Todd Walton: My Father


From TODD WALTON
UnderTheTableBooks
Mendocino

When my father died five years ago, my siblings and I did not hold a memorial service in his honor. We were each of us so wounded by our father’s incessant criticism and disapproval of us that his death unleashed our long suppressed anger toward him, and being so angry we could not see our way to put on a show of loving memories. But now I wish to speak of his goodness and the gifts he gave me. I wish to propitiate his ghost, something my father would have scoffed at, and to communicate my gratitude for his presence in my life.

When my sisters and brother and I were little kids, my father told us the most wonderful bedtime stories, and sometimes we would be the characters in those stories, which was especially thrilling to me. Imagine being a character in a story! My father would just make up the stories without the help of a book, and my brother and sisters and I marveled that he could do that. I am certain that my fascination with stories and story telling began with listening to my father invent those magical stories for us.

My father taught me how to plant trees when I was six-years-old, and we planted many trees together over the years—fruit trees, redwoods, birches, and pines. He would show me where to dig the hole, and I would dig as big and deep a hole as I could. Then he would deepen and widen the hole considerably; and I would admire how strong he was and how easily the ground yielded to him. Then we would refill the hole halfway with a mixture of peat moss and compost and soil. I remember we stirred this mixture in the hole with our bare hands, and then we would place the baby tree atop this mixture and fill in the hole. With the leftover soil, we would construct a circular basin around the tree and I would fetch the hose to fill this basin with water again and again until the ground around the tree was saturated. And thereafter my weekly chores included watering the young trees.

Speaking of trees, one day when I was ten, my father and I were in a nursery and he saw a little olive tree selling for what he thought an exorbitant price. Our house was surrounded by huge old olive trees that dropped thousands of olives every year, many of which subsequently sunk into the soil and were covered with leaves and eventually sprouted into baby olive trees. My father spoke to the nurseryman and learned that the nursery would pay three dollars each for hearty one-year-old olive trees, as many as they could get.

“Now there’s a great way for you to make money,” said my father. “Pot up olive seedlings, tend them for a year, and sell them to this nursery. Fifty times three is 150 dollars!”

So we got fifty one-gallon pots and I eagerly potted up fifty olive seedlings, placed them in the dappled shade under one of our ancient olive trees, and cared for them diligently for a few months until life intervened and I forgot all about them.

Ten years later while visiting my parents for Christmas, I was wandering around their overgrown yard and came upon the sole survivor of those fifty seedlings, now a tiny bonsai olive tree which I potted in a long shallow bonsai pot, adorned with a miniature granite boulder, and gave to my father to add to his collection of a dozen bonsais. My father was most delighted with that miniature olive tree.

My father loved to body surf and taught me to body surf not long after I learned to swim. Our family went to Los Angeles for a week every summer when I was a boy, and we always went to the beach for a few of those days. The water was warm, the waves perfectly formed, and we would shout for joy when we got good rides. Body surfing was truly my father’s bliss, and after he spent a couple hours in the water he was always so sweet and happy.

My father took our family camping and backpacking every summer. He taught us how to pitch a tent, build a fire, light a Coleman lantern, and many other things a person needs to know to be a good camper. He also taught me how to fish, how to prepare my pole and reel and line, how to bait a hook, how to cast, how to set the hook when a fish strikes, how to play the fish, how to kill the fish, how to clean the fish, and how to dip the fish in cornmeal and fry it on a skillet over a campfire.

When I was in my twenties and became a vagabond for a few years, I was essentially a highway backpacker, and virtually everything I needed to know in order to survive I had learned from my father, including mending my clothes with needle and thread and repairing my backpack and boots with an awl.

Some of my fondest memories of my father are of him fishing for trout in the high Sierras. He was an avid fly fisherman and for some years he even made his own flies. We often had our camps on the shores of small lakes at the base of granite peaks, and it was my father’s particular delight to set out from camp and try his luck all the way around the lake. When he hooked a trout, he would let out a musical hoot that resounded in the otherwise silent wilderness, and I would watch him play the fish, his slender pole bending, his face alight with delight.

I was crazy for ballgames from the moment I could walk, and though my father wasn’t the least interested in sports, he would sometimes play catch with me on the lawn when he came home from work. He was left-handed and I loved watching him throw the baseball—a perfectly natural curve ball. I was tireless and my father was often tired after a long day of work, so he would set a limit on how many throws he would make, a number we would count down together. When we got down to one, my father would call out a new number, and we would play a while longer, and I was overjoyed by his generosity.

When I was twelve, I helped my father install a backboard and basketball hoop atop a tall pole on the edge of our sloping driveway, and every day for the next five years, rain or shine, I shot hoops out there for hours on end. I was often out there shooting hoops when my father got home from work, and sometimes he would watch me shoot a few before going inside. When he was in a good mood, my father would compliment me on my skill and maybe try a shot or two; and I always loved it when he gave my favorite game a try.

My father was a successful psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he taught clinical psychology to psychiatric fellows at Stanford Medical School. He also helped found a ward for psychosomatically ill adolescents at Stanford Children’s Hospital, an accomplishment he was very proud of.

I wrote and published several books while my father was alive, and he was extremely critical of all of them. As for my music, my father barely acknowledged that I was a musician and once asked me, “Why do you write such sad music? You should write music that makes people happy.”

I didn’t think my father would ever like anything I created. But a few months before he died, I sent him the manuscript of my novel Under the Table Books, and he wrote me a letter in which he praised the book and predicted it would one day be a great success. I read his words over and over again because I could hardly believe my eyes. And even more astonishing to me was how he signed his letter,

My son! Love, Dad
~

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2012)
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