What parts of your father do you see when you look in the mirror?

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I was looking at my face in the mirror this morning, as I do every day soon after waking up, but this time, for some reason, I saw afresh the lingering imprint of my father.

Daddy, as we southern-bred kids called him, was raised with eight siblings. Counting his parents and himself, that made for eleven people in the household. The birth order was as follows: sister, sister, my dad, sister, sister, brother, brother, brother, sister. Before all those brothers came along, with two sisters immediately older than him and two sisters immediately younger, my dad, with his puckish humor, said he happily asked Santa for a slingshot and a babydoll every Christmas.

Perhaps to escape this benevolent domestic chaos, my dad joined the Navy in his twenties. After initial tests disclosed that he possessed 20/15 vision and had an aptitude for math, he was sent to another Naval officer for a short interview:

Officer: “Have you ever ridden in a fast car or a fast train?” Dad: “Yes.” Officer: “Were you afraid, dizzy, nauseous?” Dad: “No.” Officer: “Have you ever been on a tall building?” Dad: “Yes.” Officer: “Were you dizzy, sick, afraid of heights?” Dad: “No.” Officer: “Have you been on a roller coaster?” Dad: “Yes.” Officer:  “Dizzy? Vertigo? Sick?” Dad: “No.” Officer: “Go stand in that short line over there.” Dad: “Sir, may I ask what that line is for?” Officer: “Son, we’re going to teach you how to fly airplanes.”

Daddy became a Naval Aviator, the distinct term over “pilot” that the Navy uses, and was sent to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station on the south coast of Texas, and then to the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island near Seattle. He was an officer and a gentleman.

At Whidbey, he sent for his Texas girlfriend (my future mom) to come marry him in Seattle. She came, and she brought another girl who was to marry my dad’s Navy buddy and fellow aviator, Harvey. 

It was a double wedding at a Catholic church, and only three of the four were Catholic. Harvey was not.

As a joke, my dad convinced Harvey the wedding would be a high mass—a religious ceremony wherein the entire service is sung by a priest and, in this case, sung by the two engaged couples. 

Daddy coached Harvey on the singing and said: “When the vows come, the priest will sing (my dad sang at this point in telling the story), ‘Do you take this woman for your lawful wedded wife?’ (The chirpy melody should have alerted Harvey this was no real liturgical song.) My dad went on: “And then you and I, Harvey, will sing the reply: ‘I do. I do.’ We have to sing it twice!”

Daddy was a good singer and Harvey was not. So my dad worked with Harvey over and over to get him to hit the two notes in the ‘I do’ reply. He got Harvey as near to those notes as Harvey’s nature would allow, and my dad went on: “Then the priest will sing, ‘Do you promise that you won’t drink beer?’ And we sing, ‘I do. I do.’ Twice!”

My dad said: “Harvey broke off in a huff that instant and made a hurried exit from the room, muttering something about the virtues of a single and celibate lifestyle.”

After the Navy, my dad gave up flying planes and got a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, then entered another line of work for the balance of his life. He and my mom raised five kids. I was the youngest.

When I was about 13, my body started to grow in alarming ways. I felt my nose was all out of proportion to the rest of my face. And I told Mom, “My nose is too big! I hate it!”

Mom counseled me: “That doesn’t matter. Look at Daddy. He has a big nose and it never caused him any grief. He hasn’t suffered a minute’s self-doubt, and he’s the life of every party.”

I couldn’t disagree.

Daddy heard this entire exchange from the kitchen table and he smushed his cigarette out, addressing my mom:  “I never thought I had a big nose.”

My mom and I exploded in laughter.

Daddy continued talking to Mom: “And I never knew you thought I had a big nose.”

More laughter.

Then, my dad pushed his chair back from the kitchen table and walked to the den where a large mirror hung upon a wall. He studied his face in the mirror. Back and forth, side to side. He studied his nose. 

At last, he announced his conclusion: He did not have a big nose. Nor did he have a prominent nose. He would allow only that he had, in his words, “an important nose.”

Even more laughter.

 “And that goes for you too,” Dad said to me.

When my dad died, I was in my thirties, and the hurt was deep for me. I bent over and kissed his forehead, as many family members do when a loved one is laid out in a coffin for public viewing. I discreetly and lightly traced the tip of my finger down the length of his nose, and I thought, yes, it was an important nose, on an incredibly important man.

I long ago acknowledged indebtedness to my dad for conferring a sense of humor to me, the ready quip that might set the table on a roar. But it took a long while for me to grudgingly accept his contribution to the architecture of my equally inheritable, equally ‘important’ face.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...