My dad was the first person in my life to introduce me to the wonders of nature. First, by moving his family from the treeless, crowded streets of Chicago to the relative wilds of the suburbs. On both sides of our new house were empty lots—empty of houses but full of trees, bushes, flowers—places to build forts, ride imaginary horses, play hide and seek. He took us for walks in the forest preserves—acres of trees and tall grasses—and to the beach, where I could look out at the blue waters of Lake Michigan and imagine something endless and mysterious.
Best of all, in the north woods of Wisconsin he discovered a lake where he helped build a cabin made of knotty pine walls and a river stone fireplace. (That's my dad, below, getting me to hold a fish he caught.) At Thunder Lake, my dad took us children for walks into the deep woods of tall Norway pines and birch trees and to the waterfall that spilled into a dark pool of water, and taught us how to swim and sail and paddle a canoe. At night, he led us to the end of the pier and shared his awe at the bowl of stars that crowded the sky.
In the intervening decades, after I moved to Colorado, we didn’t always get along. We were on opposite sides politically, and he held some racial and religious prejudices that were abhorrent to me. But we still shared a love of nature—responding together to the sunsets over Thunder Lake, the sight of sandhill cranes in a Wisconsin field, the rippling waters of a creek. Several times he and my mom visited Colorado, and I was able to share my love of mountains with him.
On our last outing together, in late October, we went for a drive to see the last of the Midwest’s fall colors. Most of the time he had his head down, his body tired and worn out at age 95. But on the shores of Lake Michigan, he sat up when he saw the crashing waves, marveling with me at their size. And when we drove into a nearby forest preserve, his eyes came alive when he saw a huge maple, glowing red. I saw him smile like I hadn’t seen for months. It was the last time I saw him so happy. He died three weeks later.
We’ve buried him now, and I like to think of his body set free from the burdens of his stroke—not being able to walk, play the piano, talk to people.
At the cabin, there’s new snow on the high peaks, and the temperatures drop to single digits at night. There are no maple trees in the mountains of Colorado, but I find my dad in the ponderosas that soar upward, in the sky that connects us all, in the knotty pine walls of the cabin and in the leaping joy of the flames in the wood-burning stove.