I don't have a great memory, especially when it comes to my childhood. In fact, my wife and I have a running joke that every time she asks me how old I was when something happened in my youth, I respond that I was "8 or 10."
From that, she has surmised that I popped into existence at the age of 8. Or 10. I don't think that's true, but it would be hard for me to prove otherwise.
Except for the sunlight. I have strong memories of the way the sunlight streamed through the windows of Kip's Inn on 4th Street in Yankton, South Dakota, when I was just 4 years old.
In my memory, I'm sitting next to my dad at the diner's three-sided counter. The room has huge windows on the east and south sides, so it's always sunny. Closing my eyes, I can travel 41 years back in time, until I'm once again watching the dust motes dance in the rays cast by the morning sun.
My dad and I were regulars at Kip's Inn on Monday mornings back then. My mom was working as a teacher's aide at the time, and my dad was a barber. He had the day off, and I only went to Montessori School Tuesday through Friday, so Mondays were a time to sleep in and then head to Kip's for coffee.
For my dad, that is. Coffee isn't an acceptable drink for 4-year-olds, even in South Dakota. While Dad partook of a cup or two, I would enjoy a triangle of white toast, well-buttered, usually with some grape jelly from one of those little plastic packets you find only at diners and pancake houses. I can still remember how good it tasted.
Dad would chat about the news of the day with the diner's owner, Clifford G. "Kip" Larson. Kip was a tall, slim man, quick with a smile and good conversation, as the proprietor of such an establishment should be. He also knew how to make a positive impression on a 4-year-old, always giving me a small piece of candy or a piece of Bazooka bubble gum for the road when it was time to leave.
All of these memories came flooding back to me last week, when my mom and dad told me during our weekly phone call that Kip had died at the age of 95.
I guess I'm at the age now when the adults who helped shape my childhood will start to pass away. That's to be expected, and I'm glad to have memories of the ways they blessed my life — even if I'm a little fuzzy on the particulars of when specific events happened.
But as I thought about Kip, and Kip's Inn, I started wondering why that particular childhood memory was so strong. What was it about that time and place that made such a lasting impression?
I guess it could be any number of things. But I think at least part of it is because I was there with my dad. Just the two of us, hanging out at the diner, experiencing work-life balance before it was a thing.
I have tons of memories of my dad from my younger years. He is an amazing father, a wonderful partner to my mom, and has set a great example for me by working hard to support his family. I remember how he looked when he got home from work at night, how he made us laugh at the dinner table, how he would leave me a note with the final score of Monday Night Football games because I had to go to bed before they ended.
But the memories of times we spent alone together are especially cherished. There's just something about one-on-one time with a parent that makes for lasting impressions.
Pondering that got me wondering what kinds of impressions I've made on my own children, so I asked them to tell me about their earliest memories of hanging out with me.
My 17-year-old daughter said she could remember me getting my euphonium out of its case and playing it in the living room of our home.
"I think you played a patriotic song, but I can't be sure," she said.
"We went to a Jazz game once. I was really excited to ride TRAX," she added. "I don't remember if they won or lost. I remember a lot of daddy/daughter dates, like getting ice cream and such.
"And I remember 'Tickle Monster.' That was fun."
For those of you who aren't Kratzes, the "Tickle Monster" is a silly guy who looks a lot like me and chases his children around the house, capturing and tickling them. They escape by singing him a lullaby, which puts him to sleep. But only for a few seconds.
My 9-year-old son and my second daughter both said they didn't remember many specific activities, but they could remember feelings they had when spending time with me.
"The only thing I remember is that you were laughing, and I was having a lot of fun," my 14-year-old girl said.
My youngest daughter said she remembered going to a restaurant with me near the newspaper office, then riding home with me on TRAX. (Apparently, riding public transportation is a great way to make memories!)
"That was the first time I'd ever been on a train, and it was with you," she said. "I remember that that was the first time you told me about how the floor moved when the train turned, and I was so fascinated by that. ...
"I was astonished, because of the floor thing. And I was happy to be with you."
I was happy to be with her, too. And I'm glad I've been able to make one-on-one memories with my children.
As I spend time with my daughters and son in the months to come, I'm going to remember Kip, and Kip's Inn, and the sunlight, and the bubble gum. I'm going to remember how good it felt to be in that place, at that time, with my dad. And I'm going to do my best to make sure my own children will have similar memories of me when they're in their 40's and raising families of their own.