I try to write each August about my dad, Harold Gardner Phillips, Jr., as he passed away (all too soon) at the end of this month back in 2011. This exercise is equal parts homage and memory aid, as I suppose one fears these recollections, now perfectly strong, will somehow fade with time. This year the jog happened naturally, as today I stand poised at the fulcrum of a generational see-saw: My son Silas goes off to college tomorrow, and so the memories rush back re. the day my dad saw me off, out of the nest and into the world.
As is the case with so many stories I’ve shared about my dad, golf plays an intersectional role. This one’s even more fitting because it centers on Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton, Mass., a municipal track we played dozens of times growing up. One used to be able to see it from Route 128, the frenetic inner ring road that circles Greater Boston, though methinks ever-maturing trees now obscure that view. Today there are only 27 holes at “Ponky”, but there used to be 36. The course one used to see from the highway was nothing special. The other 18, however, was a Donald Ross design from the 1930s that, despite the rigors of time, high traffic and miniscule maintenance budgeting remained damned sublime.
My dad and I played Ponky together on a several occasions, but this was mainly a place where he, my mom and various other parental figures dropped my friends and me for an entire day of golfing adventure. It also served as venue to a pair of tournaments: The CYO (that’s “Catholic Youth Organization” for those who may not have grown up in Boston, where the Church held such wide-ranging cultural sway) and the New England Junior Championship.
That day I left for college, a cloudy late August morning in 1982, I was scheduled to play a quarterfinal match at the New England Juniors, as I had qualified earlier that week for what stood to be a potentially anti-climactic match-play portion. I had packed our Dodge Omni that morning with all my stuff. Win or lose, I would decamp for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., some 100 miles southwest, directly from the golf course.
As it happened, I won the match, bettering a kid from Rhode Island named Fred, 3 & 1. I signed my card, informed a quite delighted Fred that I would be withdrawing, told the officials, and walked off to the parking lot.
There to my surprise I found my dad, who had just rolled up.
My competitive golfing career would never prove particularly extensive. Indeed, this tournament and the New England Juniors the year before were the only two events I had ever played, to that point. Golf was a fall sport at my high school, as was soccer, which took clear precedence. In other words, while my dad had played hundreds of rounds of golf with me over the years, and we maintained a spirited, running match for decades, he had never seen me play a proper tournament match against anyone else.
One time, in college, he showed up at Pleasant Valley Country Club near Worcester to see me play a collegiate match featuring Wesleyan, Springfield College (I think) and Assumption. I know the latter to be true, for certain, because I ended up facing a guy from Assumption that day named Frank Vana, who would go on to win multiple Massachusetts Amateur crowns. My dad worked near PVCC and he showed up on the 9th or 10th hole, at which point my game imploded. He scurried off after we finished 13, not wanting to cause/witness any more carnage.
For many years, I was never sure what exactly he meant to “do” that day — in the parking lot at Ponky. We had said our goodbyes that morning, and it wasn’t as though I was going off to war. But today, I can see he probably wanted one last moment with his boy, who would soon leave and return in some way, shape or form, a man.
I’ve been trying to remember what exactly my dad and I talked about during that moment in the parking lot. I surely went over the match with him, and the curious aspect of my winning but withdrawing. I don’t remember that we got into anything particularly deep. I remember being touched that he had shown up, but there were no tears. I’m pretty sure we shook hands.
See here a relevant excerpt from the eulogy I delivered for him in 2011:
My dad was not a particularly emotive man, not for most of the 40 odd years I had a clear picture of him. I remember one time I came home from college and was determined, in the sure and committed way of college students, to simply start hugging him and telling him that I loved him. I had seen other dads do this and had been impressed — that a father and son could be so open and physical in their affection for one another. I wanted that for my dad and me, to be honest. So I started out with hugs and, well… the man never really got comfortable with it. It just wasn’t his way. I remember telling him during this same period that I loved him, and noting that, to some extent, one is obliged to let people know that this is so, to verbalize it, to say it plain. He said that wasn’t his way, that he instead showed people he loved them. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was something of a cop-out.
But the man knew himself. As I grew older, I better recognized the ways he expressed intimacy and let you know how he felt. There are no rules or universalities for these things, I’ve learned, as I myself have grown as old and, in some ways, as wise as he. The more I observed this, over time, I can report that my dad did practice this sort of behavior consistently, with all sorts of people.
I think one of the keys to understanding and appreciating my dad is this: If he enjoyed something, his greatest joy was to share that enjoyment with you. If there was a piece of music that he found thrilling — and the man enjoyed a notably wide musical taste — he wanted you to listen to it and, ideally, derive the same thrill, too. If there was something he had seen on PBS or C-span, he wanted you to see it, too. If there was food item he had acquired or my mom had made, he wanted you to consume it. Right then. His enthusiasm for this sharing was really quite intimate, almost childlike in its enthusiasm. You might walk into my parents’ home, having not seen him for weeks, and his most deeply held desire was to have you sit down and watch an interview with the historian Gordon Wood, right then, so soon as you put your bag down.
And there was another aspect to this: He wanted you to listen or watch or taste or, to the extent possible, read this stuff WITH you. He wanted to sit right next to you while we watched the Gordon Wood interview, together — so he could pause the recording and discuss it. He wanted you to put the earphones on while he would stand right there beside you, grinning giddily, as you listened to some choral piece by Arvo Part. He would call just to see how far you were in a book he had recommended, to get updates on your progress…
I loved my dad but I, like many sons, have fashioned a great deal of my life in response to his. When Silas heads off tomorrow morning, there will be hugs. There will be tears. That said, I expect that whatever I’m feeling at that moment, is the same thing my dad felt that day, some 32 years ago, in the parking lot at Ponkapoag.
Silas is flying to Montana tomorrow morning, with his mom. I suppose that if I could meet them in Chicago for one last goodbye, I’d do it.