A daughter learns to accept the inheritances from her father, good and bad, and appreciate them for what they bring to her life.
I inherited my Dad’s legs. I also inherited his love of the summertime and the outdoors. And his alcoholism.
I have a photograph of me standing by a pool with my hands on my hips, my head cocked slightly to the right. My Dad was captured in the background. With his hands on his hips. And his head cocked slightly to the right.
Like a piece of modern art, some things are immediately revealed in this photograph and some are left to the interpretation of the observer. The picture obviously illustrates my physical inheritance from my Dad and provides clues to our other shared characteristics.
While I would have preferred to receive my physical attributes from my mother — such as her long, slender legs, a lean body not prone to cellulite, and a racing metabolism – my Dad’s strong stance, physically and mentally, and his enjoyment of outdoor recreation, have been defining pieces of my life.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the traits I got from my father – physical things that you can see in this photograph like his legs, and less obvious things like his love of the outdoors and tendency toward addiction.
Ten years into my sobriety, I still don’t know how much of the disease is physical and related to DNA. That’s not important. What matters is that I got sober with the help of Jesus Christ and with the strength of will that I believe I also got from my Dad.
My introspection is due, in part, to the time of year. When the planet shifts on its axis and the North Pole points toward the sun, delivering summer to the Midwest, I think of my Dad. A rise in the mercury brings him to mind because he loved all things summer – lakes and oceans, beaches and sand, rivers, pools, waterslides, float trips, camping, barbecues, tomatoes and watermelon.
I inherited the alcoholism, but I also got his love of summertime and fun in the sun. I pursue them with enthusiasm. In so doing, I remember my Dad and I hope I am creating lasting memories for my kids. Memories that will overshadow any of my former, current, or future shortcomings.
Like my Dad, when I go to the coast, I don’t shy away from the beach during hottest part of the day. Instead, I relish the heat because it warms the ocean water or at least makes the coolness of it feel good on my fair, freckled skin. I seek the waves and have coaxed each of my children into them as toddlers, wisely or unwisely refusing to worry too much about riptides or sharks or jellyfish.
I have sustained more than my fair share of skinned knees, elbows, and shoulders from being rolled off a boogie board and slammed into the sand while my kids looked on and laughed at my “wipeout.” I’ve lost sunglasses and my eyes have burned from the salt water, but I can seldom be found sitting in a beach chair. When the water’s warm enough, I’m in it. When it’s not, I’m playing in the sand, building sandcastles and wrecking my vacation manicure.
During each of my family’s tropical vacations, I’ve enthusiastically signed us up for snorkeling excursions and marine life interactions. I am fonder of, and more comfortable with, deep ocean water and sea life than my husband, so while he is the stronger andbraver parent on all other fronts (including his willingness to get into a cold lake or pool), I usually take the lead in these situations.
Last year, when one of our snorkeling adventures took place in ocean water that was much colder than I liked, I opted to stay on the boat and play photographer. But my youngest daughter began to panic in the water and was trying to drown my husband, who isn’t fond of not being able to see what’s under him in deep ocean water. As I jumped into the very chilly water to calm my girl and give my husband some breathing room, I thought of my Dad and all the times he got into the water with my siblings and me.
When my husband and I owned a 26-foot Sea Ray with a cuddy cabin, I loved sleeping with the kids on the small vessel, waking in the marina to the morning lake sounds of creaking docks, ducks and the outboards of early-morning fishermen. My love of mornings, particularly mornings on the lake, I got from my Dad.
My family has taken float trips on the Meramec River, in good weather and in a driving rainstorm. One year, when my youngest was toilet training, we floated down the river with her little portable potty chair secured in the middle of the big yellow raft. I knew she’d never be willing to “go in the woods” and I didn’t want to lose any ground on the training.
As my horrified teens looked on, my toddler used her potty chair more that day than any other day previously. My husband and I laughed uproariously. I knew the “floating potty chair” would be a family memory for all of us — just like my childhood memories of the river.
My Dad used to load all of us and take us across the Missouri River to a little place called Pelican Island, where he’d bust out his Hibachi and barbecue Salsiccia sausages. We’d eat and play in the dirt and swim in the Muddy Mississippi.
My Dad died in 2011 at the age of 67. Not from alcoholism, but from complications following a stroke. He had all but quit drinking by the time he died — not because he ever found a 12-step program, but because his health was declining. He never spoke to me about being an alcoholic — I don’t know if he ever used that word to himself. He was usually charming and fun when he was drinking, so I suspect most people wouldn’t have labeled him that way either.
I, on the other hand, am involved in AA’s 12-step program, and as part of that program, I take the label. “My name is Michelle and I am an alcoholic.”
The disease and tendency toward addiction may be in my genetic code. Thankfully, so is my Dad’s strength of will. For me, that meant I found my way to recovery.
I had my youngest child three years into sobriety, and my older children claim to not remember me ever drinking. I find that hard to believe, but if it’s true, I’m delighted and more blessed than I deserve.
This summer my family and my brother and his family packed into our respective minivans and drove about an hour west of St. Louis to Sullivan, Missouri. There, despite the warnings of a heat advisory, we loaded into a couple of enormous yellow rafts and floated down the Meramec River.
These types of gathering usually involve sharing stories of my Dad — the temperature and the water and the food and the laughter among family bring forth good memories of him, overshadowing any of his shortcomings.
So as I soaked up the sun and the company of my loved ones, ate food from coolers and attempted to keep river water from diluting my iced tea, I did not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it. Instead, I took refuge in the knowledge that the memories we created also have the potential to dilute my shortcomings in the minds of my own kids. Maybe they will remember and perhaps even inherit my love of summer.