Archive for July, 2014

I wrote this several years ago, and can’t seem to leave it in the past. Perhaps if just one more person is able to read it, it is worth putting it up again. Maybe someone will be a little happier, reminded of a good man, a wonderful relationship, maybe even be challenged to fix something, even forgive, maybe even try one more time.

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2014-09-23 21.42.43September 23, 2014 Dad finished his good fight. We are all so very, very much better for having had him as our father, our friend, our brother, cousin, uncle, grandfather and husband. Donald Watson Conner, Jr.

November 3rd, is my father’s birthday. I am so proud that it is also mine. To share his birthday has always been one of the most personal and unique joys in my life. I enjoy it as much now as I ever did, and I can say I appreciate it more and more as the years go by.



Turquoise Lake, outside Leadville, CO – Labor Day, 09. We’re at the “tip of the finger” – the far end of the lake. We were there to skip rocks. This of course, made me a hero. Thanks to my dad for teaching me. That makes him a hero.

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I think of my father every day.

We’re a thousand miles apart, and he still influences me constantly.

I can even sense now, each telephone conversation we have is more important to me than the last. Simply, I am glad to hear his voice. But more importantly, something fulfilling, in part something emotional, happens when I know he wants to hear what I am saying, and I sense that I am anxious to hear what he says.

Dad, Canada, 1979

There is a distinct feeling that goes with it – a sense of relief and connection in some way, perhaps security. I think it is a sense of grounding, reconnecting with home, family – my roots. My dad does that for me. It is clear to me this is largely a function of time (age) and distance. I think also, perhaps – finally – understanding. I think wisdom, too.

Distance really does make the heart grow fonder. There is only one worry in this: I worry he may not know it. I mean to tell him.

My father is a very educated, very well-read, well-rounded man. He’s a doctor, trained in and – being the reluctant retirer, like his father – still occasionally practicing the profession of optometry. Although not literally required of an eye doctor, he has the bedside manner of the finest physician. I have the strongest impression of this nature recur in me every time I sit with him for my own eye exam. The sense of fascination and even security when receiving his care – this care for me, from my own dad – as if I were a “real” patient, has never left me. It’s as strong now as it was when I was a small boy.

It has always made a strong impression on me that while he is a doctor, he has always had “working” hands. Not necessarily rough or hard, but used, bearing the signs – even marks – of constant hard physical work. He’s got woodworking hands, building hands, farmer’s hands, and in recent years, hands put to use raising alpacas and chickens. (You’ll enjoy a visit to their alpaca farm Website, http://www.lookoutfarmalpacas.com) Does that sound like the typical doctor? No, but it sounds like Dr. Conner.

Mother and Dad, Alpacas

I have often joked that I don’t think I have ever seen my dad’s hands without a purple finger or thumbnail. He works. His hands are not what you would think of as doctor’s hands. As a boy I thought, “There isn’t another doctor who does real work like my dad.”

The ready exception to this was my grandfather, Dr. Conner, Sr., who taught my father all this. He was the other doctor with “working hands” that I knew. They shared their optometry practice for more than 30 years. My father described him as his partner and best friend. That’s where he got his working hands. Through companionship, they came to him by way of example, and in the form of a strong work ethic.

My father has passed to me values that I hold dear now, as a husband and father. One is simply to be home. While all of his children would agree he is known throughout our home state and beyond as one of the finest optometrists, even a celebrated figure in his profession, he is much more than that to us. Actually, he is much simpler to us. His professional work is largely peripheral to what we think of on a daily basis and how we see him. We see him as a deeply dedicated father and husband, with all of his interests and energies focused on home and family. In short, we see him as a guy at home. And he has rubbed off – because I feel that constant pull to get home for supper, to be home. Like him, I find my deepest satisfaction there. That is a simple but vital inheritance I value and thank him for.

