There are relationships that happen in grand swoops of time, that build over cups of coffee and glasses of wine and slow meals and travels and adventures.
There are relationships that go from zero to sixty – total strangers to dearest friends, in a matter of one long walk, one summer job, one shared dorm room.
My relationship with Papa was one of moments, tiny, shiny, round globes of time that snuck up on me, so that I didn’t even know how much I loved him until, in the blink of an eye, I did.
He wasn’t always “Papa.” At first, he was “John.” Then, when I was less afraid of him, he was “Johnny” (and sometimes, behind his back, he was “Johnny-boy”). And then he was “Papa” to the two little girls who ran all over camp. And then, suddenly, he was “Papa John” to all of us, introducing himself that way to the whole camp, every Opening Night. Papa John. Papa.
Now that he is gone, I keep those moments like a little boy keeps a pocket full of marbles, running my fingers through them over and over, picking out my favourites, treasuring them all.
Papa picking me up at the airport when I didn’t know him well yet, wasn’t sure how to greet him. A hard, short, surprising hug. “Babe, we sure have missed you. Welcome home.”
Home. Babe. A warm glow around those words. Home. Babe.
Meetings, often brusquely demanded by him, to pore over transportation lists and logistics. Who needs to leave when, in which vehicle, stand where, at which terminal. I didn’t always understand what he needed, but knew it was the ritual of the thing that mattered, the conversation itself a sign that he believed in my competence.
Closing days with early morning flights. The chill grey dawn, where Papa was the driver and I woke tired campers, loading them into his truck with sleep still in their eyes. The first year of this: Papa pacing, worrying gruffly that I would forget, sleep too late. The next summer: Papa calm in the kitchen on those mornings, making his coffee. “I never should have doubted you, babe. I put that kettle on for you.” A nod toward the stove, where the kettle was just starting to whistle for the tea I drank every morning. When did Papa take the time to notice my tea?
The years I stayed after the campers had left, to help with special events and rental groups, I would often wander down to the pool in the afternoons, to read until the slanting sunlight grew too hot, and then to float in the turquoise water, look up at the sky, feel myself in the centre of a perfect orb of blueness. Many days, Papa would show up, swim a few laps, sit with me and chat about the weather, the trees, the history of this place that he built. He never stayed long, standing up abruptly after a few minutes. “Well, Babe, I’ll get out of your hair, let you have your quiet.”
As fall crept up, Papa would pull out his road atlas, to talk about my long drive home, through 4 states and 2 provinces. It seemed to me he knew every highway, freeway, and dirt road that led out of that valley. He liked the long, isolated side roads for himself, but steered me towards better populated routes.
Papa left us the way he loved us: quickly, almost gruffly. True to everything about him, his house was in order, both literally and figuratively. He left no mess, literal or figurative, for his loved ones to clean up. When more than a hundred of us gathered to say goodbye to him, the air was filled with music and laughter, the tight hugs of those who share a history beyond words. Writing his obituary was one of the greatest honours of my life.
When Papa died, I phoned my own dad, in tears. “Daddy…. Papa died.” “Oh, darlin. I’m so sorry. I know you loved him. And he loved you, so much.”
Papa built the place I love best in the world. He was father to one of the best friends, and strongest women, I’ve ever known. For those 2 things, alone, I would have loved him with my whole heart. But having him love ME…
That is the roundest, shiniest marble of all, the one I pull out when things get dark, running the pad of my thumb over it’s blue-ness.
Papa loved me.
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