by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Michael H. Shirley
When you go to a place where you spent a lot of time as a kid, and now take your own kids there, time has a way of pulling memories from you. We just spent two weeks at YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa, where we’d first gone in 1967, and arrived back home on the day before Father’s Day. My kids love the place now as much as I did then, and it’s wonderful to be there as a family, but I kept thinking about how much my dad would have loved to be there with us, to see his grandchildren having fun, to overeat at Paul Bunyan’s, to fish, to read, and generally just to be.
My father, Robert Lloyd Shirley, died in 2008 after a ten-month fight with kidney cancer, and, while the pain has dulled a lot, it hasn’t gone away, nor do I expect it to. He was the smartest, kindest, and most decent man I’ve ever known. He loved his family, was addicted to golf, couldn’t wait for tomatoes fresh from the garden, and was never too busy to stop and listen to people. He was humble down to his socks, and was interested in everybody he met.
I’ve been thinking a lot about him over the past couple of weeks. We stopped going to Nawakwa in the early 90s, but started again in 2006 as a way to celebrate my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. We all had a great time, and decided to pick up the family tradition again, but dad was never able to return. And so my family, all of us, go back year after year, in part because we enjoy it, and in part because it would feel a bit like losing him again if we didn't.
And here I am on Father’s Day, with the best, most loving kids any man could ever want, wondering what my own father would think of the job I’m doing as their dad. I’m pretty sure he’d approve of a lot, disagree with some of my decisions, and above all be there. Just about everything I know about being a father I learned from him, and the most important thing I learned was to love my kids constantly, just as he did me.
Not long after he died, I wrote a poem, which was published here two years ago. It says a lot about the way fathers and time blend together in the way we feel across the generations. Here it is one more time:
On the day we arrived at camp,
a snapping turtle, looking for a place to lay her eggs,
rested on the dirtpack by the wash house,
lying down like something from the deep past,
her ridged back unaltered from dreams of my childhood,
when first I saw her.
My son, on eager feet, halts panting at my side,
eyes wide at this new wonder,
as I hear my own father calling me, his voice eager.
"Look here," he says, pointing down,
and I, hand firmly held,
standing where memory and childhood meet,
inhale an air of water, trees, and sky,
as the turtle, ignoring us, moves scabrously toward the lake.
We finish unpacking the car,
ready for summer,
my daughter splashing in the shallows by the dock ,
calling for her brother to join her
as I untangle the fishing gear.
This is where I learned to fish,
sitting on one side of the boat,
my father on the other,
our lines still, waiting for perch or walleye to show themselves
in nibbles from the deepest part,
then bites, the rod tips pulling quickly down.
We set our hooks by feel
looking over the side to see what rises from the dark.
My son is not yet ready for deep water.
He casts his line from the bridge,
Where he can see the bottom
hoping a bluegill will strike the worm I've put on his hook.
I fish with him, memories of my father green around us,
in this first year without him.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. I love you.