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Tom Kelly: Father’s gift was more than summer vacation

Father’s Day, my parents’ wedding anniversary and the anniversary of my dad’s death are all crammed into the same three-week period. I usually find myself grouping the trio of events together and reflecting on them as a package on each one of those days. Yet, this year, they seemed to be front and center more often.

It’s been 20 years since my dad passed way. He died in 1998 at age 83 of complications of Parkinson’s disease. He taught some significant lessons, including the importance of family getaways. The typical Kelly summer escape was nothing exotic, but the can’t-wait anticipation for the two-week retreat was overwhelming.

The fondest memories of my youth are of warm days on those family trips – simple, precious times when we were young enough that mandatory summer jobs, summer school and summer heartthrobs did not steal the warm sand from our toes. Schedules didn’t seem as necessary then, unless it meant being out on the water.

I can still feel the tight-fitting, antiquated, bright orange life preserver pushing against my face as I sat studying my father’s smooth, consistent motion as he rowed a heavy wooden, red boat on a mile-high mountain lake.

I was about 5 then and have been seeking similar days – sometimes to a fault – ever since. My search is partly the desire to give my kids a shot at what my dad gave me – a taste of what could be just around the bend – without forcing them to go there.

Truly, my dad’s way of leading was definitely by example, whether it was at a lake retreat or in the backyard of our home. He gave us all enough rope to hang ourselves, and I certainly took advantage of the opportunity a few times.

There were few, if any, mandatory meetings for change – times you had better show up with your hat in your hand. For me, he preferred to dispense any messages outside in the backyard or at a rented lake cabin, barbeque apron on and cocktail in hand. I learned more about him on hot summer nights with Vin and Jerry broadcasting the Dodger game on the radio, marinated chickens on the fire, than the rest of the months of the year combined. Many times, he knew the answer of what seemed to be a gut-wrenching situation but continued in the role of a sly dealer, preferring to have me untie the seemingly untieable knot.

“You have a good head on your shoulders,’’ he’d say. “Just do the best you can.’’

It was immediately frustrating, yet eventually very satisfying, and he knew exactly what he was doing.

He chose now-antiquated phrases like “keep your shirt on” or “hold your horses” when we were too eager to start a backyard ballgame, dart to the table for a meal or sprint to the dock for a plunge in the lake.

More than 35 years ago, my wife and I found a spot on a freshwater lake in the Cascade Mountains. I was drawn to it because it was a combination of the places my dad used to rent for us a generation ago. While our kids now have grown, I still catch myself saying “keep your shirt on” when pushed to make a decision much sooner than expected while reading a paperback on the dock. I like to row there and clearly remember how all four of our kids had once sat in the bow, tight life jackets riding high on their chest, much like I had sat in the bow of that wooden boat with my father so many years ago.

We all, as children, took those special days for granted knowing that somehow, some way, there would be another special day just around the bend. Kids are like that, expecting perfect summer sunsets and immortality.

What’s up for my Father’s Day? I plan to head to the lake, repair the dock and hope the out-of-town kids make it up the mountain this summer. And, every time I put the oars in the water, I will dream for one more treasured moment with the man who first showed me how to row.

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