A Father's Journey Is a Million Miles Long

So the tomatoes are doing well so far, the ones we planted in big pots by the front porch. 'Better Boys.' 'Early Girls.' And that new hybrid, the Bette Midlers.

"What next, Dad? Soybeans?" my lovely and patient older daughter asks.

"Cocktail onions," I tell her.

She ignores me, as always, and goes back to planting her flowers.

That's right, a teenager is helping her parents plant flowers. Just when you think there are things you can count on, just when you think your teenagers will not lift a finger to help out around the house and the world is a cold, cruel place with no real future, along comes a kid with trays of petunias and geraniums to plant in the front flower bed. On a nice June Sunday, no less.

"You think you know people," I tell her mother as our teenager unloads another tray of flowers.

"What, Dad?" my daughter asks.

"Over there," I say, pointing her toward the flower bed.

We communicate mostly by sign language now, my teenage daughter and me. She is 17. I am 177. I speak, increasingly, in this Walter Matthau mumble that the late actor willed to me when he left this earth back in July. Thank you, God. I got Matthau's mumble.

"No, not there," I say.

"Huh?" says my daughter.

"Over there," I mumble.

"Huh?"

I point the shovel to where I want the flowers. She says "Why didn't you just say so?" I say, "I did." She says, "Huh?" And we go on about our work.

It is not until we are in our 40s, really, that we understand our fathers.

Oh, sure, we think we understand them in our 20s when our own kids are born and we get up in the morning to oatmeal-splattered walls and sofas that smell like last week's diapers.

We think we understand our fathers in our 30s when we struggle to make the mortgage and try to straighten out our Fred Flintstone golf swings.

But it isn't until our 40s that we truly start to understand them. Our fathers' long trek. Parenthood's million-mile journey.

"Dad!"

"Huh?"

"A spider!" the little girl says.

The little girl is helping her sister with the flowers the way I help with Thanksgiving dinner--that is, mostly by standing around and commenting and getting in the way.

The little girl has seen so many Olsen twins movies that she has ceased to be a contributing member of society. Usually, she just stands around like one of the Olsen twins and comments on things she knows nothing about, then waits for the studio audience to respond. Which it never does.

"That's not a spider," I say.

"It's not?"

"That's a butterfly," I say.

"No Dad, that's a spider," my older daughter says.

"If you leave it alone, it'll grow into a butterfly," I say.

"No, you mean caterpillars," the little girl says. "Caterpillars turn into butterflies."

"They do?" I say.

"Yep."

"OK, then it's a caterpillar," I say.

"Dad, it's a spider!" my older daughter huffs.

After many years, I'm starting to think my daughters have really bad eyesight. They seem to see things for what they are.

As a modern American father, I don't see things for what they are. I see things the way they should be, and ask why not. It's a Kennedy thing. Robert Kennedy, I think. Or maybe George.

"Look, Dad, a palindrome," my older daughter says proudly when she gets the flowers lined up.

"What's a palindrome?" the little girl asks.

"A palindrome is something that looks the same forwards and backwards," my older daughter explains.

"See? Red, blue, red, blue, red," my older daughter says, pointing at the order she's planted the flowers. "A palindrome."

I'd always thought a palindrome had to be a word or a phrase.

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.

Read it forward, read it backward. It reads the same. A palindrome.

"A palindrome can be anything," my older daughter tells me.

"It can be a flower bed?" I ask.

"Sure."

"It can be vomit?" her little sister asks.

"Don't be disgusting," I tell the little girl.

"I'm just a kid, Dad," she explains.

"Well, it's starting to show," I say.

Our fathers gave the world television; we gave the world personal computers.

Our fathers had John Wayne; we have Sylvester Stallone.

Our fathers never touched a dish or a diaper; we sometimes behave like Hazel.

My own dad used to grow rows of green beans and tomatoes, planted like Marine platoons, in perfect lines; me, I have palindromes.

For the fathers of the world, some things have gotten better. Some things have gotten worse.

I miss my dad. Left seven years ago to save Walter Matthau a spot on the couch.

I'll bet they're having a good time up there, raising tomatoes and mumbling to each other about the things they like. The Cubs. Cocktail onions. Ann-Margret.

"Look Dad, a moth," says the little girl.

"That's not a moth," I say.

"It's not?"

"That's a hummingbird," I say.

Happy Father's Day.

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Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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