My father didn’t come to all my games. I had none, and for the weekly ritual of horseback riding — first ring, then trail — my grandmother Florence, his mother, was my chauffeur and companion. If there had been victories, she and my mother would have been my cheering squad. They, too, were my comfortors and sometime confidants.
About how to relate to a daughter, Gene Martin, was clueless.
I was pretty clueless, too, when it came to relating to my father. I seemed to disappoint him every chance I got. He was a sportsman but no athlete. I was neither. He tried to teach me to catch a baseball, and I cringed at stubbed fingers. I told him — and the young pro in attendance — that golf was hot and too much walking. Certain life basics — from telephone books to addressing envelopes — were at least for a time beyond me. I was especially bad at figures, while Dad knew the odds. A gambler and card player, he could crunch and keep numbers in his brain. He must have thought — though never said — he’d sired an alien.
Indeed, we did live in alien universes. His was the male world of gaming and sports, bars and cigars, business and reckoning, news and facts.
I was the little girl of a hive of women, mother, grandmother and a swarm of surrogate aunts, the oddly daughterless waitresses at our family’s restaurant, where I did my growing up. Emotions and stories were the language they spoke and I learned.
I knew men drawn to the hive by these beautiful, competent, hearts-on-their-sleeves women. I fell for those young men — often professional athletes, football players and golfers — with junior crushes they were kind enough to nourish. Romance I could understand, and that’s how the ice between my father and me was broken.
Do things with her, my mother urged, a confession she made to me years later.
For Dad, doing things meant going out on dates.
I’d dress up the way women did, and we’d go see the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball or on his boat on the Mississippi River by day. By night, we’d go to nightclubs or the horseraces. Often, it would be a party of people, and I’d be the only kid in the bunch. I watched the grown-ups as if they were playing parts in a complex play I was learning to understudy.
The surface lessons also sunk in: Overcoming my clumsiness, I learned to waterski. I learned how baseball was played and scored. I learned the excitement of horseracing and something of the game of numbers, breeding and performance. I read the Sporting News and learned how to interpret a racing form. I heard Nancy Wilson in the flesh and learned the rhythms of jazz.
Our dates went so well that Dad took me on trips. In Lexington, Kentucky, for the Derby trials at Keeneland, I fell in love with bluegrass, horse farms and champions, memorized the roll of Kentucky Derby winners up till then and met the great Citation. In Chicago, I felt the pulse of the city and saw the landmarks of my father’s growing up.
Dad was a great date. He dressed for the occasion, drove a Cadillac, booked good seats at exciting places, ordered well, knew everybody, told compelling stories, made you feel like you were somebody going someplace — and never left you by the wayside.
Years of increasing independence layered new strata of experience over my dates with Dad. My life evolved along other lines, and the things we did together are not things I do now.
Or are they?
I still love baseball, and almost every year I pin my hopes on the Cardinals. The former St. Louis Browns, for years now the Orioles, are a hot second. I’m still mate on a motorboat. I still know the lyrics of jazz standards. I’m fascinated with near human history and where people come from. And, as I prepared a lead-up story to the Preakness, I learned I can still interpret a horse race. I also have very picky standards for cars, entertainment and restaurants, and I took a while to find a husband who was as good a date as my father.
Gene Martin’s photographically sharp memory set the standard I’ve tried to live up to. From him I learned how to watch and listen and to craft a good story, though his art was telling and mine writing. I suspect I learned, by inference, that people like us — at least the four generations I know — do better with our own business than working for somebody else, as long as we have good partners. I learned that love is a willful creature that leads your heart and laughs at your head.
I learned the truth my mother never doubted: I am my father’s daughter.
Read on for more fathers, daughters, sons and lessons.