When I was a kid, my Dad was my hero. Now that I’m all grown-up, he still is. Not because he was perfect – he wasn’t – but because he loved his family, he did the best he could for us, and he treated other people with generosity and respect no matter who they were. When he got angry, it was most often because of stupidity, injustice, or unfairness, and I never saw him take his anger out on people. He loved to laugh. My family memories of growing up with Mom, Dad, and my two older sisters are overwhelmingly ones of love and joy.
It wasn’t until I was in high school and spending time in my friends’ homes that I realized my family was unusual. While less idealized, ours was more like than unlike the harmonious TV families in shows from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Mom and Dad never fought, and they never, ever, yelled at us. Oh, they disagreed from time to time, but Dad’s temper always stayed on a checkrein, under control, and Mom had a way of bending like a willow, letting upsetting winds pass but remaining firmly rooted in what she knew was right. Dad talked about whatever made him angry, Mom listened appreciatively and occasionally interjected something mild, and by the end, Dad usually talked himself around to where Mom was and the anger was long gone and forgotten. I never remember being spanked or yelled at. For me, the worst punishment for doing something wrong was simply knowing from the look on his face even before he said a word that I’d disappointed my Dad, and I did my best not to go there. I had the advantage of seeing his reaction to my older sisters making their mistakes, and immediately resolved not to repeat them. (Of course, I simply made my own … *wry grin*)
My Dad worked for the same company for 41 years. For most of that time, he was a foreman in a shop that built electrical controls. We sat down to family breakfast every weekday morning at 6:00. He left home at 6:30 every morning and got back at about 4:30, just in time for family dinner. He would talk about what happened at work, and then all of us would chime in with what happened during our days. I’m glad that I grew up when that was possible.
He didn’t have much time to spare during the week, but he gave himself to us on the weekends. Saturday was chores day, when we did housecleaning and projects, but Sunday was the best. Sunday morning after church, once he’d had a chance to scan the newspaper, Dad belonged to us kids. While Mom started Sunday lunch – which for us was the big meal of the day – Dad would take us out to the park or to the zoo in summer, or sledding or to a museum in winter. We’d always call home from wherever we were to find out when lunch was ready, even though it was always going to be ready at the same time. Sunday afternoons, we’d go to the library as a family to get our books for the week. That latter thing, I can prove, because a photographer for the city newspaper found us there once when I was two and took our picture. We made quite an impression since all three of us kids were wearing matching coats – Mom made most of our clothes, which saved a lot of money – and all of us had matching smiles. I was sitting on Dad’s lap while he read to me from The Little Engine That Could.
Mom had worked before the three of us were born, but stopped working outside the home once we kids started to arrive. When I started grade school, she experimented with going back to work, taking a part-time job that let her be home by the time we started coming back from school. When that looked as if it was working, Mom and Dad sat us all down for a family conference to learn how we all felt about Mom going back to work. We all supported it, and so it continued. One job led to another, and eventually to my Mom running her own business as a tax practitioner and real estate broker. Dad laughed that when he retired, she could take over, but the truth was – and we learned this, because as we got older, Mom and Dad sat us down with them, talked about the family budget, and showed us precisely how they’d planned and saved for our home and our futures, including being able to give us college tuition – that Mom’s business had outstripped Dad’s salary even before Dad retired. I think it made Dad feel a little funny, given that he’d been raised in a time and a culture when the husband and father was supposed to be the breadwinner, but he learned to accept and even appreciate it. After he retired, he insisted on taking over doing the housecleaning during tax time, leading to Mom’s clients wondering if they could hire him to vacuum their carpets and wash their floors!
My Dad retired the summer before I started law school. He’d been looking forward with great enthusiasm to all the things he could do once he was retired, but when the first day of his retirement actually rolled around, he had so many options to choose from that he was paralyzed and couldn’t figure out where to start! Mom teased him to just pick one project, any random one, and get started, but it took a couple of days before he actually managed to settle on one thing. From that point on, though, there was never any question of what he would do. His days were always full, many of them with helping out other people. He and Mom always had a habit they passed on to us of being neighborly, of doing things for others without any expectation of reward. A neighbor’s gate was broken? Dad would fix it. An elderly friend needed help shopping, or a lift to the doctor’s? No problem; Dad always had time. Someone needed woodwork done? Dad was happy to oblige. Between Dad and one of his older brothers, our family had a complete woodworking shop available, and Dad loved being what he self-deprecatingly termed a “wood butcher.” He’d built all the woodwork in the house I grew up in. I still have two of his hand-crafted bookcases in my dining room.
