The sun was right for a flashback to my dad

Earlier this autumn when I was at the Miami International Airport, I had an unexpected Proustian flashback. When I was in tenth grade, I missed my first three morning classes one day almost every week because I was at the restaurant on the top floor of that airport singing with the Miami Kiwanis Club. For reasons that in hindsight are inexplicable, no one at the high school cared that I was missing so much class time, and no one in the Kiwanis Club cared that I couldn’t sing. I was there as an officer in my high school’s Key Club, the service organization that was affiliated with Kiwanis. I was usually there with one or two other officers, a junior or a senior who was old enough to drive. (I wasn’t.)

Also, just for the record, I wasn’t singing alone: Everyone sang a song or two together to get the weekly Kiwanis breakfast meeting started. We sang songs that were popular when, I am pretty sure, William Howard Taft was President: Ditties such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Home Sweet Home.” I was likely to be wearing a polyester leisure suit and a Huckapoo shirt. (Huckapoo was an actual clothing line – not a brand garbled by Honey Boo Boo Child’s mother.) The shirt had images of rain forest birds on it, because this was an era when people believed that a shirt with birds on it was a reasonable fashion statement. Also, clothes made of chemicals were good for you: The more synthetic, the better. No sheep were sheared for my Florida wardrobe.

I mention this because I’ve been blindsided by childhood memories a lot lately. I’ve raced through the Miami International Airport dozens of times since that year I was having breakfast with a Kiwanis Club, and yet never once was I was catapulted back in time to those mornings when I was fifteen years old. Moreover, the airport has changed a lot since the Mesozoic era when I was in high school. Back then, it was actually a little sleepy – at least it is in my memories. Today? Magnificent and modern. It has the wondrous international flavor of flights winging their way to Europe and South America.

What triggered the memory on this visit? I think it was the confluence of a few things. I was arriving there about seven-thirty in the morning, about the same time I would have gotten there for those Kiwanis breakfast meetings. The sun was just right. Second, as the car rounded the massive semi-circle for departures, I happened to glance up at the building that once upon a time housed that restaurant. A lot of the structure is unchanged. Finally, and I think most importantly, this was my first visit back to Miami since my father died. He used to be a groupie at my events at a wonderful store called Books & Books in Coral Gables, and before my appearance we always had dinner together at the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse a block from the store. Invariably, I was the only vegetarian in the restaurant. But my father loved the place and usually had a filet the size of a Mini Cooper.1015119_10151655276062118_849334701_o

I believe on some level it was walking the streets I associate with both my father’s last years and a part of my distant adolescence that allowed me to see things at the airport I hadn’t seen in decades. A recollection was born. The old songs. The scrambled eggs in buffet trays. The men – and at the time Kiwanis was entirely male – who took justifiable pride in their volunteer work and saw such promise in the high school kids like me they invited to join them.

I hadn’t thought of those mornings in a long time, though back then I had enjoyed those breakfasts immensely. I took pride in my affiliation with Key Club and with Kiwanis, and my parents were fine with the reality that I was missing chemistry and Spanish and something involving numbers

At some point, I assume, these remembrances of things past will stop surprising me. I will stop recalling my father daily. But until then, I am happy to sing along.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on November 10, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.