I stare out the window of my Phoenix home office at gardenias like the ones that grew in our Miami yard where Dad built the Annie Lee. And I wonder if his naming the boat after me had been a grand gesture of his love for me.
The Annie Lee was a dream Dad wrangled to fruition with intellect and hard work. He invested countless days studying blueprints and boat-building books he borrowed from the library, chatting up buddies who built sailboats for a living. Four years of his life lapsed while he hammered and sawed and glued and fiber-glassed into the night.
A solitary shop light hung from the banyan tree. Beneath it, mosquitoes hummed in the opera music playing on the radio. The air smelled of sawdust and gardenias.
He bought marine plywood, cedar one-by-fours, and second-hand power tools with money he’d squirreled away as a machinist at Miami Shipyard and a lifeguard at Shenandoah Pool. Ice cube trays held scrap lead Dad melted in the kitchen stove for ballast. He soaked lumber and C-clamped boards into the belly of a boat. Mammoth rolls of fiberglass, coated with resin, covered the hull like sheets of snowy burlap—every bubble painstakingly smoothed out. The only thing he hired was the crane to cart his creation to the Miami River.
I will never know what Dad was thinking when he named his forty-foot yawl the Annie Lee the summer I was 10.
But the naming flowed beneath my life, telling me Dad loved me—something I had difficulty seeing amidst the flotsam of aching memories. And when I memoired through the debris, I found many more markers of Dad’s care for me—no matter that I-love-you wasn’t what I heard at the time.
Arizona sun warms the gardenia leaves from forest green to something lighter, maybe Kelly green, but I can’t be sure. Dad’s colorblindness lives on in me—and in my sons.
For a reason I’ve never ferreted out, my deepest bond was with my father. Did we spend more quantity or quality time together when I was a kid? Or did the wounds Dad dealt delve us deeper than Mom’s benign benevolence? Maybe it’s simply because so much of Dad showed up in me.
I like the DNA Dad divvyed me—the infusion of intelligence, introspection, and introversion. The ability to form deep attachments. His thoughts and mine trend toward the ocean floor of things. Though divergent in direction, the spiritual stirs passion in both of us. Hard work and can-do attitudes come easy. And sometimes, ridiculous hope. I, like Dad, obsess over projects—his boats and my books—a boon that barrels us through to completion.
Some of our similarities Dad taught me—like a penchant for pinching pennies. His affection for fitness. I meet new vistas, adventure, with childlike glee—whether skipping from Florida to Ohio to Indiana to Arizona, hiking over the next mountain ridge, or diving into new cultures, real or fictional.
And like Dad, I settled far from my roots. He grew up in Canton, Ohio, the son of a railroad man—an alcoholic—and a homemaker. He moved thousands of miles to Miami and reinvented himself as a hippie. I grew up on a sailboat, at least for a few years, in Miami with my bohemian father and breadwinner mother. I married a minister and landed in Phoenix, writing about the mantle of human misery and how we heal.
Today when I weigh my father’s parenting, I factor in my grandfather’s alcoholism. And I see Dad as broken for the first time, instead of just the man who broke me.
His fathering hadn’t been Hallmark pretty. But I got that he loved me. And that’s how I define Dad’s success.
I spent most of my life embarrassed by Dad’s plethora of peculiarities. But now his pungencies—those that wafted from his person and the emotional ones—have faded.
Arizona early morning breeze blows through the screen. White blooms bow and dance. Their beauty and scent wash over my desk. I fill my lungs with gardenia laced air and my mind hears the report of Dad’s hammer on the hull of the Annie Lee.
I realize I am healthy and God has traveled a million miles beside me to bring me to this bitter-free moment.
Dad and I were flawed people, imperfect family. But today I hold in my palm perfect petals of love my father had for me and I had for Dad.