, plastic-wrapped baskets placed lovingly on the fireplace mantle to await discovery by an equivalent number of sleepy-headed children, my Pop awoke in the darkness to the faint sound of crinkling plastic. At first, he assumed that an impatient child had awakened and was nosing through the baskets looking for candy. But as he approached, he realized that instead a not-so-small mouse was making such a valiant attempt to penetrate the plastic and gain access to the goodies inside, it was oblivious to him.
I am told that around this point, high-pitched screams emanated from that end of the house. Testimony conflicted on whether these screams came from my mother as the witness to the event or from my father as its protagonist, but despite the pitch and volume, we kids slept soundly as my father reached for a nearby broom and began swinging furiously at the furry burglar. At least one of his swings rang true, and a dazed and confused mouse scurried away, never to be seen or heard from again in the Collins household, but possibly smelled as I seem to recall odors of decomposition permeating a particular wall for a number of days around that time.
With the crisis averted, Mom and Pop returned to bed to try and get a few more hours of sleep.
When we arose the next morning, we never knew a mouse had tampered with our baskets, and everything went off without a hitch. It was nearly a perfect day . . . except for my discovery, shortly after opening our baskets, that somehow my beloved hamster, Herman, had escaped his cage in my room and was nowhere to be found. I was saddened at this loss but comforted immensely by the sheer horror on the faces of my Mom and Pop upon realizing he was gone. I had no idea they had grown so fond of him.
Only years later did they confess the true events of that night and I realized the ghastly fate of Herman.
So, yeah, even Pop made a mistake or two along the way.
Rest In Peace, Herman. And Pop. You were a good dad, mistakes and all.
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© Michael L. Collins
*This column first appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of The Mountain Press