He taught us to use his tools, too. It truly didn’t matter to him that he’d wound up with three daughters and no sons: he told us we could do whatever we put our minds to, and he thought we should have practical skills. I remember the day he taught me to change a tire, and stood back watching me struggle with the lug nuts, both giving pointers and teasing me to pit my strength against nuts that just wouldn’t give. When I was frustrated to shamed, embarrassed tears but still refusing to give up, he stepped in – only to discover that he couldn’t budge them with sheer muscle-power, either. We both laughed, he pulled out his power tools to crack the barrier, and then let me get on with the rest of the exercise, with one added pointer to the lesson being, It’s no shame to have to call AAA for help when your lug nuts were tightened by machine. My middle sister really became his shadow, learning over the years with his tutoring to use every single one of his power tools for high-quality woodworking. Dad always loved playing with his “toys.” I remember when we got our first big Ariens snowthrower, and Dad started it up one morning to tackle the first big snowfall of the season – lunchtime rolled around and Dad was nowhere to be seen. We tracked him down following the sound, because he was using the snowthrower to clean off every one of our neighbor’s driveways!
There was a lot about us kids that Dad never did understand or figure out. I baffled him sometimes because I loved science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books and became passionate about television and theater, and because I wanted to write. He never understood what people saw in stories, whether in fictional books, television, movies, or stage plays, precisely because they weren’t real. Once we kids were old enough to read our own books, I never saw my Dad reading unless it was a newspaper or something to do with woodworking or plumbing or something else practical. He was a man of his hands, and unimaginative unless it came down to how to build or do something. But even though he didn’t understand why I passionately cared for characters who weren’t even real, he was button-popping proud when something I wrote came back marked with an “A” or got printed in a school publication.
The only anger I remember my Dad ever nursing – and the only thing about him that ever made me hurt because I felt that he was wrong – came from some of my oldest sister’s life choices, things that went against his rigid Catholic upbringing. He couldn’t approve of them and couldn’t understand them, and it took years for him to mellow out enough to accept them and get past the sense that something about them was intrinsically wrong just because they weren’t fully traditional. (At my sister’s liturgically creative wedding, for example, Dad even asked my cousin the Catholic priest, who had officiated at the ceremony, whether they really were married! He was only half-joking …) In later years, when he was reassured that “different” didn’t mean “damned,” he gave up that festering resentment and threw himself wholeheartedly into helping out, even if he still did disagree with some of her decisions. That just turned into hilarious teasing – like the Christmas when he found, cleaned up, and made her a present of an old-fashioned potty chair when she and her husband decided not to build a bathroom on the first floor of their new home!
The only time I remember Dad ever actually being angry with me was when my Mom went in for surgery once. Dad was a wreck in the waiting room because he was terrified down to his toes that something would go wrong, and he berated me for not caring about Mom because I wasn’t scared and wasn’t worried. I had the hardest time getting him to accept that I just had a firm feeling that everything was going to be just fine, and thus couldn’t worry myself into a frazzle – and that Mom wouldn’t want either of us to be worrying that way, because she was convinced everything would be fine.
My Dad had a heart attack in 1992, and then suffered a stroke during bypass surgery that left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed on one side. My sister built a wheelchair ramp onto the front porch and she and Mom equipped the first floor to facilitate his recovery, but a few months after he came home, he suffered a second stroke and passed away peacefully in his sleep. At his funeral, a lot of people turned out and all of us laughed a lot, remembering my Dad. We buried him in the plot he’d picked out near the edge of the cemetery by the railroad tracks, where he’d laughed he could hop a train and go anywhere he chose.
I haven’t been back to the cemetery because he isn’t there. He’s here out East with me, and back in the Midwest with Mom and my sisters, and out West with his grandson, and living around the world in the hearts of every single person he ever helped. I hear his voice teasing me sometimes when I get passionate about fictional characters, or when I’m trying to make a decision about household maintenance. I hear his laugh behind my own, and in every train whistle. And I know he’s always going to be there.
This time, I’m writing about a real character. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.