Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday Once More

Growing up, my sisters and I loved to ask our parents about college. Where'd you go? What was it like? Did you drink beer there? My father had one consistent answer to the question, "Where did you go to college?"

"Long Beach State, the Greatest School on the West Coast."

He answered it so matter-of-fact that it wasn't before Christy and I were into our teens that we learned 'the Greatest School on the West Coast' isn't a part of the school's name.

When we asked him where mom went to college, he answered "some other private school in LA where the rich kids go."

My dad was friends with The Carpenters during college – Karen and Richard Carpenter of the famous brother/sister singing duo. They also attended Long Beach State. My dad described Karen as sweet and kind – a real ‘good girl’ – with a magical songbird voice.

We’d then ask mom who her friends were in college, and she’d talk proudly of her days being the number 1 ‘bleacher cheerleader’ for the track & field boys. My mom was a straight-A student, a rising feminist, a sometime-hippie (on nights like, Halloween), and something of a groupie! Years later, I would take after my mom's pursuit of good grades and sweaty athletes in college.

Nancy attended every track & field meet while at USC because she had a good friend named Orenthal who supplemented his Heisman-trophy-winning football skills by running track in the off season. He would go on to become a star NFL football player, an actor who starred with Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun franchise, and later, a murderer!

When we saw on the news O.J. driving his white Ford Bronco down the 405 freeway in that infamous police chase back in 1994, my stunned sisters and I turned to Nancy, whose jaw was on the floor:

“Didn’t you used to date him, Mom?”
Silence. Followed by a, "Hell, no!" from her.

But my parents ran in important circles during their university days.

My dad had a scrappy, Catholic upbringing in Downey, California, also the suburb where the Carpenters were raised. Today, his old stomping grounds of Downey and Southgate are becoming increasingly similar to their neighborhood-cousin to the south, Compton, worldwide headquarters to the Crips gang.

When he was a child, my dad wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. I never heard the full story, but at some point in his adolescence he received the hard news that his poor eyesight would prevent his dream from coming true. It kind of breaks my heart, because he would have been a top-notch pilot: Captain J.T.

My dad’s nickname is JT, but it came to him later in life after failing for years to get people to call him Jack. (That’s where Jackie’s name comes from). But he was always Jon, Jon Thomas. He didn’t look brute enough to be a Jack. So somewhere, one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends started calling him JT. He took a shine to it. So if you ever want my dad to like you, just call him JT.

With aeronautical school off the table, Dad would go on to be a healer. He majored in physical therapy at Long Beach State, took an internship at a hospital, moved up north to Napa, met my mom Nancy, got married at a wedding down in Southern California (that my dad’s mom planned), took a hippie honeymoon in Sun Valley, Idaho, moved to Stockton, then (thankfully!) got the heck out of Stockton and put down roots in Sacramento.

I was a newborn baby and my Dad was 30 years old when his dad died. Grandpa Leonard. I don’t remember him, but I know I would have loved him. I’ve seen pictures of him holding Christy and me, and I could see the kindness in his eyes. He was gentle, quiet, thoughtful and wonderful. The cancer killed him quickly – he died within 2 months of the diagnosis. Both of my grandpas died of lung cancer.

One day, I’ll have the courage to sit my dad JT down and ask him all about grandpa Leonard. He’s shared bits and pieces, but I want to know more – I think somewhere he holds the secret to my father.

You see, my father is an enigma. I can’t elaborate why; but his stories hold some clues.

A few months back, I asked Anne Louise, who was my family’s Danish au pair back in 1987-1988, what she thought of my family when she lived with us at the age of 19. She went through all of us, one by one, “You, Cammy, were very short and small, but you had big attitude.” “Christy was happy and quite busy for a kid.” “Allyson was loving and always needed attention”... “Jackie wanted 8 baths a day and could change her own diaper”... “Your mom would cry in sympathy if I got a paper cut.” And “Your dad....” Hmmmm. “Your dad, would run.”

I suppose a house with: 4 pre-pubescent girls, 3 female cats, 1 PMS'ing Danish au pair, and an over-worked, stressed-out wife will drive a man to run. And he did. Everyday. And he still does.

