Intrigued by fossils, my father spent one summer creating the floor of the patio. In wood frames he placed a fern or a leaf from a tree, then he poured cement to fill the box. When the cement dried, he set each block in place for the patio floor. Each time a guest would enter the patio for the first time, Dad would gleefully point at a block and say, “Maidenhair fern,” or “Tulip Tree leaf.” The people who understood my father’s sense of wonder were mostly under ten years of age.
On the one hundred and seventeenth anniversary of my father’s birth I have been thinking of him for most of the day. While he was alive he gave me very little advice and practically no direct instructions. The things he taught me were by his example.
Just behind the back door of the house three pieces of shale imprinted with dinosaur tracks led to the garbage can. Yes, they were real dinosaur tracks, authenticated and identified by a paleontologist from the University. In the early 1960’s, Dad had received an urgent telephone call from the city natural history museum. Preparing for a new interstate highway, bulldozers had unearthed a find of dinosaur footprints in layers of compressed shale. The find was thought to be one of the largest in the world. It would be lost forever when the heavy equipment arrived to start construction the following week. The museum sent out an urgent call to all the amateur geologists in the area. My father and his friend Red answered the call and after a day of digging through packed clay and cleaning off layers of stone, the volunteers were rewarded. Each was given a few prehistoric samples, ones not considered good enough quality for the museum.
When my father returned home, my mother stared at the result of his labor. “What in the world are you going to do with that?” She heaved an exasperated sigh.
Dad chuckled, his enthusiasm undiminished. “Why I’m going to clean them up and lay them in a path leading up to the trash bin.”
Each child who entered our back yard walked by those dinosaur tracks before they reached the squeaking gate. If my father was there he would point out the rough impressions on the stone and mention that he thought the dinosaur had been hungry and was digging in the garbage looking for a snack.” Then as the child’s eyes grew large with imagining, Dad would wink and chuckle, letting the child in on the joke.
Wonder, curiosity, imagination, and, don’t take life too seriously are just a few of the lessons my father taught me.