‘Love, Dad’: A father’s legacy, spelled out in letters

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When Vermonter Frank Dearborn drove his daughter too many miles away to college in the 1970s, they vowed to defy the skyrocketing cost of postage — from 6 cents to 8 cents to a then-unthinkable dime — and mail each other a letter every Sunday.


“I was two years older than you are when I started,” the patriarch began one, “since I joined the Navy right out of high school. Probably I’ve told you before, Eddie Gregg and I went down to the recruiters, seeking adventure or a new experience. Boy, were we naïve!”


Dearborn, recreation and parks director for the town of Brattleboro from 1957 to 1990, was always on the go. Off-hours, he hiked seemingly everywhere — up the Green and White Mountains, down the Grand Canyon, around Hawaii and New Zealand — when he wasn’t biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or swinging a tennis racket or ping pong paddle.


But once a week, the father paused to pick up a pen or plunk the keys of a manual typewriter.


“I write,” he began one letter, “as a matter of priority instead of waiting until I have time, for I don’t usually have much time and you — yes, you — are prime priority, like the State of the Union message.”


“We love you and are proud of you,” he wrote in another. “If you weren’t our daughter we’d adopt you.”


Donna Dearborn would earn a bachelor’s degree in math and environmental science and master’s degrees in biochemistry and exercise physiology, then travel the globe to work as algebra, trigonometry and English teacher, ski instructor, hiking warden, fitness director, tennis pro, field hockey coach and tax preparer.


Yet she, too, would keep writing.


“What a train journey!” she penned June 1, 1994. “I’d read about this renowned trip and looked forward to a relaxed ride through Malaysia to Bangkok. Well, it was more like a circus.”


She mailed letters from more than 100 addresses around the world, while her father wrote from only one — Howard Street, Brattleboro, Vt., 05301. Yet it took her leaving home to see he was the one with true perspective.


“I recall visiting with your Gramp a couple of years ago,” he wrote her. “I told him that if I were to die tomorrow, I would have no regrets, for I was at peace with the world. I always enjoyed my work, family, and church. There really isn’t anything else. This idea of accumulating, striving, desiring, and regretting is bad …”


Retiring in 1990, Frank Dearborn was anything but. Hiking section upon section of the state’s 270-mile Long Trail over the years, he became an official “End to Ender” in 1996. He traveled to his 50th state, Oregon, to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary in 2002. Then one late-summer day in 2003, he played tennis, took a 3-mile walk, mowed the lawn — and suffered a mild stroke.


Three weeks later, he again wrote to his daughter.


“Day by day and hope for the best,” he scrawled in cursive script. “You’re very special and appreciated.”


Three months later, he sang next to her at the annual Messiah concert.


“Hallelujah!” he shouted. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”


Three days later, he celebrated the successful conclusion of therapy by snowshoeing. That’s when a severe stroke froze all feeling in his left arm and leg.


By the beginning of 2004, he suffered the first of a series of seizures. By the end of the year, he no longer could walk, speak nor, after three decades, pen his weekly Sunday letter.


“Dear, dear Dad, what is it like to be you right now?” his daughter wrote as he sat in a wheelchair, silent. “Why was all this taken from you? What reason? What lesson?”


Determined to regain what was lost, she visited him at Vernon Green Nursing Home every Sunday, voicing memories of family hiking, biking and skiing excursions up high and Down Under.


“Dad — You’ve been there for me from Day 1,” she wrote to him one Father’s Day. “With your patience you gave me patience. With your strength you gave me strength. You taught me kindness, caring, love, diplomacy, rooting for the underdog. You taught me how to live right and live well.”


In May of 2009, Frank Dearborn suffered another stroke. Three days later, he died at age 81.


“Bye, Dad — I love you,” his daughter wrote at the crematory. “You deserve high praise and a tribute as big as the universe. The stories could fill a book, there is so much to say.”


She didn’t stop writing. She finished that letter — and had started that book. Her new 328-page independently published paperback, “Every Sunday: A Father and Daughter’s Enduring Connection,” is a self-described “love letter” that chronicles the many ways her father lives on.


“Your ashes have hitched a ride in my pack for 17 days,” she wrote during a 2012 hiking trip in the Himalayas. “Why have I bothered to carry your ashes all this way, since you’re with me anyway — every day? I talk to you, seek your guidance, and feel your strong presence, but I like knowing there is a tangible piece of you here for eternity.”


Back home, the Chester resident is driving from small town to small town, selling her book, sharing its stories. Standing before clusters of people in folding chairs, she reads her father’s words aloud.


“Life almost gets more complex as we get older, with the tugs to do so many things that we forget the simple and meaningful things at times,” he wrote in one letter. “I try to recall often that you should live each day as though it might be your last because time is so precious and it goes so fast.


“We should try for quality, kindness, and appreciation,” he continued, “as often there is no time to pause, for we are striving for the next program or activity and we forget to treasure the moment. We should hopefully not have the ‘maybes’ when we leave, but take stock time and again as to where we are.”


And who we want to be.


“My loving thanks to you now and in the future — Dad.”


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