I had planned several low key activities for my Dad’s visit. He, like all of his children, enjoys all things nature: gardening, hiking, hunting or just gazing. We have a killer “go to” outing to which we take all our guests here in California. It starts with a short hike at the top of Cave Landing Road in Avila Beach, which dead-ends with a knockout view of the Pacific Ocean. As you round the last bend, a huge rock formation has created a natural tunnel with a perfect triangle frame. Walking through the tunnel takes you to a sheer cliff, about 150 feet above the crashing waves. We have many a picture of our guests silhouetted in that triangle frame.
The next part of the hike takes guests down a slightly challenging slope onto one of the few nude beaches in the area. Ironically, most of our guests do not fit the profile of people likely to find themselves at a nude beach (i.e., half of them are over 70, very conservative, or children!). Yet invariably, they go with the flow, spending a half hour on the short stretch of beach looking at sea otters and collecting rocks. To leave the beach you either have to backtrack or take the adventurous route, which of course is what we always make our guests do. (My husband calls it the “Tomboy” test for his 72-year old mom. “If you can successfully complete this test, you’re still a tomboy, mom.” FYI—she still is!)
The locals have rigged a series of ropes and makeshift steps which lets visitors scale straight up the 120 foot rock wall to get to the walking path above. It’s about a “6” in terms of physical challenge and danger, yet given the demographics of many of our guests, it’s an exhilarating feat. After walking the mile back to the parking area, we cap the outing with a short drive to a pier in San Luis harbor. They allow cars to drive to the end and park on this particular pier. Our last surprise for guests is showing them to a set of stairs, at the bottom of which are giant sea lions lounging in the sun. You can get within about 10 feet of them. It’s a sure-fire crowd pleaser.
My Dad, being game for all of the above, delighted in each surprise. This was his first time doing anything mildly strenuous since his surgery, so we occasionally paused to rest. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he got that first glimpse of the ocean. “Praise God. Thank you, Lord,” he said quietly, to himself. He told me he’d travelled to California on business early in his career, but had never actually spent any time at the ocean. This was his first real experience with it.
At the end of the pier there are several tanks with fresh, live Dungeon and blue crabs. We’d seen and played with them many times (you can pick them up with tongs), but never purchased any. We decided to bring some home for dinner, but then learned they steamed them right on the spot. Fifteen minutes later, we had three huge crabs ready to eat. We drove to a nearby park, found an ocean-side picnic table, and proceeded to crack them open with our bare hands and indulge. With the sun and wind in our faces, we played with the claws, laughed and took pleasure in this unique experience—a first for each us. It was one of those moments in life that get etched permanently into your memory.
With an unforgettable day under our belt, my Dad and I settled that evening into one of our first long conversations. We talked of the early days of his career and the events that led to his move to Indiana. I hadn’t known he had actually co-founded his own company while still in Wisconsin – a roll straightening company for the paper industry -- which was fairly successful. He acknowledged that he was never a great businessman, that his forte was really the engineering side. As a result, according to him, his partner made financial decisions that further lined his own pockets while shortchanging my Dad. He eventually agreed to sell his portion of the company to his partner for $35,000, and at this same time his soon-to-be new employer in Indiana gave him a $35,000 signing bonus to work for them. The year was 1967, and with this sizeable amount of funds, he purchased our beautiful brick home on Hickory Island. He recalled that the purchase price was around $55,000 and that he placed about $33,000 as a down payment. I was surprised to learn of this early success. Because of it, and even before that time, Dad said he made a decent salary and it wasn’t as tight financially for my parents as I had thought.
Our talk transitioned to his marriage to my mom, were they ever happy? According to him, my mom “blew up” anytime he wanted to go out with his friends after work and have a drink. Over time, he said, “I knew I’d get yelled at whether I stayed out for one drink or several, so I started staying out for several.” He didn’t provide many details or describe any of the emotional intimacies of the marriage, but did say, “We did have some good times over the years.” The latter comment led us to recall the times in Indiana, after the older kids were out of the house, that the three of us went cross country skiing in the hills and fields around our house on the handmade skis he had built. “Your mother really loved doing that.” He went on to tell me about a time the two of them went for a midnight ski outing and got stranded, miles from home, in a marsh. “Your mother was starting to panic, but I calmed her down and we made it out of the marsh to a nearby road and found our way home a half hour later.”
This timeframe, roughly 1976 to 1978, was a transition point in all our lives. My Dad had always wanted to build a home in the country, so we sold our island house and he bought two acres of land about eight miles away in a lovely country setting at a place called Feather Valley Road. There were only a handful of houses on this stretch of road, but also a lovely bird sanctuary adjacent to our property. The three of us, and my older brother, spent the next several weeks manually removing rocks from the property using only wheel barrels. We also planted 800 trees, ranging from pines to poplars. It was backbreaking work, and though I didn’t mind it at the time, I can imagine my mother couldn’t have been too pleased about this shift from a lake home to an isolated area. Once the land was readied, we ordered a pre-fabricated home which was delivered in two sections via semi-truck. For the next two years, my Dad dug a pond, laid a cement driveway, installed a patio, built a small cabin on the upper wooded portion of the property, and continued to make improvements.
1978 was the year my parents split, so I gingerly enquired about this time. According to my father—and I use this wording purposefully, because I had heard a different version from my mother -- he had gone away for a day or two on business, and when he got back my mother had moved out. She had my sister-in-law (her daughter-in-law) and another woman drive her back to Wisconsin, and she had left me to stay with someone else in Indiana. He told me who it was, but for some reason I cannot recall what he said, only that he was livid that she would just leave me in the care of someone else. In recalling these events, I could feel his visceral response, as if it had just happened—distain and disgust permeated his comments. I am struggling to recall the details of what he told me, and though I cannot, I am left with the impression that he felt duped by her. Not only that he didn’t see it coming, but that she did it so secretively. This is not to say it wasn’t warranted, between his drinking and multiple affairs, I’m sure he had it coming.
What he told me next broke my heart but also mended it. He said, “Meg, I’ve never told a single person this, but I was so angry at your mother for taking you with her to Wisconsin. She never even gave me the option of keeping you. It killed me to have you living so far away.”
As a parent myself, I know that no parent would willing want to see their child move away, but for him to express it in this way—to convey he loved me so much and really wanted me to be with him—blew me away. I never knew. I thought he grudgingly accepted that she would take me with her, after all I was the last of six children, most of whom were now young adults, so he had already pretty much completed his parental obligations. How very naïve of me. Some of my older siblings have occasionally commented that I was Dad’s “favorite,” but for some reason I had just chalked it up to being the baby of the family, the youngest and therefore most innocent and agreeable. This revelation has made me reconsider that love. Had I only realized it years ago, it may have caused me to behave differently in my own life, to have more confidence in myself. I’ll never know.
This first real heart-to-heart, while sparse on details, did begin to answer some lifelong questions. I was curious to learn more in the coming days of our visit.