Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life with - and without - my dad

I miss my dad.

It's been five years to the day since I lost him, and not a day goes by that I don't think about him one way or another, because he is such a huge part of who I've become.

As you can see from the photo, Dad was quite a character. That's him with my mom (Dad loved that Wonder Woman physique) and my cousin at the old family cabin in the arid, rattlesnake-infested Piute Mountains in Southern California. Note the sidearm. Dad loved his guns, too.

Dad was born in Los Angeles in 1929, but during the Depression, the family spent a lot of time at that cabin, where having a gun meant you could bring home food for the price of a bullet and some time. It wasn't just him - his sisters hunted too, and the tales I heard about their exploits in the woods provided my first female hunter role models. My favorite story is the one about his older sister: The family needed food, so they sent her out with a rifle and six bullets, and she came home with six carcasses - including a mountain lion! Even if it's half B.S., it's still a good story.

Dad ultimately gave up hunting, trading it for the pleasure of just watching animals in the woods, but he never gave up that yearning for a self-sufficient life in the country.

By the time I was born - the last of three daughters - Dad was a computer engineer, making decent money in the San Fernando Valley. The land was beautiful, oak- and eucalyptus-studded hills. The climate was fantastic - cool, breezy summers, mild winters. And culture? Wow, my sisters and I grew up going to some of the best museums in the world. But man, Dad hated that commute, and that desk job, so we high-tailed it north, making a new home in the San Joaquin Valley, moving from an affluent suburb of L.A. to probably the poorest county in the state. The land was flat, the air quality lousy, the summers hot and humid, the high school so small and poor that it offered a physics class only every other year, and "advanced English" meant taking a fourth year of it.

I was 9 years old, so I adapted quickly, though it was a bit rough on my teenage sisters. But now we had five acres where Dad could live more of his dream. Our income plummeted, and I know it must've been tough to manage the household budget, but you wouldn't have known how poor we were from the way we ate. We raised rabbits and pigs for meat, and goats for milk. Dad believed in taking good care of the animals, and he especially loved keeping pigs happy, because a happy pig is a tasty pig, and pigs that get to eat fermented watermelons are really happy.

What was a pigpen in the fall was a well-fertilized garden in the summer, full of string beans and tomatoes and Swiss chard. The property came with a big fat orange tree, which introduced me to the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms, and the sweet smell of oranges rotting under the tree, because yes, there were way more oranges than we could eat. And Dad - who had the most amazing green thumb ever - planted a double row of trees that had everything we could want: peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, apples, almonds and more. There must've been at least 30 fruit and nut trees there.

Ultimately, though, Dad and Mom wanted to return to an environment more like the Piutes, so the family moved once again, this time up into the hills of Gold Country. Finally, the jagged skyline we craved. Oaks and pines and the spicy scent of native grasses toasting in the hot summer sun. Rattlesnakes galore, too.

We lived in tents as we built the house, setting up a camp that would make Robinson Crusoe proud. We had a well dug, and we had an electric generator that would operate the pump and provide electricity when we really needed it. We ran pipes and wires to the center of camp, where our old washer and dryer were set up on pallets, so Mom and I could do the laundry, always timed so we could watch our favorite soap opera on a black and white TV propped up on the limb of a scrub oak.

The house took a long time to finish. They didn't have real walls until long after I'd gone off to college. And they never had quite the farm set-up there that we had in the valley. The elevation, climate and soil weren't as conducive to growing the stuff we'd grown in the valley, and Dad's fervor and energy for raising meat animals began to wane as he got older. But, man, he loved that place. He dammed a seasonal creek to form a pond - oh, how he loved ponds! - and around the edge of that pond he dug away earth down to bedrock - by hand! - just to shape the shoreline. In the afternoons, Dad could always be found gazing upon the land he loved.

Now, I find myself amazed at how much I'm becoming like my dad. After two full decades of living a city life, I've finally caught the self-sufficiency bug. I've taken up hunting - and if Dad were alive to see it, I think he'd be proud to see how hard I work at it, and what I've brought home. And Boyfriend and I plan to start a farm ourselves one of these days, maybe grow olives and grapes and raise pastured goats and chickens, and of course a pig or two for ourselves. If we can afford the land we want, it'll be a little like the Piutes - hot, dry California hills.

