We were not an “I love you family” when I was growing up. We knew families that were, of course, knew of parents who punctuated every phone conversation with “I love you,” knew of children who could not go out to play without first shouting “Bye! I love you!” into an empty hallway on the assumption it would float toward a family member’s ears. We certainly found such affection lovely. We just didn’t do it.
I’m not sure I can explain the reason we did not verbalize; love was certainly at the core of my childhood. It was everywhere. I guess that cuts close to the heart of why we didn’t talk about it — there is something decidedly practical about my parents. I think saying “I love you,” was viewed as overkill, not unlike saying “Don’t forget to breathe at school today,” or “be sure to put one foot in front of the other when you walk.” Or maybe, more than a concern about overkill, it was a stubborn refusal to be obvious. Love was to be seen in every hard-earned compliment, in every fair punishment, in every one of those thousand movies my mother took me to see, in the very act of my father getting up before dawn to go to the factory and in every game of catch he found the energy to play in the afternoon.
I think the message, if there was a message, was that recognizing love was as important as expressing it.
Funny thing is, I grew up and my own family became the “I love you” family of all time. We say “I love you,” constantly. I have told my wife Margo “I love you” at least once every single day of our marriage. I estimate that I’ve told our older daughter Elizabeth, almost 13, “I love you” at least 20,000 times in her life, and our younger daughter Katie a few thousand less only because she’s younger. Maybe it’s because, as a writer, I’ve come to believe in the power of words. Maybe it’s more a reflection of Margo’s childhood — the Kellers are a big “I love you” family.
Anyway, for some reason, I was thinking about all this Saturday at my daughters’ piano recital.
* * *
My favorite moments of being a father are not at all what I had expected them to be. Well, that figures. I came into fatherhood only with the experience of being a son. And as a son, the most memorable moments with my father are big and sweeping moments, like the times we went to Municipal Stadium to Cleveland Indians games or that time at Cedar Point when we stopped at the shooting gallery. I’ve told this story before on Father’s day … you know those galleries where you shoot at a little target and the mechanical guy starts playing the piano or the skunk lifts his tail or the bartender ducks. I don’t know if these places still exist.
Anyway, I wanted to try it and my father gave me a quarter, and I did not hit a single target. Not one. I knew nothing at all about shooting guns. My father smiled and began to walk away and I said, “No, wait, you shoot.” In my memory, he did not want to do it. He despised guns. We were not even allowed cap guns when I was growing up.
But I begged him, and he came back and he put a quarter in. He hit the first target. He hit the second target. He hit the third target and the fourth and the fifth. He hit every single target he aimed at. After a little while, people started to gather around him to watch. “Shoot the skunk!” someone yelled. My father would shoot the skunk. “Hit the bartender,” someone else yelled. My father would hit the bartender. The crowd got a little bigger. Finding out that my father was a marksman — a skill he quietly carried over from his time in the army — was as shocking as if he had told me he was Batman.
Those are the sorts of memories I expected to cherish with the girls — big, bold, unforgettable ones. First day of kindergarten. Father-Daughter dances. Birthday parties. Family trips. And, of course, I have memories of these, good ones. Sure, I remember Katie the Prefect, and both of their first goals but they are not my favorites. They are not that clear in my mind.
No, my favorites are, almost without exception, small things that I would never have considered memorable while they were happening. There’s nothing particularly special about any of them — they don’t make for good stories. I remember sitting in this horribly uncomfortable rocking chair we had gotten after Elizabeth was born* and reading her the book “Harry MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy” for the 200th time. I don’t know why this one time stands out — but I can see everything so clearly, the way the sunlight poured through the window against the awful yellow paint job I had done in the nursery, the way the rocker felt against my back and my oldest daughter’s laughter.
*The rocking chair was one of those “glider” kinds that everyone says new parents MUST have — if I can offer any parenting advice at all it is simply: Don’t waste your money on those. Get a comfortable chair.
One of my favorite fatherhood experiences was walking up and down aisles at the supermarket with Katie and trying to explain to her how time travel worked in the third Harry Potter book. This took HOURS. I’m not kidding. Hours. She is relentless. She would say, “Ohhh!” like she understood and then, in the next second, she would say, “Wait a minute, I still don’t get it.”
One of my favorite fatherhood experiences was when Elizabeth rode in the front seat of the car for the first time, and we turned on the radio and some super fun song came on — I think it was “Call Me Maybe” — and we sang along, and she did this funny little dance, and it was so fantastic, even if it doesn’t translate to anyone else.
This week, the girls had a little piano recital. I have never insisted they do anything with their free time — certainly never pushed sports or any of my other interests on them — but I did insist they learn how to play the piano. I carried this from childhood. I guess we did not have much back then on my Dad’s factory salary, but I never thought about it. Except piano. I always wanted piano lessons … or at least I thought I did. And that was one my parents simply could not do. We just could not afford piano lessons.
I did try taking lessons as an adult and I keep promising myself that I’ll go back when things slow down. In the meantime, I told my daughters that while I don’t demand a lot I would demand they take piano lessons. They have mostly accepted this with good humor.
This has meant, through the years, that our house has been filled with the sounds of a few muffled complaints mixed in with sounds of slightly off-key versions of songs with names like “Up The Stairs With A Cat” and “The Mountain Bird.” But the sounds have been getting better. This time around, Elizabeth was playing “The Purple People Eater,” and Katie was playing “The Entertainer.” As the recital got closer, they were playing their songs better and better.
And then, not too long before the recital, I was listening to Katie play The Entertainer well and I noticed something. Right at the end of the song, there’s a series of notes that leads into the finish … and something sounded just a little bit off. It seemed like Katie wasn’t quite holding a note long enough. I don’t tell my kids how to play the piano since I do not know how, but I did say: “Hey Katie, you might want to hold that one note just a teeny bit longer.”
“Which note?” she asked. She’s our duteous daughter, the one who loves to please.
“Well, play it again,” I said, and she played it, and I tried to pinpoint the note for her. This took longer than you might expect. She tried to hold this note, then another note, then a different note. She started to get determined about it, and I realized that I had done something unintended … I was getting her to think too much just a few hours before her recital. That wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I told her not to worry about it, but it was too late — she’s also our persistent daughter. There’s a great experiment they do with children where they promise the kids a piece of candy anytime they want but tell them that if they can hold off for 15 minutes, they can have two pieces of candy. Most kids can’t make it the 15 minutes. Katie would be able to wait five days for that second piece of candy. When she sets her mind on something — whether it’s finding this note in “The Entertainer” or understanding time travel — there’s no getting in her way.
She kept at it for a little while longer until finally I said that she played it perfectly, and she could go to the pool. I don’t think we had ever isolated that one note; I had felt pretty bad for even bringing it up.
Then it was time for the recital. Katie was the first one up. She was dressed well, and she was her usual determined self, and she played “The Entertainer.” As I watched her, all I could think was how grown up she has become, how deeply I already miss the 4- and 5- and 6-year old versions of her, but also how fantastic the 9-year-old version is. No, I don’t want to start singing “Sunrise, Sunset” here … fathers understand.
She got to the end of the song, and she reached the note we had talked about. And she held it. I mean she HELD it. She held it long enough that it for an instant broke her timing on the rest of the song. But oh she held that note, the one we had talked about, and then she finished the song and she looked right at me.
And, of course, before the day was out I told her I love her two or three or five times. I told Elizabeth that too. I told Margo that too. I hope to tell them that a 100,000 more times in their lives. But, my parents were right too. You don’t have to say the words “I love you.” Sometimes, one note will do.