Today - Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 - would have been my father’s 83rd birthday.

A little more than three years later, it still feels strange to put it that way: “would have been.” Dad died roughly a month before his 80th birthday, and almost a year and a half after the passing of the woman he promised to love, honor and cherish on a warm August day in 1962. 

He kept that promise, and so did she, and they made doing so look so easy - a fact that I probably took for granted for most of my childhood, simply because it was our everyday reality. I’m not saying that we were living some sort of idyllic TV sitcom Brady Bunch existence, because nothing could be further from the truth. There were family trials and tribulations, most of them comparatively minor but a few of them anything but.

And yes, Mom and Dad certainly had their disagreements and sometimes they could get pretty colorful, so much so that Dad would refer to some of them as “the stuff of local legend” whenever they might come up in later conversation.

I remember one occasion in particular from my childhood when we went to the grocery store, and they got into some kind of kerfuffle over what they could afford to buy that particular payday. They did their best to keep their voices down, so as to not upset me and my two younger brothers or attract undue attention from the other shoppers, but Mom got so frustrated at one point that she hauled off and flung her purse across the store. 

Whereupon Dad dutifully darted several aisles over to retrieve the errant handbag - pausing just long enough to apologize to the poor stockboy who had nearly been caught in the line of fire - and brought the purse back to my mother, who accepted it with an embarrassed smile. At which point they both began to laugh, having forgotten whatever it was they had been arguing about in the first place, and we knew all was right with the world. Or at least our little corner of it.

And that’s the point: No matter what the disagreement might have been, they always kissed and made up and never went to bed angry. There was never any doubt in the minds of their children that these two people truly adored one another. I used to wonder why so many of my classmates weren’t so lucky and had seen their lives upended by divorce; what did my mother and father know that theirs didn’t?

It wasn’t until years later, when I had a wife and sons of my own, that I came to truly appreciate just how hard my parents must have had to work to make the relationship last. And that appreciation made me love them all the more.

I’ve said it many times before, but certain truths bear repeating: Yeah, I had great parents. They gave me many gifts - most of which are not the kind that can be measured in terms of monetary worth, and yet they have made me a very rich man indeed. 

I’ve written in the past about how my parents were both avid readers and how they fostered my own love for reading, which in turn set me on the path of becoming a professional writer. I don’t know whether or not I ever properly thanked them for this during their lifetimes - in fact I’m sure I likely did not, because I’m a faulty human being and all too often we don’t take the time for such things - but I’d like to think they knew anyway. 

Mom was the one who usually sat me on her lap or curled up next to me in bed while reading Dr. Suess or those Little Golden Books about Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck and the Little Engine that Could. She was the one who would hold the book in front of me and teach me to read the words myself, thereby helping to ensure that by the time I started kindergarten I was already able to read at roughly a third grade level.

But it was Dad who - upon fully realizing just how much I was enjoying being able to read - built upon the foundation my mother had built by introducing me to books and authors that have remained treasured favorites to this very day.

By the time I was actually in the third grade, still reading well ahead of my classmates (many of whom were still struggling with the exploits of Sally, Dick and Jane), it was Dad who saw that I was looking for something to read beyond what I was being offered at school and took it upon himself to open new doors for me.

He started by loaning me his copies of the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs - starting with his original Canaveral Press edition of The Land That Time Forgot, which he later gave to me as a gift and which still holds a place of honor on one of my bookshelves at home. Thus was launched my lifelong love of Burroughs, which continues unabated to this day.

But it wasn’t just Burroughs that Dad introduced me to. For Christmas that same year he gave me a boxed set of science fiction novels by H.G. Wells; by that next summer I had read them all - one of them, The Time Machine, twice, much to the disbelief of my reading teacher at school.

Over the ensuing years Dad introduced me to Verne, Asimov, L’Amour, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, Farmer - even Shakespeare. It was Dad who made our joint trips to the shopping mall to scour the bookstores for new titles an almost weekly event. 

When I was in the sixth grade, Dad gave me another boxed set of paperbacks: the first six books in the “Richard Blade” fantasy series, a fun and entertaining merger of the James Bond and Conan genres. That particular gift prompted one of those infrequent disagreements between my folks, after Mom happened to notice the cover art on the books - each of which featured one of those stereotypical loincloth-clad damsels in distress that made artists like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo popular...

I was close to both of my parents, which I suppose is why the closest thing to any real “teenage rebellion” I ever put them through was a complaint I made to my mother that time when I was in high school and she swatted my behind over something one of my brothers did while I wasn’t even at home. When I asked why I’d gotten it, Mom said, “That’s for being his brother!”

To which I responded, “Well, heck, that’s not MY fault. I kept asking for a dog and you brought me those two instead.” Mom and I laughed about that one for years...

It’s true what they say: The pain never goes away when a loved one passes. I’ve worked hard on not letting that pain take over my life, because I know that’s what Mom and Dad would have wanted, but there are times when it is easier said than done.

I miss their steady hand and their gentle guidance… their friendship and his laughter… and even the occasional criticism which was always delivered with love and (more often than not) spot on. Like that time my dad responded to a letter to the editor I wrote for the Kankakee Daily Journal when I was younger by writing his own letter, praising me for my stance but suggesting that it might have had a greater impact if only I had put a little more thought into it and worded the last paragraph a little differently.

The Journal published Dad’s letter, too. I still have both clippings. You may find it odd, but they always make me smile... 

(Copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)