My dad was a mystery. I knew things about him, but they were like pieces of a puzzle I could never fit together as a whole.
I knew the blue of his eyes, how they shined when he looked at me. The scar on his shoulder, a "souvenir" from the war. The way he smoothed my hair with his big calloused hand. And the blessed fact that he never said anything bad about my mother.
I liked all those things about him. I counted on them to stay the same, and they did. I counted on him for other things, too. The stories he told me. The books he read to me. The bait he wasted for fish I never caught.
My parents divorced when I was 2. I lived with my mother some 40 miles away. But I often spent time with my dad on his parents' farm in the mountains of North Carolina.
You don't need a lot of time, he said, if you make the best of what you've got. And we did. He sent child support to my mother each month, but he was good for all sorts of things -- a coat for winter, shoes for Easter, trips to the dentist and such.
He'd slip me a little "spending money" and say with a wink, "Don't spend it all in one place."
First it was a nickel. Then a whole dollar. Five or even 10 for my birthday. Finally, when I was in college on a scholarship, I'd get a couple of twenties in the mail with a note: "Don't spend it all in one place."
My favorite of all the stories he told was about a magical place called California. He'd spent time there as a soldier before shipping out to Germany.
After the war, he had big plans to move to L.A., get a good-paying job and go to college on the GI Bill. My mother wouldn't hear of it. He talked about it for years. Finally, she told him he could go, but he would never see my sister or me again.
So he quit dreaming, stayed on the farm, changed shifts every week at the mill, and made the best of what we had.
I'll never forget the look on his face -- a beautiful irony of happiness and heartbreak -- the day I told him, after college, I was moving to California.
His eyes welled up and he looked away. Then he took out his wallet, gave me all he had and started to say -- but I said it for him -- "I know, Daddy. Don't spend it all in one place."
We had a big laugh at that.
A year later, he came out to California to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. Three years later, he came back for the birth of my first child. He promised to come back again soon.
But then, he suffered a stroke. When I flew back to see him in the VA hospital, he couldn't walk or move his arm or speak. He just looked at me and cried.
They said he would never leave the hospital. But after seven years of physical therapy, he proved them all wrong.
He came back to California once after that, limping badly, with his arm in a sling, a slur in his speech and a big lopsided grin on his face. He didn't stay long, but we made the best of it.
Years later, the night he ended his life, he also ended my hopes of ever truly knowing who he was. The note he left said he thought he had cancer, and he did not want to go back into the hospital. And that was that.
My dad will always be a mystery. I could fill a book with all I don't know about him.
What I do know is this: He liked to fish and hunt and drive with the windows down. He fought the Nazis and my mother and survived them both. He gave up his dream of a better life to be a better father. He made the best of what we had.
And there is one more shining piece of the puzzle that, for me, fills a thousand gaps: I know my father loved me.
That's my "spending money." I keep it in my pocket. It's there whenever I need it. And I will never spend it all in one place.
Sharon Randall is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune News Service (www.sharon randall.com).