This time of year always gets me thinking about my dad. April 20 is the anniversary of his death; it's been three years now, and though I will never get over missing him, it gets a little easier to cope with each passing year.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what he left me. Our family is far from rich, so my inheritance from my father was not monetary. The material things I have of his are few. I have the small stereo he listened to in his bedroom; the soft, black sweat shirt I bought him for his last Christmas and which he only wore a handful of times before he was consigned to a hospital bed; his high-school class ring from Del City, Oklahoma, which as a kid always fascinated me because it was a time and place in his life he didn't talk about much but which seemed hopelessly dramatic and exotic; and his old, torn Army jacket with our last name emblazoned above the pocket. That jacket in particular is priceless to me; no matter how many times it's been through the wash, it still smells like cigarette smoke and Aqua Velva. Like my dad.
Beyond the material, my father left me a lot. It's just taken me a while to see it all.
One day this winter while puttering around our house in jeans and a pair of black socks, I caught sight of my own feet. My God, I thought. Those are my dad's feet. Something about the way they looked sticking out from my jeans was so familiar. I'd seen black-socked feet of that same shape my entire childhood, but had never noticed that mine look exactly the same.
As I've gotten older, I've realized that I also have his eyes. I looked nothing like my dad when I was a child; people either said I looked like a little version of my mom, or that I looked like the milkman's kid. Age has made me look less like Mom; I didn't get her long, thin, nose, or her olive complexion, or her narrow face and jaw and high, Cherokee cheekbones. My eyes are her color of coffee, but they're not shaped like hers. The last few years my upper eyelids have begun to grow a little heavier; I suspect that as an old woman they will form little hoods over my eyes. My dad's eyelids did the same thing, and some mornings, before I work magic with a little eye shadow, I see his reflection in the mirror. He looked out of his eyes at the world in much the same way I do; Dad was very observant, and not much got past him. He often looked as though he was waiting to be amused; on good days, his eyes always seemed to be just a hair away from breaking into a slight smile. He wasn't cruel, but he had a cynical, sarcastic sense of humor and the people in his world and their foibles and quirks often made him hide a sly, crooked smile. I find myself doing that all the time (and then writing about it here later, of course.)
It took years for me to see my own father in myself. We had some rocky times through my adolescence, and for many years I didn't want to see any of his features or traits. The first time I began to see that we were a lot a like was in the early years of my marriage when I stopped on my way out the door of our Lexington apartment to make a smartass, over-the-shoulder remark to my husband.
"Alright, Chuck," Jason said.
"What do you mean?"
"I've seen your dad make that same comment a dozen times to your mom, and every time he says it he's standing just like you are. The only thing missing is that you don't have a cigarette dangling out of your mouth. You're just like him sometimes."
And for good or for ill, I am.
It's not just me who picked up some of Dad's genetic inheritance. Less than a year before he passed away, on a sunny summer evening, he held Ainsley at his waist and walked with her around his backyard to show her the trees and his beloved tomato plants. When I reached out to take her from him, they both turned to me with the setting sun in their eyes. Their eyes were the exact same shade of hazel. I had thought Ainsley's eyes were a mutated mix between my dark-brown and her father's green; until that moment, I hadn't realized that she had picked up some of Dad's eye color, too. He had chameleon eyes; there were times they looked light and times they looked dark, and times they seemed olive-green and times they seemed as brown as my own. Ainsley's eyes trick me sometimes, too, and when she asks me what color her eyes are, there have been a few times I've had to say, "I don't really know."
Genetics dictate that we get a little here and a little there from our parents. If we're really lucky, we get the best from both. When people tell me that Ainsley is beautiful, I credit it to the weird mix she is of Jason me; her eyes are large and deep-set like his, but she has my heart-shaped face. She has his tall, thin frame and my dark hair. She is alternately outgoing and silly (Jason) and thoughtful and shy (me.) A free afternoon will find her either listening to music and singing along loudly and in-tune (Jason) or writing in her new journal (me.)
For years, I wondered where I got certain traits. As Dad and I grew closer in our last years together, I looked at him and began to see an awful lot of myself. He is gone, but some of him lives on in me and in my daughter. He lives on in Ainsley's changing hazel eyes; in my sarcastic sense of humor; in my love for (and frustration by) Kentucky Wildcat basketball; in the various physical traits and mannerisms I picked up from him. I don't have a legacy of financial wealth, no inherited land or properties, but having had him in my life, I feel rich just the same.