Not only did my dad teach my brothers and sisters and me to shoot and hunt, but he taught us the joy of and how to appreciate and respect nature. To love and care for the outdoors. To hunt morel mushrooms, to dig sassafras roots and make tea, to recognize the birds on the feeder.

I wrote this several years ago, and can’t seem to leave it in the past. Perhaps if just one more person is able to read it, it is worth putting it up again. Maybe someone will be a little happier, reminded of a good man, a wonderful relationship, maybe even be challenged to fix something, even forgive, maybe even try one more time.

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The Whoozit Chain hanging between the birches

To believe in the Whoozit and the Four-legged chicken. The strongest realization I have whenever I am in the wood or the field is that “my dad taught me this”. I have told people innumerable times, “I got it from my dad.” So many things I hold as important – being home with my family, and so many of my interests – our place in Canada, woodworking, photography, hard physical work, being outside, picking blackberries, recognizing poison ivy, identifying a redwing blackbird or a coot, knowing how to work on a car, having a love of history, of the arts (and music in particular), being sentimental – I got these from my dad.

I am certain there are some things he’ll do that I am still more than reluctant to do: Catch a snake for one. My father is brave. I am eight years old. We are in the woods behind our house. He grabs a long stick from the ground, jabs it firmly, though not injuriously at the head of a black snake or water snake I didn’t see, and with lightening speed, his hand is down there, the snake’s head firmly between Dad’s thumb and index finger. He confidently lifts it to eye level, cocks his head slightly, and with a mixture of curiosity and admiration, says, “You wanna feel him?” Well, sure I do, and I do. But I don’t wanna hold him, and I don’t. And I sure wouldn’t catch him. But my dad did.

One evening just last summer my wife yelled to me in a near panic, “Michael, there’s a snake in the backyard! Will you get rid of him?” I went immediately. It was a small garter snake. I immediately – without any hesitation, and without really thinking – picked him up, calmly, slowly – deliberately – by the tail, and looked at him, and said, “He’s just a garter snake. I’ll take him down to the Open Space.” Unlike my father, this was, candidly, the first time I had ever done this.

The snake and I walked the hundred yards down the hill and there, in the tall grass, I let him slip silently away. As I had done the moment I heard my wife’s request, I thought of my dad. I thought of him through the entire episode. I know I didn’t feel the natural comfort, the confidence I knew he did. But what I did, finally, I had learned from him. Ultimately, I believe what I had learned from him was the willingness to do it.

It’s 1970. I am eight years old. I am sitting on the spillway at Van Horn’s lake fishing with my dad and brother, Ty. Dad is helping me gently get the hook out of a Bluegill’s mouth, and get a fresh worm on my hook.

It’s 1967. I can see my dad standing in the kitchen, wearing khaki jeans, a trim white t-shirt tucked in, and Wayfarer sun glasses. He is sporting a crew cut and has a sly but friendly smile on his face. He is 30, and the epitome of cool.

The Eye Exam, Dad and Jace, Dec 2007

Today I see my dad in light blue “dress” jeans and a plaid work shirt, leather gloves on, headed out to the barn to feed the animals with Mother. I see him in a dark green wool sport coat, tie and tan slacks at St. Stephens on Sunday. I see him in his white, short-sleeved Van Huesen permanent press dress shirt and tie, sitting on a small stool next to his exam chair gently questioning a patient, including his seven year old grandson, my son, Jace. “Is it better with 1 or 2?” “1 or 2?” “Better now?” “How ‘bout now? Is it better or worse?” Then finally, “Now this will make it much better, you’ll be able to see it clearly now.” And that’s how I think of him. I expect ultimately, that’s how we’d all like to think of our fathers.

I don’t know everything about my dad, of course. I know much about him though, such as his love for his family, his absolute enjoyment of his home and farm, the things he is involved in the community, the pleasure he draws and responsibility he assumes for our place in Canada, the pride he has in his profession and the dedication he shows to his patients and practice, and the simple pleasure he derives from constantly having a book from the library – World War II novels are a favorite. (What would they do without him?)

