Important, even monumental, things were happening in Nineteen Thirty One. The huge Jesus statue was built on a hill in Rio De Janeiro. The Empire State Building was finished in New York City. Our country officially had a national anthem at last.
In more mundane events, the electric razor beame a part of Americans' lives that year. Nylon became a part of the "fabric of America" (forgive the pun). And the ballpoint pen was invented.
Another important thing happened that year. Maybe not of world, or even national importance- although, who's to say? Peter Skarmeas was born.
Pete, or "Papa", as we all call him, is the Patriarch of our family. But that's not what this short essay is about. Everyone will have by now been telling him how they feel about his birthday and such. What I'd like to delve into a little bit is what he's meant to me.
I grew up without a father, for all intents and purposes. I do have a father, and in fact I'd say I'm closer to him now than at any other time in my life. This is intended as no slight to him. But he lives in Pittsburgh, PA and I don't see him much.
I also had my uncle Ashley, who taught me to shoot a gun and bow, and took me hunting, where I wore a hunting coat and carried around all the pheasants that he and his friends had shot. Sounds gruesome perhaps, but I remember the feeling of warmth on my back (that's where the game pocket is on a coat like this) more than anything else. I do appreciate the part he's played in my life.
I also think as I mention this of my second cousin Jeff Book, who- though he's spent a large part of his life as a missionary in China- somehow taught me in New Castle, PA one year, how to swing an axe, as we spent a long tiring day chopping log after log and putting them in the bed of a truck.
But as the years go by, these father figures pale in comparison to Peter. He is without a doubt the closest I've gotten to having a father around, even if it's by proxy through my wife. And he didn't and doesn't teach me how to shoot guns or use axes. The lessons are different than that and more subtle.
I won't pretend that it's always been easy. Not through any fault of his, certainly. But when I met Kathy, I was already in my early thirties. That's a long time later, when your parents get divorced just after your third birthday.
And Papa is a father that cares. That wants to know where his youngest daughter is. That wants to know she's alright. As one who left home at eighteen and moved to New England by myself at twenty-two, that didn't always sit easy with me- I won't lie to you. But even as it rubbed against my white-knight fantasies of protecting his daughter- along with my less-flattering lack of the skills to be any kind of team player- I have always respected his urge to care for his family. To know where we are (and yes, I'm included in that- a fact I neither overlook or take for granted).
So, our relationship has not always been warm fuzzies. So what? Whose relationships are, anyway? Really? As I said a little earlier, the things I've learned from Peter are so much more subtle than that.
I've certainly learned a kind of work ethic. Not that I didn't have one before. Not that I wouldn't have developed it as soon as Lucy was born, on my own. But Papa shows a selflessness that I not only can't emulate, but find it hard sometimes to contemplate. I remain a selfish, once-spoiled, only child somewhere deep inside. But even that inner child has started to learn some slow lessons about thinking about the future, about providing. About thinking of others. And that has come from Papa's example. What can you buy at the holidays, for example, for a man whose greatest wish, truly, would be for you to not spend the money on him, but for you to put it into savings to secure your future? It can make for brain-twisting shopping, sure, but to imagine that it doesn't leave a positive mark on one's soul would be simply foolish.
So all of that has gone on for a few years. But what I expected less, and am perhaps a little happier about, is this new sort of quiet relationship I've started developing in the last few years with Peter. When I started substitute teaching, it somehow worked out some days that Papa would watch Lucy for awhile, then he and Lucy would pick me up from school, and he'd drop us off back at our house (Kathy would have our car at her work). Somehow this planted a seed of a separate relationship for my father-in-law and I that has morphed and grown in the cracks and gaps of other interactions and family visits (Lucy is typically the star of these) to the point where we'll sometimes go off to Lowe's together to get mulch for around the trees, or assemble things they've bought. When he needs help carrying things, I'll sometimes get a call. When there's a big snowstorm, I sometimes go over to make sure they're dug out. These things may sound as mundane as dirt, but for me, they are significant. To go from feeling uneasy about having a father figure regularly involved in my life, to a place where the two of us can carry on a conversation while raking the yard... that's a big deal, for me.
So, I guess this is a weird way to say thanks. Perhaps someone with less baggage and more comfort with emotion would've written something shorter and dampened with tears. All I can do is scribble on a page, something like a verbal version of the coloring Lucy does in Kindergarten, and try to explain what the picture means.
Thanks, Peter. And one last thing. The night your daughter and I got engaged- following a morning where I picked up an engagement ring, and an afternoon wherein I sat in your driveway waiting for you and Mary to get home so I could show you the ring and formally ask you to marry her- when we came over and told you both, I nervously said something to the effect of 'So even though I missed you this afternoon, we DO want to have your blessing...' and you said very quietly, almost under your breath- "Well, you certainly have that." Those five words are a cornerstone for me. A highpoint in my life, of feeling deeply and truly accepted.
I look forward to the future. But at this monumental birthday, I want to erect a verbal monument- what the ancient Jews used to call an Ebeneezer.
"The Jewish scriptures tell of a stone that the Israelites erected in order to memorialize a place where God had helped them overcome their enemies. They called the stone, Ebeneezer, which means, “Thus far God has helped us,” "
This is what I've learned from Peter Skarmeas so far. This is my pile of stones, my tribute to a man who would not want any tribute. And that's exactly why he deserves one. Happy Birthday.