Shopping for cards with Dad has been a regular mile marker in my life. Sidney B. Strange can spend several minutes, even half an hour, standing in the card aisle looking for that perfect match "¦ a match between him and the card as much as between the card and its recipient. I've learned I can fairly judge where Dad's at in his own life by the card he's sent.
Christmas cards—big, beautiful, elaborate—are individually purchased for each person on his list (Dad loves playing Santa and December is a jolly month). The same happens on Valentine's Day—no matter where in the world I am living, there is always a sparkled, heart-covered, oversized valentine just for me (he's a marshmallow under his gruff exterior).
Birthday cards are the best, often featuring a gooey, father-daughter sentiment. Dad seems to choose these cards because they are so purely joyful. Most of them evoke tinkling laughter and a downright appreciation for being a father, possibly grounded in those happy, innocent years before all that messy divorce stuff.
It's wise to read the card's verse, for my dad is a man of words (38 years as a criminal trial attorney turns everything into a discussion—written or spoken). Yet I value even more the words he pens below the verse, which always seem to capture what he wants to say and what a daughter wants to hear.
I've kept nearly every card Dad has given me. Sometimes I pull out a bundle and let the mile markers speed backward.
"I love you with all that's in me. You have always made me so proud of you. Dad." He didn't have to say anything more on my high school graduation.
In college there was the retro birthday card with people peeking under a circus tent. The inner inscription reads: "Another year older and you're still the main attraction."
Dad had to pat himself on the back for having found such a giggler. "Cute card, huh?" he writes. He also includes some fatherly advice along with a check: "Use the money wisely. Don't buy trinkets and food for people you don't know. Love, Father." Apparently he knows his daughter is just as likely to feed three unkempt hippies as to pay her electric bill!
My father always got a kick out of one of my liberal arts majors: Women's Studies. An uncharacteristically religious Christmas card, received before I embarked on a backpacking trip across Mexico and Central America, included this note: "We'll miss you. However, you will be learning a great deal investigating Mayan ruins and ancient feminists! Love, Dad."
My taste for travel and unconventional pursuits didn't always sit well. Dad and I went through a rough decade as I worked on my degrees and moved to Alaska to pursue a newspaper career. He was building a relationship with the woman who is now my wonderful stepmother. Sounds simple enough, but navigating this new dynamic—I was no longer his "main attraction—"was tricky.
Yet time passes, we grow and evolve and learn to accept one another for who we are. And, fortunately for my relationship with Dad, I got married. Just this year, in fact—at age 41!
Dad couldn't have been happier. His heart opened back up to me.
"Jen and Terry: You are truly kindred spirits," Dad wrote in our wedding guestbook. "It's remarkable you have found one another and a true miracle that you have decided to share your lives with one another. All my love to you both. Treat each other with kindness and compassion. Dad."
I joke to my best friend that had I known such a conventional choice as marriage would have pleased my father so much, I would have done it sooner! Yet I also know Dad harbors a deep pride for his daughter.
The last two Father's Days, my husband and I traveled to dad's house on the Missouri River, where we celebrated him with luxurious brunches and afternoon boat rides. This Father's Day he'll be with us in Jacksonville. We'll still do the brunch, of course "¦ and we'll give him a carefully chosen card. As he has illustrated to me so many times, there's no sweeter, simpler or more genuine way to mark another of life's milestones.