The summer I was 13, I discovered the kind of love rarely found in a romance novel. I didn’t learn about love from a new boy in town or a bronzed lifeguard, but from a fortyish father of eight—my dad.
The family was moving from the East Coast to Arizona. Mom flew ahead to Tucson with the baby and my next sister. The rest of us piled into the station wagon for the long cross-country drive. I tried to "mother” my five younger sisters and brother from the front seat as I helped dad navigate. After four days of turnpikes and highways, we arrived—punchy and tired, in Sioux City, Iowa, my mother’s hometown.
We were all ready for a break. Visiting and playing with our cousins for a couple days was just what we needed. On the last afternoon of our stay, Dad took me aside. "Let’s go for ride,” he said. "Just you and me.” He didn’t have to ask twice.
Every landmark absorbed his attention. We drove slowly past the block buildings of downtown Sioux City. We passed the stockyards and headed north to the suburb of Leeds. Dad seemed to know where he was going as we wound through the quiet residential streets.
He pulled up to a rambling two-story, yellow house and switched off the motor. Like all the homes in the neighborhood, this one was set back from the wide, tree-lined avenue.
"The house used to be gray back then,” Dad said, peering through the windshield.
"A long time ago. That’s the house your mother lived in when I first met her,” he mused. "I sent a lot of letters to 610 Eighteenth Street.”
We stepped out of the car and stood for a moment. My mother really lived there? I thought. Then I remember a story Mom told me about her father planting a vegetable garden during World War II. Even the front lawn was sacrificed for The Effort. No signs of a garden existed now.
Dad motioned to me and we began to walk. Each of us were lost in thought. I was still trying to imagine my mother, as a young girl, walking on this sidewalk.
"Was this street the same when you met Mom?” I asked.
"Pretty much,” replied Dad. "Only it was spring when I met your mom at the USO. You know how budding trees are a kind of bright green that only lasts for a couple of weeks? Well, that’s how it was back then—everywhere. I remember lots of tulips and big bushes full of white flowers.”
"Why were you here, Daddy?”
"I was stationed at Sgt. Bluff Army Air Force Base. That’s before I joined the paratroopers and went to Europe. I’d take the bus into town and get off back there on Fourth Street. I used to run all the way. I never got winded.”
I remembered a picture of Dad in his army uniform—his khaki trousers tucked into shiny black boots, a jaunty look creasing his youthful face.
We spent a few more minutes gazing at the yellow house. "Your mom and I used to go for a treat a couple of blocks away, said Dad. "If it’s still there, I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
We made a game of stepping over the sidewalk cracks. Roots from the giant elms thrust the concrete upward, forming an obstacle course. The summer flickered through the shade of our leaf canopy.
"It’s still there,” he said triumphantly. We crossed the street to a large Victorian building facing the intersection. Gallantly, Dad stepped in front of me and opened the arched door. We laughed as my "date” waltzed me into the Green Gables Ice Cream Emporium.
In a booth by the window, I pondered the delicious dilemma of favors. "What kind did Mom use to get?” I asked. He thought for a minute. "It was usually chocolate chip.”
"Then I’ll get chocolate chip too,” I said. He grinned like the paratrooper in the picture.
"And I’ll have my old favorite, pistachio.” He set the menu aside with a flourish.
Dad’s stories flowed freely while we savored our ice cream. It seems Mom wore a red dress on their first date, Easter Sunday, 1943. He had just turned 19, and Mom invited him to meet her folks. Dad told me about concerts in Grandview Park, and the time Mom got off work to wave goodbye at the train depot the day he was shipped out to Fort Benning, Ga. When Dad won a three-day pass for marksmanship, he used it to ride the rails all the way back to Iowa. Of course, he was late getting back to the fort and had KP duty for weeks.
I listened transfixed. My 13-year-old imagination recreated every scene. As he spun his tales, his face took on a faraway look.
He really misses Mom. The thought was a surprise to my adolescent understanding of parents. I’d never realized how hard it was for them to be apart. It touched me that he could remember every detail of their courtship and share it with me. For the first time in my young life, I saw that Dad loved Mom in a deep, emotional way. He not only loved her; he was in love with her. Fifteen years of marriage and eight children had not diminished his love for her at all. He brightened just at the thought of her. To him, Mom would always remain Patty Davis, a girl he met in a Midwestern town and fell in love with.
In that moment, a father gave his 13-year-old daughter a priceless gift. I glimpsed how real and romantic married love can be. I had no clue something like this existed. Having seen the Real Thing in the clear green eyes of my father, I knew I’d never want to settle for less. On the threshold of my teen years, I learned a beautiful truth when the years melted away and a young soldier asked me out to the Green Gables for ice cream.