We'll do a few things differently. For example, Dad loved pesticides and concrete; we don't. And that poverty thing? We'd like to avoid that. But we will embrace Dad's "a happy pig is a tasty pig" credo, for sure. And I know there will come a day when I'll spend my afternoons on the porch surveying a beautiful piece of land, imagining that if my dad were sitting beside me, he'd be doing the same thing.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Fritz Heyser, early 1930s

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Tom Sorenson said...

It sounds like your father was a fine man. And the apple didn't fall far from the tree as they say.

Holly Heyser said...

Yes, he was.

And isn't it funny how we think we'll grow up to be so different from our parents, only to discover - and ultimately take pride in - how much we're alike?

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're Dad would have been an interesting person to know. He certainly knew how to live the life he wanted to live, which is a skill some people never learn.

Thanks for sharing his, and your, story with us.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, I was going to say the exact same thing. We fight so hard to be different than our parents and as we get older the simple things from our childhood become so much more important and cherished.

Native said...

Absolutely lovely story Holly very enjoyable reading and I also concur with the above comments.
Both your Mom and Dad really did instill so much character and values into their youngest daughter.

Blessed said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your Dad, Holly. Thank you for sharing it.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I think it is great that you and your dad had such a great relationship and one that you cherish still to this day.

A fine tribute!

Marian Ann Love said...

I enjoyed reading about your Dad and what a wonderful tribute to him. I know he is so proud of you. Thanks for sharing your story with all of us. We are who we are today because of our parents. They molded us. Enjoyed the pictures as well. A lot to treasure!

A Soul Surfer's Thoughts said...

Thanks Holly for the story about your Dad, I lost mine 6 months ago, I miss him dearly. I never wanted to go hunting with him but I wished I had. At 43 I am now picking up the sport. It's exciting to know there is someone else who picked up the sport later in life. Happy Hunting!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, everyone! Even though I think about him all the time, I haven't really written about my dad since I wrote his obituary five years ago. It felt good to share what he was like and how he affected my world view. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Can I just get a bot that automatically writes, "Another great post, Holly!" whenever you put up a new one? Really? You've been on a roll, especially since school let out.

I love the image, by the way, of someone who really had the cojones to do what so many of us say we want to do... throw the foolishness of the corporate world aside for a "real" life without the cushy extras and luxuries that a high-paying job provides. That's a hard call... one I've often contemplated but honestly don't think I could make.

Holly Heyser said...

Awwww, shucks - thanks, Phillip!

Make no mistake, though: It was absolutely, crushingly brutal to make some of those sacrifices. Starting my senior year in high school living in a tent, and living my whole senior year without a flush toilet at home was ... interesting.

That said, it made me very, very strong, and confident I can withstand anything. And I would not trade those years for the cushy life of some pampered urban kid for anything - it's far better to have lived the experience than to have read about it as some quaint tale in the New Yorker or Salon. See, I know I can adjust to wealth, but does someone born wealthy know she can adjust to poverty?

mdmnm said...

Lovely reminiscence!

Jesses Hunting And Outdoors said...

Awesome tribute Holly. Here I thought you were a city slicker from the Bay area and it turns out your from a sodbuster family like myself. I know the Piute Mountains of which you speak, that would have been a great place to grow up.

Love the Wonder Woman pic of mom too, reminds me of all my aunts down swimming at the river when we were kids.

Holly Heyser said...

Yeah, I'm kinda amphibious - country or city, fine with me. I love Manhattan, and I love little valley farm towns.

That photo rocks. For a while it was the wallpaper on a laptop I had, so when I would give presentations to students, that'd be the first thing they'd see. I'd always say proudly, "They're my parents!"

One day, one student asked, "What are they dressing up for?"

I said, "Oh,they're not! That's just the way they were." Priceless!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post about your dad and your family. I really enjoyed reading about them and the things that you guys went through. The pictures really help tell the story as well!