A Letter to my Father, March 7th, 2010
It was about 6:15 AM. I was perched at a window seat at one of a zillion Starbucks in San Francisco; this one at the corner of Bush and Sutter streets. My family was asleep back at the hotel and I was here, sketching a hatchery steelhead, concentrating on my pen lines, when I realized that a fellow at the window seat next to me was writing so furiously that he shook the ledge.
Each “I” was dotted, each “t” crossed with great force, his pen alternately jabbing into or slashing across the paper.
Interesting. He wore a coarse, blue wool sweater. His hair, long, grey and matted, had that slept-on-for-weeks look. Not the fashionable young rebel look. The old nasty-hair look.
Homeless, I guessed, or close to it. Mid forty-something. Or fifty. Or thirtyish. He looked old. He wrote with a cheap ballpoint pen on plain white paper that had been intricately folded in odd, angular shapes.
He had penned several pages before I realized he was writing a letter. He shuffled through the pages, striking out a word here and there, re-writing as he went. I glanced over at just the right time to see the words: “Dear Dad.”
I sketched on, now preoccupied with thoughts of his letter. Shortly, he leaned over to catch the attention of a customer adding cream to his coffee, asked how he should spell – snow skiing – listened to the answer, and continued with his animated letter writing.
Was he really writing his father? The man seated next to me didn’t look like he’d been snow skiing any time recently, nor likely to be going skiing anytime soon. Perhaps his father was fond of skiing this time of year? Was his father alive? Was he writing to ask for money? Was this a brilliant artist who chose to look like a street-person? Did he roam the streets from coffee shop to coffee shop, writing the same letter every morning, over and over again?
It was close to eight. The coffee shop was crowded. I think he signed his name to the letter then. By this time it was something like four or five pages long. He stood up abruptly, pushed his chair back under the window bench, and walked outside. Standing in front of the coffee shop, he re-read the letter one last time, stuffed it into his back pocket, and strode-off downhill on Bush Street. His pants were a heavy, pinstriped, corduroy material. Narrow stripes of blue, green, gold, red, yellow, and purple, I think. Difficult to be sure in the early morning light. Reminiscent of something Jimi Hendrix might have worn, I thought.
As he walked away, I noticed his shoes. New. Very stylish. Shiny. Probably very expensive, I speculated. Wonder how he got those shoes. Wonder where he was going. I stopped sketching and thought about all the possibilities.
Then I decided to write my father a letter.
I think of you often even though I have not written since I was in therapy. You died in 1975. I was 26. There are a few things I need to say. It is March, 2010 and I’m about to turn 61. Mom died last year. I divorced in 1991 and remarried in 1995; Lisa is amazing – the love of my life. You have two fine grandsons. David is 31, Jackson is 11. I’m a fish biologist; very happy; and very grateful for my life, friends, and family. I still love to fish and tie flies.
My family and I are here in San Francisco for a few days. Remember when you were stationed at the Presidio in 1956? I saw a sign that reminded me of the place where we bought sardines for bait.
Jackson took a picture of me yesterday, right where I used to fish for shiner perch near Fort Point, when I was seven.
Remember the day I carried a Striped Bass home from the Bay on my bicycle? I found that photo when we got home. It is one of the few photos of my life that I saved. That’s Jimmy on the left and me on the right. SF has changed a lot. The Presidio isn’t even a military base anymore.
What I really wanted to tell you is – I’m sorry that we never really talked before you died. Neither of us knew how to do that.
I know you have regrets. So do I. Let’s leave that behind. I know that you loved me and mom. I know you were miserable. Don’t worry about us. Mom had a good life after you died. She moved to Corvallis to be close to us and we often went out to dinner with her. Our first adventure out with your youngest grandson was going to Starbucks with Dulcie.
I love you Dad. I know you did the best you could. My life has been really good. Some rough spots, sure, but I’m grateful for everything that has come to pass. Your grandson David is married; he and Heather both have great jobs and she gave him a wonderful second family. Jackson is thriving and will be taller than his mom by the time he is twelve.
Remember that hardware store where we bought live crawdads on our way over to fish the Nestucca? And the time we forgot the spools for our Mitchell 300s? And the time I hooked a steelhead at the mouth of that little creek when the big river was high and muddy? Boy, I remember how high it jumped when it threw my hook. I can still see it in my mind. Can you see it too?
I remember also the day you took me to a store in Portland and bought us both fly rods, reels, and lines. The lines were brown, and I remember being embarrassed that we couldn’t afford the good Ivory colored lines. They might have been Eagle Claw rods, and I think they were 7 1/2′ long. We almost always fish longer rods these days. We bought some Royal Coachman Bucktails that day too. Size #10. They just don’t tie ’em like they did back in ’62.
I wish you had been able to fish with me. Thank you for giving me a place to be safe, by the water, with the fish.
Time to go now. I’ll write again. I promise. I need to tell David and Jackson some of the good things I remember about you, things about your character that they will be proud to know about their grandfather. Like the time you went out to face a mob of men rioting and looting in Istanbul — just you and our building Janitor to interpret. I can still see your .45 in the back of your belt. Me and mom and grandma Woodburn watching from the window.