All he had to do was enter our backyard, wind around the lawn, dodge a few sprinklers, pass the swimming pool, open the latch of our fence, and enter a gorgeous stretch of public land: a city-run ‘national forest’ called the Jedediah Smith National Recreation Trail. I think the nature is why my parents chose Sacramento; the recreational possibilities and the landscapes are breathtaking. Just 10 meters from our house is an immaculate bike-path that parallels the graceful, flowing American River, which is dotted with endless oak trees, sunflowers and wildflowers, deer running around, wild coyotes, snakes and sunshine. This was my dad’s Secret Garden. Slipping out the back door would be his refuge from the madness and hormones. Who knew that having four daughters would be the key to keeping a man in such great shape?

He’s logged millions of miles, he has a box full of marathon medals. The centerpiece of his racing calendar is the yearly Eppie’s Great Race Triathlon, which he has raced annually for 30 years. Two days after my mom gave birth to Jackie on July 10th my dad corraled the family, planted us at strategic spots along the raceway, and had us fulfill our ‘spectator duties’ like handing him Gatorade, frozen bandanas to wear around his neck, his bicycle helmet, or a kayak.

My dad keeps getting faster and faster. This year at Eppie’s, he took 3rd place in his division. His diligent training is an inspiration to me, and a huge part of why I started running and racing triathlons in my 20s. My dad and I would run together – and it was the first time in my adult life that we could have some easy, quality time together. He’s the perfect running partner because he doesn’t talk much. Like him, I like to ‘relax’ when I run.

I ran my first race with my dad when I was 10 years old. Christy, age 12, had been teasing me that I was too short and bony to be able to run the “Tahoe Fun Run” that she’d signed up to race with her older friend Heidi, age 14. I started training the day before. Panicked, I asked my dad if he thought I could seriously run the 2.3 mile race down the beach and up to the Hyatt, where the race ended. He gave me a serious, quiet nod. “Just stick with me. You’ll beat them.”

Christy and Heidi went out of the gate at lightning speed, but I hung back with Dad. “Slow and steady wins the day” has always been his mantra. I passed them at mile 1. And finished the race in about 19 minutes, way ahead of my bossy big sister. I probably stuck my tongue out at her, when she crossed the finish line. 10 minutes after me.

Running is in the Thomas blood.

There is one other quirky habit, other than running, that helps keep my dad sane and at peace (and my sisters and me in stitches). And that is his romantic-comedy habit.

I discovered that my dad was a sucker for romance stories when, on a Hawaiian vacation, we were at the beach and he proudly pulled out his book and told me he was reading an important novel about the Vietnam War. Called “Message from Nam.” By Danielle Steele.
You won’t find a Kirsten Dunst-, Alicia Silverstone-, Colin Firth-, Hugh Grant-film that my father hasn’t seen. And watched on loop.

He went through a “Bring it On” phase, a “Clueless” phase and a “Love Actually” phase that has actually never ended. His fondness for air-heady female protagonist starlets isn’t in the lecherous spirit it may sound like. Rather, I think stories about girls like his daughters crack him up. It puts a perspective on his life, and he can better process ‘love and life’ in our changing world. And the parade of boys, men, relationships, friends, drama, engagements and tears that have entered the Thomas home, on account of having four bombshell Thomas offspring. :)

I love my dad for embracing his softer side through a cinematic outlet.

My dad is a good, kind, quiet, respectful and decent man who has done the absolute best he can to raise four happy, healthy, okay daughters. Who do their best. I wish I could give him more than this thank you.
He isn’t perfect - no father is – sometimes he can be a real stinker. He poops out early, he cuts vacations short, he doesn’t always let you in, and he hated cheesy father/daughter high-school dances

so much that he never attended one with me. But he was man enough – when it mattered most – to pay for my therapy with Beverly Hill’s finest shrink who let me boo-hoo on his sofa for a few sessions before smacking me with his thick, Yiddish accent and saying, “You have a good family – you’re cu-urred.”

My father has given me: clothes, shoes, bikes, good values, swimming lessons, cars, his deep sensitivity, a strong work ethic, country club memberships, exotic vacations, stuffed animals, trips to Space Camp, tap shoes, encouragement to become a pilot, support when I said no, shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive (sorry!), and the space, love, patience and quiet support I would need to find my own way in this world.

Today, my dad turns 63 years old! In honor of his birthday, I’ve posted his favorite Carpenters song below. It's actually my favorite Carpenters song, but in the spirit of my dad -- who always said, "Look Cammy, this is your favorite: _______ fill in the blank [children's book about sports! / favorite football team / favorite ice cream flavor] when he's actually presenting his favorite something, today I'm playing his game.
I want to say: Dad, I love you and I apologize for those times when I signed your birthday card “Best regards, Cammy.”

You’re a good dad and a good man. Grandpa Leonard would be proud.


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