She let me love him

By Billie Johnson

It’s been almost 30 years since I signed a Father’s Day card. I’ve written about how my dad didn’t pay taxes or child support and how his love of beer and cigarettes led to an early death, but he was my dad. And I loved him.

Because he died when I was 13, I never really got him anything for Father’s Day. Of course, I gave him little gifts, but my mom always bought them and ushered the signing of a card. Mom made no bones about his shortcomings or her frustrations with him, but without hesitance she encouraged and fostered my relationship with my father.

I have storybook memories of Dad. He took me fishing at Twin Lakes. We’d stop at a gas station on the way, and he’d get a quart of buttermilk, orange circus peanuts and Budweiser. I got chocolate milk. We never got sunscreen.

I hated the actual fishing from the worms to the wiggling fish, but I’m sure my love of chocolate milk stems from those moments. One time when I caught a fish and screeched as it squirmed, Dad laughed. He told me I was just like that in my mom’s belly, and that’s why he called me “Bluegill” before I was born.

On weekends when I’d visit him, I hung out in his bar in Lava Hot Springs. I had my own pool cue, and when it wasn’t busy he’d set me up with a Shirley Temple and a bag of Cheetoes, and I’d shoot at the cue ball while singing with the juke box. I knew my escape route and hiding places if the authorities came in, and I knew all of Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” before I knew the Pledge of Allegiance.

Dad would come to Pocatello now and then, and he’d take me to North’s Chuck Wagon Buffet at the Pine Ridge Mall. Kids’ meals cost a quarter for every year. I watched my meals go up in 25 cent increments each birthday.

When he’d drop me off at home, he pretended to empty his wallet and give me “spending money.” I’d run into the house waving 11 $1 bills as he backed out of the driveway. “Look what Dad gave me! Isn’t he great?” Mom would smile and swear under her breath and wonder where he was when I needed winter boots.

Dad’s lung cancer diagnosis came in the middle of my sixth-grade year. I gave him two polo shirts for that Father’s Day. One had thick red and grey stripes, and the other was bold teal strips separated by thin black lines.

At the end of seventh grade when he had his left lung removed, he came to stay with us until he could go back to Lava on his own. I don’t remember if he ever went back to Lava. The infection where his cancerous lung had been was so severe that the doctors left a drain tube in his chest.

He had to wear a bandage wrapped around his torso, and when he coughed, it would be soaked. Mom had to change it for him a few times a day, and to make that easier, Dad only wore button-up shirts after that. He gave me his Father’s Day polos, and when Mom sewed turtle buttons on the teal one, I wore that baggy men’s shirt for my school picture.

Dad stayed on our couch for months, and I resented having to share the TV with him. I hadn’t thought anything could be more boring than fishing until he started to watch it on TV. I barely got a peep out of my mouth to complain when Mom yanked me into the kitchen. She made it crystal clear that he would never fish again, so I needed to just sit with him and be still while he dreamed. So I did.

The things kids are supposed to get out of their parents’ marriage — a modeling of compassion and forgiveness, witnessing love and compromise — I got out of my parents’ divorce. Mom probably spent more time mad at my dad than not, and I imagine she spent Father’s Days gritting her teeth and biting her tongue, but it was worth it.

I remember my dad’s finer qualities and truly appreciate him in part because of my mom. She let me fish without sunscreen and play pool in a seedy bar. She let me squeal over spending money and to sport too-big shirts. In spite of their relationship and his downfalls, on Father’s Day and every day, she let me love him.

Happy Father’s Day to all the different dads out there. And unless you’re watching fishing from the couch, please apply some sunscreen today.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.