On a Tide of Blossoms, Memories and Regrets

I cannot pass a jacaranda in bloom without thinking of my father.

It's not that he was a flashy, purple-blossom kind of guy. He wasn't. Nor did he ever display any particular affection for spectacular flora.

But even he would have to be moved, I thought, by this vision of a purple tree. You'd never see that back in Ohio, with its conventional greenery. Imagine all it said about California, and its unlimited palette of possibilities.

Every spring during my early years here, I'd watch those brazen blossoms burst forth from those ordinary-looking trees and see in them what I could become--bold, brilliant, unconventional--untethered from my family.

I wanted my father to see me that way as well--to glimpse in the majesty of a purple tree the hopes I held inside of me.

Now my father is gone, and the jacarandas stand not as sentries to my hopes, but symbols of my failings. How naive to think that a tree--even one with purple leaves--could unify a father and daughter rent by a lifetime of misunderstandings and unmet needs.

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My father has been dead for 12 years, yet the arrival of Father's Day never conjures up for me the kind of misty-eyed remembrances that I reserve for my late mother.

Perhaps I am preoccupied with the needs of my own three children. Or perhaps I was never lucky enough to know my father in the way that provides sweet memories.

I was--and still am--my mother's child. Her firstborn, her favorite . . . never mind what she told my brother and sisters. Beside her, my father never stood a chance. She was passionate; he seemed passive--a man who never raised his voice, never swore, never argued, at least not so we heard.

If our mother was always there, larger than life, Daddy seemed to exist on the periphery. He was the guy who stopped home to grab a bite to eat or a few hours of sleep between jobs--which he worked two, sometimes three, at a time. He cut the lawn, fixed the heater, drove the station wagon on family trips, carried us to our beds when we fell asleep in the back seat.

He was 60 when my mother died, leaving him alone to raise three teenage daughters and a 9-year-old son. I was the oldest and he leaned on me, and I resented him mightily . . . for not being stronger or smarter or more resilient. For not dying instead of Mommy.

It wasn't until my own husband died that I understood how frightened my father must have been--a man who had never done a load of wash, helped a child with a math work sheet, cooked anything more ambitious than scrambled eggs.

But he learned, and he grew close to his children. He began to listen instead of lecture; to pitch in, rather than direct from the sidelines. He realized how important just showing up could be. But by then I'd grown tired of my de facto parental responsibilities; had married and moved across the country, away from the shadow of my family.

Still, I remained preoccupied by all he hadn't been to me. For years, we feinted and dodged, uncertain of our status with each other. He loved the others more than me, I figured. She has no respect for me, he feared. A wall went up that we neither acknowledged nor felt compelled to climb. We loved each other across a chasm that neither of us knew how to bridge.

Today I look back with pain and shame. How could I have been so hard-hearted, have judged and found wanting such a hard-working, kind and decent man?

Now the absence of a father in my children's lives makes me realize how valuable he was--imperfections and all--in mine. I may have my mother's temperament, but I have my father to thank for much of what I am most proud: My calmness amid calamity, my confidence in my own abilities, my willingness to face failure head-on.

Even from the fringes, my father helped to fashion me.

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My father never noticed the jacarandas.

He visited once, in the spring; brought his golf clubs and his swim trunks, as I instructed, and listened dutifully as I outlined our itinerary: We'd visit the beach, the mountains, the public links. I'd take him to a baseball game, along a route through Elysian Park, lined with a canopy of purple jacaranda trees.

But my father had other plans. The swim trunks never saw water, the golf clubs never left the trunk of the car. He never saw a Dodger game. He spent every day of his vacation visiting an old friend who'd moved here from Ohio years before. Day after day, he sat in the grimy body shop his buddy owned, and the two swapped stories from their youth and talked of all they could have had, might have been, should have done.

At night, he tried to interest me in his doings, but I listened halfheartedly. He had disappointed me again. While I wanted to share the jacarandas, and the dreams for my future their blossoms held, he wanted to share the memories he'd traveled 3,000 miles to resurrect. As usual, neither of us really heard the other.

And each year as jacaranda blossoms fade and flutter to the ground and dissolve in a sticky mass at my feet, I think of all the chances we lost, of our missed opportunities.

I've forgiven him for all he never was. Now, I must learn to forgive me.

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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