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Day of the Dads

Contributed by Local Columnist Dirk Ellingson

I’m a dad. I’m a stepdad. I’m a son.

As it often does, Father’s Day this year falls on my father’s birthday. Roger Ellingson turns 81 on June 21, just a couple days away. He’s a good dad and always was so. Likely the most reliable person I’ve ever met which is a good quality in a father. Stable. Predictable. No unpleasant surprises. No erratic behavior. No dearth of common sense. No lapses.  

Some accuse him of being grumpy. I often tell them he’s only saying what they were thinking.  Sometimes the charge sticks because he’s elderly, conservative, and hard-of-hearing. He never listened to loud rock music (he hated when I left the TV remote on MTV which he decried as the Hippie Channel) but he did shoot guns with unprotected ears as a youth. Now he has tinnitus.  Small price to pay for great hunting stories like the time he and his buddies discovered a human skeleton wearing pajamas. It could’ve been too high a price to pay when he and a friend were returning home from hunting one dark night and suddenly and surprisingly could see their own shadows walking ahead. They weren’t backlit by moonlight but rather in the beams of an oncoming train. Their hearing still compromised from a day firing rifles, the train lights alerted them to step off the tracks and live to hunt another day.

Roger’s hearing aids like my bifocal glasses offer a compromise of perception. Tuning into one frequency sacrifices discerning others. For my ocular powers it’s as easy as shifting my head up or down to find the sweet spot in my glasses. Enhancing his auditory powers requires my dad to adjust the control on his hearing aid and that takes much more effort. It’s sometimes not worth that effort. You might mistake his frowning failure to understand what you’re saying as disapproval. Sometimes it is. Sometimes he just isn’t catching what you’re saying.

What’s most amazing about my dad being a good dad is that Roger had no template. His father struggled with alcohol and departed when Roger was age 3. My dad has no memory of his dad. I grew up with two grandmothers and only one grandfather. Always how it was so I never thought it strange.

Roger is gifted at repair. He somehow figured it out. That’s often the bailiwick of fathers who pass down the skills to apprentice children. My dad has construction and repair acumen far superior to mine. I had a teacher in the family and he did not. Go figure. I’m a verbal linguistic learner. He’s a visual spatial learner. Assembly may be required but directions are not. How does he do it?

Roger named me Dirk. I think he and my mother Becky had an agreement that if a son, he would name the first child. If a daughter, she got to name the first child. If I had been a girl, I would’ve been named Sunny Lou. I like Dirk better.

But Dirk Ellingson sentences you to a lifetime of jokes about the similarity between my name and Duke Ellington. Among records in Roger’s LP collection was the jazz great’s 1956 live album Ellington at Newport. He had to make the connection.

I don’t mind the joke so much but the wags who make the observation think they are the first to bring it to my attention. I can only smile and nod. Unleash my courtesy laugh for a witticism endured for years. The only fresh take I heard on it was during a job interview (fittingly enough in 1984) when a guy remarked, “Dirk Ellingson?  That’s like Duke Ellington in Newspeak.”

If I had sired a son, I might have continued the joke in a subtle direction and named him Mercer.  Only the true jazz cognoscenti would’ve tormented the boy.

I am proud to be a father and proud of my daughter Claire. Although parents of both sons and daughters tell me sons are easier to raise, I’m glad I have a daughter. The obstetrician inaccurately forecast Claire would be a boy. I tell people if you cannot personally discern evidence on the sonogram, be skeptical of what doctors predict. She was a fine obstetrician although I later found out her percentage for predicting genders was around fifty percent. Flip a coin. Read the tea leaves. I wasn’t riled. I was glad to have a daughter.

I not only love Claire. I like her too. She’s cool. I miss her a lot. Same for her husband Jacob, a kind and caring and capable life partner which is what you want most for your child. I write about being a square peg in a round hole. Itemizing the cultural differences and crabbing about the heat. Those are small grievances compared to being away from my child, even when that child is 29 years old.  

The most difficult aspect of living in Louisiana is being apart from family, mostly mine. My wife Lisa has a daughter in Kansas City too. I miss my stepdaughter Lindsay, her husband Morgan, and our grandsons Avett and Finnegan. I felt a kinship with Lindsay before we were kin. I always liked her stepdad assessment that you couldn’t really tell if I was 7 or 70. 

Down south reside my stepdaughter Amanda, husband Donny, and triplet grandkids Maddox and Mason and Harleigh. If Amanda hadn’t married a lifetime Minden local, I’d likely be living in West Monroe quaffing tap water of varied hues and inhaling the paper mill smoke. Lisa sometimes has buyer remorse about not moving to West Monroe but I think Minden is charming.

Claire had just become a teenager when Lisa and I married. Amanda and Lindsay were grown women. I’m sure it’s easier being a stepparent to grown kids than growing kids. The first ten years of our marriage, Lindsay and Claire were local and accessible. Amanda was having adventures in a faraway land. Now we only see Lindsay and Claire and their families a time or two a year. We now live across the street from Amanda and her family in eastern Minden.

I always pointed out to Lisa before we moved that choosing where to live would appear a choice between daughters.  She denied this explaining that she just wanted to return home to Louisiana.  On holiday visits to Louisiana it was clearly difficult for her to return to Missouri. She worked a job she liked up north. She just missed her family in the Pelican State. She belonged here. What I relish most about the adventure is the change of scenery. I lived over a half century in Missouri and like being able to claim I have lived in at least one other state.

Although it’s sad my parents and my child and stepdaughter miss me. I miss them too.