To make a long story short: Recalling memories of my dad on Father’s Day

Donald Reese on his mail route in Maryville, Mo. (Courtesy of Diana Reese)
Donald Reese on his mail route in Maryville, Mo. (Courtesy of Diana Reese)

When I was young, I thought all fathers were home in the afternoon when their kids arrived from school. My dad’s schedule as a mailman meant he left for work before we sometimes got up, but he was home by 3:30 in the afternoon for many years.

He was the one we went to during those afternoons my mom taught piano lessons. He often took my brother and me on errands with him around the town of Maryville, Mo., whether to fill a car up with gas or pick up something for a home remodeling project at the local lumberyard or go out to the country to buy eggs from a local farmer.

Friends tell me about fathers who came home in time for the evening news and hid behind the newspaper, insisting on silence until dinnertime. My dad loved to read, but he didn’t shut out my brother and me. I don’t ever recall thinking he didn’t want us around.

But it’s summertime that I associate with my dad the most.

My brother and I loved to walk with him on his mail route, something that could never happen today. He ate lunch at our house, then my brother and I would trudge after him for an hour or so, until we reached Dairy Queen or Austin Spoor’s service station. We’d beg our dad for some change so we could get ice cream cones or bottles of pop, and he would finish the route while we headed home.

Then there were the trips to fish at local farm ponds on warm summer evenings. We knew my dad would usually catch the most, and the largest, bass. (At my dad’s funeral, the Rev. Bob Ceperley said, “The fish in Nodaway County are safe now that Don Reese is gone.”)  He loved to tell the story of “the one that got away for me” when I caught two fish at once, and the larger one escaped. Really.

As those summer evenings turned hotter and hotter, my mom would mix up a batch of homemade ice cream, and he’d crank the old-fashioned ice cream freezer. My brother and I always wanted to help, but I suspect our “help” was more of an annoyance at times.

Each summer we took a vacation trip, driving all the way to Oregon and Washington one year, to Maine another, and camping in a tent. Colorado, though, was my dad’s favorite destination; he loved the Rocky Mountains. He saw snow on his birthday – July 15 – at the top of Pike’s Peak.

My dad got as excited over Christmas as any kid. He loved to surprise my mom. He’d try to disguise his gifts when he wrapped them, using too-large boxes and throwing in a few lead fishing weights. We didn’t always see him much during December, though, as he would work overtime, leaving before daylight in the morning and coming home after it was dark.

It sounds almost like a Norman Rockwell painting, but it wasn’t quite that idyllic. My brother and I squabbled most of the time. My dad had a temper, but it was like a clap of thunder — loud and fast forgotten. Money was tight, and I’m sure finances worried my parents at times. Those summers full of fishing and camping? They were hot. We didn’t have air conditioning and dreaded nights when the outside temperature failed to fall below 80 degrees.

Yet I wouldn’t change any of it.

My dad was my hero. One of my earliest memories is falling on the new sidewalk in our yard and scraping my knee badly. Daddy picked me up and carried me into the house so my mom could bandage it. He won an eight-foot stocking full of toys for me after entering my name in a local contest when I was not yet 3 years old.

He killed spiders. He taught me to ride a bike. Later he taught me to drive. (So did my mom, with her foot on an imaginary brake.) He made me feel safe.

Most of all, he believed in me. Both he and my mother believed in my abilities and talents, and he was proud when I graduated college and proud of my career. I never had a sense from my dad that girls, or women, were less capable or less intelligent than men.

My first sentence, according to what my mom wrote in my baby book, was “I’m Daddy’s girl.” She also described how I’d “never met a stranger,” a phrase that also described my dad’s personality. He had a great sense of humor, he loved people, he loved to talk. 

He’d start with saying, “To make a long story short.” Except it never seemed like he made the stories short. He had such an incredible memory for detail, whether it was tales of long-ago events in Nodaway County or life as a Marine during the Korean War. I didn’t write down his stories because I believed we had all the time in the world.

I was wrong.

He died 16 years ago Monday, less than six weeks after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

His death broke my daughter’s heart. She had just turned 6 when her grandpa died. My son was only 5 months old.

I’ve tried to use my dad’s death as a reminder to live my life now, rather than focusing too much on plans for the future.

Although I don’t need Father’s Day to remember my dad, it will give me an excuse to share some of my memories with my kids. And I’ll probably start with, “To make a long story short.”

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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