Friday, June 22, 2012

WWW@100: A Dad’s Legacy

Today is June 22, 2012, and it’s a momentous occasion. Who knows why? If you guessed because it’s the 76th birthday of Kris Kristofferson (the man I consider absolutely the best American songwriter ever and, yes, the man on whom I’ve had a serious crush for forty years), you’d be only partly right. Today is also the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of my dad, William Walton Wight.

Dad was an amazing man. He was talented, smart, and capable. He could build anything, fix anything, figure anything out. He loved poetry and liked to quote it, especially Robert Frost, Robert Service, and Holman Day. He was born in Oquossoc and raised in Bethel and he was the quintessential Mainer—practical, resourceful, and outdoorsy—until the day he died, even though he spent the last half of his life living in exile in Connecticut.

He liked people, and they liked him. “Everyone loved your father,” my mother once told me, a touch of bemusement in her voice. (No doubt she felt a bit mystified, a little wistful—the sentiments with which we introverts regard those Others: the ones who light up a room, whose personalities draw people to them and effortlessly hold them enthralled.)

My dad worked hard at his job—he had majored in metallurgical engineering and worked at Pratt & Whitney Small Tool in West Hartford—and, with a partner, he started his own small metals heat-treating business on the side which, remarkably, still exists today, more than 60 years later. (While he was involved with the company, it was very much a shoestring operation—he used to bring metal rods home and get my mother to temper them in her oven.)

But as busy as he was, there was never any question that his first priority was family. He took my four older siblings hiking, camping, and rockhounding. He helped lead my brothers’ Boy Scout troop. They all built a wooden boat together from a kit—it, too, still exists today. They played Scrabble, did jigsaw puzzles, went
to church, got a family dog.
 And he and my mother brought the kids to Maine as often as possible. They learned the names of all the trees in the Maine woods and all the Maine minerals they found. In the mid-1950s they bought a lot on North Pond in Woodstock and then, together, they built our camp.
In a way, it’s remarkable that I know this much about my dad, when you consider that he died in 1958, more than eight months before I was born. But it’s a testament to his legacy, to the far-reaching influence he has had on my siblings and, indirectly but inarguably, on their children and grandchildren as well.

And on me. I remember asking my mother once, when I was quite young, “How old was I when Daddy died?” She looked confused, and explained gently that he had died before I was ever born. Then it was my turn to be confused. “But I remember him,” I insisted. And it seemed to me that I did. His legacy was to remain a vital part of the family he left behind, during my childhood and beyond—even now, more than five decades after his death.

His legacy is in the wooden boat and the family camp—with his musty suede camp jacket and plaid wool shirts still hanging in the closets. It’s in the fact that by the time we went to kindergarten we could all identify feldspar, mica, quartz, beryl, tourmaline, and—our favorite because we loved the way it rolled off our tongues—lavender lepidolite. It’s in the way, over the years, we’ve all been drawn to the state of Maine—three of us to stay—and the way, I think, we all consider Maine our true spiritual home. It’s in the way we all love the woods, the water, our kids. It’s in every part of our lives.

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