A middle-aged man gets a birthday phone call from his father,
and the two of them are transported back in time to relive a precious family tradition.
A story by Peter Lewis.
(See the bottom of the page to listen to Peter’s podcast of this story.)
The man heard the telephone ring and folded his book and set it down on the arm of the couch and slowly stood and walked across the room and lifted the cordless phone from its cradle and held it to his ear and said hello and heard the deep familiar voice.
Happy birthday, young man.
Hey, thanks, dad.
You’re what, fifty-five today, right? That’s a speed-limit age.
Yup. That’s right. Pretty much forgot about it until somebody said somethin’ at work.
Just another day, right?
Yeah, no big deal.
Still, though, fifty-five sure is something…
The younger man stood in the middle of his living room as the woodstove chewed through red oak while he talked to the older man about the things that sons and fathers talk about when birthdays just aren’t a big deal.
So, how much snow’d you get up there in Maine?
Not two feet, but not much less, and more coming.
Here too, and I sure hate weather that you have to move around.
Yeah, no kidding. I wanted a heated driveway for my birthday, but my wife got me a cordless shovel instead.
And the younger man had to say the little joke twice because his father was as deaf as a mollusk, and it seemed even funnier when shouted so they both laughed loudly when it was clearly out in the air.
Fifty-five, gosh, the father said.
And the son could hear and feel in the ensuing silence all those years hanging in the air and he knew his father was thinking that if he had a son who was fifty-five then he surely must be creeping up on some kind of ancient himself. And the silence continued while they both thought hard about the implications of that.
And then, simultaneously but without a word, they both thought back to when the younger man had been very small, and they began one of those quick conversations without any context or waypoints that two people can only have if their synapses are somehow intertwined across two lives and two hearts and two memory banks and four states and the line is clear and the timing is perfect.
Hey, do you remember…?
Yes! Of course I do!
But what was the last one?
Picture of kitty!
Oh yes, that’s right.
And the son turned and walked slowly through his old house while he and his father reminisced about a nightly ritual that was over five decades old yet seemed to have last occurred just the week before.
Each evening, with a wink and a smile, the father would announce bedtime and grab his little son up and toss him over his shoulder and hold him by his squirmy little ankles and the boy would dangle upside down and hang onto little fistfulls of flannel shirt as they walked through the house and down the hall toward the boy’s bedroom. Every few steps the father would stop and spin the boy around and the boy would behold something inverted and bid it a good night. There were five stations between the living room and the boy’s bedroom, and they were simple and wonderful.
Night-night thing on the wall! (The boy didn’t know to call it a trivet.)
Night-night light switch.
Night-night smoke detector.
Night-Night picture of kitty.
And then the father would swing the boy off his shoulder as a farmer swings a bag of grain and plop him down in his bed and tuck him in and kiss him and tell him he loved him and turn off the light and walk quietly out and close the door, almost but not quite all the way.
As son and father talked and remembered, the fifty-five-year-old man padded through his own house, sweeping his fingers lightly across his own trivet, his own light switch and thermostat, and finally glancing up at his own smoke detector. He felt himself bouncing on his father’s shoulder. Saw the world go by, jiggling and upside down, from carpet to hearth, hallway to sill, doorway to bed. Felt the bristles of his father’s twelve-hour beard against his cheek as he bent for the kiss goodnight. Heard the loving whisper in his ear. Saw the door left open just a crack.
Late that night, as he lay in bed holding his wife’s hand, the birthday boy stared up toward the ceiling through the winter air. The room was nearly black, save a sliver of light spilling in from the hallway through the barely-cracked door. The boy thought about the five magical stations of his childhood home, and of his loving father and the ritual of his nightly upside-down rides; and in his mind, one-by-one, his fingers brushed each precious passing thing, and then he realized that he was all grown up and that the last station was missing from his now middle-aged home. He spoke softly into the darkness.
We really need to find a picture of a kitty to hang on the wall.
His wife stirred and whispered, Why?
Because we already have all of the other things.
This story is also a podcast – listen below. And check out thedadstoryproject.com for more stories.
More from Peter at fathers.com.
Peter Lewis is an author, photographer and graphic designer with a passion to tell stories that encourage fathers to fall in love with the best job they will ever have. Read more and listen to his podcasts at thedadstoryproject.com. Peter and his wife live on a farm in western Maine and have two grown children, a son and a daughter, and two adorable granddaughters.