I opened the overstuffed Manila envelope and found a Ziploc bag full of rolled oats. No note, no explanation, just a return address from his home in Champaign, Ill. Then I remembered telling my father I couldn’t find oatmeal while living in France, and that I missed it.
A few days later I got a second envelope. This one was full of Post-it notepads, another scarcity I complained of. Again, no explanation. But I knew what it meant.
This is how my dad expresses himself: It’s not that he never says “I love you,” it’s that he feels the truth of it more in action than in words. Dad heard I needed something that he could provide. And because he loves me, he quietly provided it. He is allergic to making a show of something, even when there is legitimate sentiment behind it. In Dad Land, you must never mistake a lack of words for an absence of feeling. In fact, it is the opposite: The more intense the emotion, the less likely you’ll ever hear a word about it. So you have to pay attention.
This turned out to be excellent preparation for dealing with the men in my life here in Minnesota.
I’m not from here, but I chose Minnesota as my home after living abroad for a few years. And while there are cultural frustrations in landing in a place where runners ignore each other on the trail, there’s also great familiarity in the polite reserve I encounter. I’m able to put this behavior through the Dad Translator in my brain and understand the affection beneath it.
A few years ago, I had to make a 12-hour all-night road trip. One of my male friends in Minnesota got some pals together and recorded a dramatic reading of a Steve Martin play as “Stay Awake Entertainment.” I hadn’t realized he considered me a close friend until he exhibited Classic Dad Concern for my safety and happiness.
I’m a musician and a music teacher, and I teach a small group of male retirees who religiously attend all my performances. They rarely say so much as “Good job” after the concert, but they keep showing up. Their version of Silent Dad Support is something I’ve learned to appreciate more than effusive compliments. My dad distrusts compliments.
I’ve dated Minnesotans who won’t articulate their emotions, but who remember that I like the brownies from Kowalski’s and keep them on hand for me. Or who walk the dog so I can sleep in, even though we both had a late night. Or the guy who would pass me the dill pickle spears that came with his sandwiches.
“Why don’t you like pickles?” I finally asked him, five months after we started dating.
“I like pickles,” he said. “But you seem to really like pickles.”
It was like a little love note, dad-style.
I work for a fellow music teacher who is a lot like my dad: emotionally opaque but dedicated. He’s passionate about music education, but he would squirm to hear the word “passionate,” which is so Italian, so dramatic. He always arrives to work before anyone else, he leaves after everyone else, he comes in on weekends, he attends all of his students’ performances and most of the faculty performances. He says nothing about any of this.
I have to remind myself to listen to the actions of the Minnesotan men in my life, because the expression of their affection and loyalty is so underplayed. Everyone is so circumspect. No one wants to make anyone uncomfortable with an outpouring of emotion. My dad would fit in perfectly here.
A few years ago I had a gig that required me to dash from my teaching studio to a theater in Uptown four nights a week, praying for lucky parking spots and light traffic, leaving no time to eat dinner except for a snack during the commute.
“I hope you’re able to eat safely in the car,” said Dad when I explained the situation.
“Yeah, I’m pretty much sticking to bananas and energy bars,” I told him. “I can eat them at stoplights without too much trouble. But I don’t like a lot of the bars available. They all have weird stuff in them. The ones I like are just basic nuts and seeds and fruit, but they’re pretty expensive. I need to figure out a way to make them so I don’t go broke.”
Naturally my dad figured out a way to make them. And then he mailed a batch to me. And because he knew I was concerned with the ingredients, he enclosed a little bar graph he drew with a Sharpie indicating the relative percentage of cashews, sunflower seeds, oats, dried cherries, peanut butter and honey. There was still no note, no explanation, no “love, Dad.”
Because none of that was necessary. I understood him perfectly.
Andrea Leap is a singer and music teacher who lives and works in the Twin Cities. She can be heard in recital at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in July in connection with their “Seeing Nature” exhibit.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.