I think I have years of questions to ask him. Our Conner history that he knows, questions about his parents, his growing up years as a young boy, his time as an amateur artist, as a photographer (he even developed his own film early on), a high school runner, what he went through before, during, and after divorce, his first dates with Mother.

What was it like in Canada when the cabin was being built? What was really going through his mind as he bravely navigated our small motorboat across the lake in the dark during that incredible, scary storm? Rain pounding down so hard we couldn’t see more than a dozen yards ahead of the boat, the four of us kids huddled – really, crammed – in the bow, wind raging so loud we couldn’t hear, scared nearly to death we’d capsize and drown, except that we could see him there in the stern, his strong hand on the tiller, his face up and forward, looking straight ahead into the storm and across the lake, watching for the first glimpse of the boathouse. The stinging assault of hard rain on his face was of no concern; he would not be deterred nor shaken. As if he were saying to the storm, “Bring it on!” He was brave, and on those occasions, he was quite the hero.

Too, I wonder now about his worries and stresses in life, and the happiest moments. And the hardest ones. We haven’t had these talks. Maybe we have – barely – in small bits and pieces. The more I think of my father in these terms, more fascinated I am.

There really is so much I don’t know. But maybe the here-and-now of each rare visit we have now is enough. But I’d like more. I suspect we all would.

Dad, Canada, 1970

Some few years ago, I arrived home from work, and had a package waiting for me – pictures from my folks after their annual two weeks at the cabin in Canada. Let me interject a bit of clarifying context here: I was not emotionally “spun up” at this moment. I was in “neutral” from an emotional perspective, having had a rather normal, uneventful day at work, and no outstanding issues facing me at home. Nothing was “going on”. The waters were calm, you could say.

I opened the envelope and began perusing the photographs. All the scenes were typical and I knew them well, but never tired of seeing anew: fishing here and there on the lake, poses with the catch. Shots in and about the cabin. Shots of sites visited around the lake, during travels to and from the cabin, and so on. Then, the next picture did it. It was an image of my father sitting on the smooth rock surface at the far tip of the island at the lake. He was turning around, looking at the camera, no doubt responding to Mother: “Don, turn around and look at the camera.” He had a gentle, almost serene smile on his face; a knowing look that said he belonged there. He was obviously happy and content.

The picture really was fine… but in that image, in that pose, with that salt-and-pepper hair that I had not seen for almost two years, I think I saw my grandfather. I was struck with an emotion that I had never experienced before. Crying I had done, to be sure. But the feeling that overwhelmed me – the flood of sensation – I still, even after several years cannot describe and cannot articulate well. I suppose it was a mixture of love and shock, of fear and compassion, of desire to see him or at least talk to him; a feeling of missing and longing. I am still not sure, but it was powerful, and it affected me deeply. It was at that moment I realized a great, but very simple – and I suppose, in retrospect – obvious truth of life. Life moves on and does not stop. It does not wait.

Dad and Jace, Mowing, 2005

My grandfather is gone now, as is my father. I wrote at one time he had taken his father’s place, and I had taken his, and so we have. Though he is gone, he has rejoined his father, my Daddy Don, and is still grandfather to my son; and I have taken his place as the father. And my son has taken my place. We have taken our places in life and death. Someday, of course, I will take my father’s place, my son will take my place, and perhaps someday he will have a son who will take his place. And so it goes.

This is as predictable and as powerful as the sun and the change of the seasons. It is the changing of the seasons of life. It can neither be stopped nor altered, nor would we really want it to be. It is an amazing and wondrous thing. It is also terrifying and ominous. It’s good – it’s the way it is supposed to be, as it is inevitable. It is good – full of love and joy, but it is also a bit frightening. It’s all those things, but mostly good. And, at least in our case, this amazing phenomenon of life is laced with love.

I hope it is for you, too.

– – Originally published Father’s Day, 2009

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