This morning, I took a walk in my old neighborhood, where the house I grew up in has been leveled and a new house is being built. I hadn’t been there for a while, so I was surprised at how far along it is, and mostly at how massive it is. It’s a large piece of property. Our house wasn’t that big so we had a backyard and a wide turn-around at the top of the winding driveway where we used to play basketball, and where I used to ride my bike before I was allowed to go down to the street. This new house practically hugs the property lines and any child or pet who wants some outdoor space to romp will be disappointed.
I thought about the life we lived there — long gone now, and replaced by a house my father wouldn’t have felt comfortable in. Where is the yard? he’d have said. I thought about how the past often gets filled to the brim with a present that crowds out memories and imposes itself on what has gone before it. And I thought about last night’s Republican debate.
There has been a long pattern of candidates claiming the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and building their own agendas into it. Overbuilding, just as this house has swallowed the lawn where 2 children played, and the back area where my father and brother shot hoops and I learned to not fall off my bike. All the candidates at last night’s debate tried to stuff themselves into my father’s legacy, instead of carving out their own. I don’t know if he would be flattered. I do know he’d be puzzled. He never tried to imitate anyone.
For most of my life, I have felt that politics stole my father from me. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate — he was an elusive man, and it’s possible I might never have known him as well as I longed to, even if politics hadn’t entered our lives. But it’s how I feel. I was 14 when he was elected Governor of California, and I quickly figured out that getting into trouble was a dependable way to get his attention. It worked sometimes, but it also left me with a boatload of regrets.
People keep asking me how I feel about the candidates invoking my father’s name so frequently. Predictably, I got e-mails and Facebook messages during last night’s debate with that one question over and over. At some point long ago I told myself that no one can really steal my father. They can’t steal him for their own purposes, although they will keep trying, and they definitely cannot steal him from me.
My history with him is book-ended by an innocent time before politics — long horseback rides, ocean swims, windy days when we flew kites on the hill above our house, blue evenings when he showed me the North Star — and, many years later, the sad journey of Alzheimer’s. The world intruded on much of our lives, and still does. But at the beginning, and at the end, there was a father and a daughter creating memories, reaching out tentatively at times, unsteady in the tricky dance of parent and child. No pundit, or politician, or candidate can intrude on that.