The Most Charming, Entertaining, and Fun Person Who Ever Lived. Ever.
That was the warning Norman George gave his teenaged daughter Candace whenever he sensed he'd snared her in a lie. These lies, Candace tells me, were your typical high-school fibs, designed to conceal basic indiscretions. "I'd say I was going to church-group sleepover and instead spend the night at [legendarily decadent nightclub] the Monastery," says Candace with a cackle. "My father was a hard-ass. He came from a German background, he was very strict, and he could instill great fear. I was manic about covering my tracks."
Candace is 34 now, twice the age of the girl who learned to divert her dad with airtight alibis, and her view of her father's fierce discipline has softened with time. "Back then, I was totally bitter about it. I called him 'the Great Santini,'" referring to novelist Pat Conroy's portrait of a diabolically demanding patriarch. "Now I'm grateful. My father taught me about consequences," Candace says. When asked about her adult relationship with her father, Candace's measured expressions of gratitude give way to passionate gushing.
"He became my best friend," says Candace emphatically. Smelling sap, I press her for details. "We hung out at least twice a week," she says, smiling broadly. "I've always had a ton of great, cool friends, but if my dad called, I'd ditch my friends to hang out with him." By the time Candace reached her mid-20s, her friends were coming along. "All my friends became his friends. Everyone I know loved my father. He just had this incredible charisma. Ask anyone."
"It's true," says Keith Bacon, lifelong friend of Candace. To describe Norman, Keith drops adjectives like wonderful and hilarious and brilliant, inspiring Candace to share a story, involving Norman, a Santa suit, and a Mexican wrestling mask, that has me snorting like a hog. I am convinced that the story of Norman George--the once-loathed disciplinarian who became his daughter's honest-to-God best friend--is a tale worth telling. And thanks to Keith Bacon, who placed the winning bid of $880 in the Strangercrombie & Felch Holiday Auction for a glowing one-page Stranger story on a subject of his choice, I'm required to do exactly that.
Norman Dale George was born in 1938, in Fargo, North Dakota, on Valentine's Day. Not long after, the family moved west to Bellingham, where Norman's dad died of cancer and Norman's mom raised the pair's seven children on her own. After a boyhood in Bellingham, Norman graduated from high school and set out for Seattle, where he crossed paths with his high-school sweetheart Linnea, and soon after, proposed marriage.
For the next two decades, Norman George worked in banking, rising to vice president of Shoreline Savings. He also fathered three daughters--Candace, Tiffany, and Kirsten--with wife Linnea. "He was a very involved dad," says Candace, the eldest. "When I went to elementary school, he became president of the PTA. When I joined Northwest Girls' Choir, he became the group's first president."
But in 1985, when Candace was 17, her seemingly flawless father was caught in an indiscretion that eventually led to the end of her parents' marriage, and "everything changed," says Candace. "The circumstances surrounding the divorce weren't great, and my father lost all his authority in my eyes. I stayed angry at him for a couple years." Eventually Candace forgave her father, and the pair began forging a new relationship, incorporating far more equality and honesty (not to mention cocktails and shopping) than their previous father-daughter arrangement. "In the end, this horrible, messy divorce brought my father and I much closer together," says Candace. "The person my dad was when he was married to my mother is not the same person I got to know and love later."
Now, perhaps you're thinking, "Hmmm... guy likes cocktails and shopping, caught in marriage-busting 'indiscretion,' best friend is a girl...." Stop. Not only did Norman's "indiscretion" involve a woman, this woman--Susan, a realtor and interior designer--eventually became Norman's beloved second wife, while Norman became that rare and treasured thing: a man of passion and sensitivity, fully equipped with fashion sense and listening skills and the ability to throw great parties, while remaining effortlessly and eternally straight. Having to take responsibility for the failure of his first marriage only deepened Norman's dedication to a life lived right. "After what he'd been through, he had no interest in judging anyone," says Candace. "He looked at people as works of art, each with a fascinating back-story, and he could strike up a conversation with anyone. He made people feel appreciated."
Norman's unconditional love for humanity kicked into high gear during the holiday season. "My father loved Christmas," says Candace, sharing tales of her father's favorite holiday pastimes, from sightseeing at Costco ("He loved watching freaked-out shoppers racing around, stuffing their carts with crap") to door-to-door Christmas caroling in the aforementioned Santa-suit-with-Mexican-wrestling-mask. But Norman's primary holiday endeavor--and perhaps the ultimate distillation of his wit and spirit--was his annual party on Christmas Eve, described by Candace as simply the greatest party in the world.
"I know this sounds corny," Candace tells me, "but my father loved to make other people happy, and he was incredibly talented at it. People would travel across the country to attend his parties."
Central to the party's charm (along with the free-flowing grappa) was the annual gift parade, with Norman lavishing his guests with wonderfully quirky presents. Norman would spend the year scouring junk shops, yard sales, and estate auctions for Boy Scout handbooks from the 1950s, antique perfect-attendance medals, gorgeous old lighters, and other one-of-a-kind finds. As memorable as the presents themselves were Norman's self-penned gift tags, featuring elaborate, fictional descriptions of each gift and its history. "The tags were amazing," says Candace. "He spent as much time making up the stories as he did shopping for gifts."
After presents were opened, there was more grappa, singing, and dancing, followed by fond farewells and promises to do it all again next Christmas.
But this December 24, for the first time in Candace's adult life, her father isn't hosting his annual Christmas Eve party. On March 2 of this year, sometime before dawn, Norman George suffered a massive heart attack and died. "It was a total shock," says Candace. "I don't know what else to tell you. I lost my best friend. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with.
"The last time I saw him was a few days before he died. I'd gone over to his and Susan's house for dinner, after which we sat on their bed watching Chris Rock's Bigger & Blacker on DVD and stuffing ourselves with strawberry shortcake. We were laughing our heads off, and I remember thinking, 'This is so great, I love my family so much, we've come so far....' A couple days later he died.
"There are times I feel so sorry for myself, for losing him so suddenly. But I try to remind myself how lucky I was to have him in the first place."
I ask Candace about her dad's most lasting fatherly lesson.
"I was 22, and I'd spent the night at my dad's house after a blowout Christmas Eve party. When I woke up Christmas morning I had a paralyzing hangover, and my father introduced me to Alka-Seltzer--not the kind for colds, just regular-strength, unflavored, dissolved in half a glass of water. It's still the most useful lesson I've ever learned."
It's a lesson that could prove useful to many Seattleites this holiday season. Consider it a final gift from a consummate host. Should New Year's morning find you hurting, raise a glass of plop, plop, fizz, fizz to Norman George.