Tag Archives: Dad

Ninety

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Most of my childhood memories of my Dad involve a little bit of fear. He intimidated by his size, his temper and his quickly changing moods. He was never mean, and  was judicious and fair when he was in a position to decide punishment, but we saw little of that. Mom did most of the rule-making, enforcement and discipline in our home. When she was overwhelmed, Dad was her weapon. “Wait until your father gets home,” she’d say, or, “If you keep it up I’ll have to talk to your father,” and we would fall into line. We never wanted to have to answer to Dad!

Dad had a big voice, and a volatile disposition. He had a long stride, broad shoulders and a wide grin. He’d toss a child over his shoulder, or dangle them upside-down by the ankles. He’d rub a child’s scalp with his knuckles, or grab them by the knees to hear them squeal. He could go from chuckling at a child’s antics to a stern and loud, “Now cut it out! That’s enough,” in the blink of an eye, without warning. He was a big tease, but he did not like to be teased himself. He always seemed unpredictable, and that kept me on edge.

The trepidation I felt in his presence stayed with me right into adulthood. It lasted all of Dad’s life. Though I always loved him, we had a cautious relationship. If I sensed irritation in his tone or his manner, I’d be quick to change the subject, get my children under control or alter whatever it was that seemed to be irritating him. It wasn’t fair to  him, probably, that I walked on eggshells around him, but I rarely had the stamina to stand up to him. It was easier to just avoid conflict, or upsetting him in any way.

Dad had a quiet side, too, though, and that’s where I most relate to him. Driving, he kept his eyes on the road; he leaned against the door, and rarely spoke a word. Getting home from work at midnight, he’d fix himself a simple snack – sometimes bread, torn into a bowl and covered with milk – and read all the way through The Flint Journal, the newspaper that Mom had left on the kitchen table for him. Mornings, after tackling his gardening jobs, he could be found at that same table playing solitaire.

Dad’s mother died when he was thirteen years old. I used to marvel at how he’d never seemed to stop grieving the loss. I’d wonder at how his life would have been different, if she’d lived another twenty years. It’s not such a wonder to me anymore. My Dad died in 1998, when I was forty-six years old. I have never stopped feeling the loss, never stopped missing him. Today would be my Dad’s ninetieth birthday…I wish he was here.

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Walking with Dad

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I was about half way to Hannigan Road yesterday, walking my dog down the Fox Lake Road, when I heard the low rumble of the County road truck. Darla does not chase cars, or even seem to notice them, most of the time. She barely gives them a glance as they go by. If I don’t grab her and pull her away, she won’t even yield her walkway, which is right down the middle of the road. We’re working on it.

However, all of my dogs have always hated the road trucks. Perhaps it’s the sound they make when scraping gravel or snow from the roads, or just the noise of the diesel engines. It might be because they pass by slowly, sometimes stop nearby, and often turn around in front of my house. I don’t know.

Maggie looked at cars as a means of meeting folks, and would run right up to them and jump on the door to greet the driver. She’d always want to attack the road truck, though. Clover was afraid of cars, and generally gave them a wide berth. Except for Randy’s car, which she would lay in wait for, and ambush as he drove by. And the road truck, her mortal enemy. She taught Rosa Parks everything she knew, so the little dog grew up hating the road trucks, too. Now Rosa has taught Darla, and my quiet household erupts in wild leaping and barking whenever one of them drives by.

Not knowing how Darla would react when encountering the truck on the road, I hurried to grab her collar and lead her to the side of the road. We waited together until it passed by, then continued on our way. The truck was grading the road yesterday. With the big blade down but at a slight angle, it was scraping and leveling the gravel road, one half at a time. As it went down one side of the road, it pushed a mound of dirt and leaves into the center. It would do the same thing coming back down the other side of the road. A final pass would “crown” the road, smoothing the dirt mounded in the center.

As we continued our walk, my Dad had joined us. It was the smell that brought him to mind. In the same way that freshly cut grass transports me back to my childhood summer Sundays, when Dad would mow the lawn, worked earth brings thoughts of the spring of the year, and Dad in the garden. Dragging the plow behind his small tractor, he worked the clay soil every year, trying to soften and enrich it with additions of grass clippings, manure and mounds of seaweed.

I think Dad always had a garden. When we were tiny, he worked up a small plot of ground, and taught us to space the seeds by measuring the distance with our hands. He was always thrilled to see things grow. He would compete with any of his gardening friends for the earliest radishes, hottest peppers, tallest corn or largest squash. He was proud to carry in a harvest of peas or beans or tomatoes.

Though Dad was a smart man with good stories and many abilities, the garden is what I associate most closely with him. When I leaned close to give him a hug, for most of his life Dad smelled a little of smoke and tobacco; there was usually a hint of beer or something stronger; always, Dad smelled like the earth. It makes me happy that – as the old woman I am and almost twenty years after my Dad has left this earth – something as simple as the smell of freshly turned soil can bring him right back.

Happy Heavenly Anniversary

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Mom and Dad

I love this photograph of my parents, on the dock of the Beaver Island ferry. It was taken when they were newly in love, not yet married, not yet parents. I didn’t know them, then.

I knew them as busy young parents, fussing and rushing to do the right things and raise good children. I remember Mom, circling the table to oversee projects from her “Rainy Day Cupboard” or, later, homework…with a baby on her hip, and supper on the stove. I remember Dad, on hands and knees, showing us how to put seeds in the furrow he’d made, and how to tamp down the earth around them. As he left for work, Dad always bent down to give Mom a kiss goodbye.

I knew them later, when keeping up with many more children was exhausting for Mom, and work at the factory frustrated Dad, and kept him away from home for long hours. In addition to their own family, there were neighborhood kids and cousins and friends filling the house; Mom mothered all of them. Dad’s little farm had grown to a half-acre of garden, plus pigs and chickens. It seemed like they didn’t have time for each other, but just kept going on.

I knew them when, with children grown and many years of tension and resentment gathered over the years, they barely spoke to each other. They each had plenty of complaints, though. Dad was sure Mom was too easy on David; he didn’t like her having a job, and felt it was an insult to his ability to support the family; he was sure, sometimes, that the only reason she read so many murder mysteries was to find a good way to do him in. Mom knew that Dad was too hard on David; he drank too much and against the doctor’s orders; he was always grouchy.

When Dad died, Mom’s last gesture was a loving pat on his hand and a kiss on his forehead. They had shared a long life. When Mom was dying, more than a decade later, she told me she’d been putting a letter together for Dad, letting him know that their troubles were not his fault alone, and that it was all water under the bridge anyway. How wonderful, I thought, to be so sure of heaven and the people that will be waiting there, that she wants to make amends beforehand!

Today, on their anniversary, I hope Mom and Dad have put all their troubles behind them, and are enjoying each other’s company.

Saturday, Almost Father’s Day

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I looked – once again – at a special DVD created from old home movies taken in the early fifties. My Grandpa Ted bought the movie camera because he had new grandchildren: my sister Brenda, me, my brother Teddy. Grandpa shot most of the movies himself, but sometimes Grandma Thelma had the camera, and sometimes my Mom did.

My Dad did not take pictures, and he didn’t much like being in them. Yet, there he is, grinning widely as he hoists a child to his shoulders, or bends to rub a dog’s ears. There he is, striding purposefully across the lawn carrying boxes that soon reveal a new swing set…and there is Dad, assembling it as we smile from the sidelines. He’s there in the summer, giving us rides in the wagon he built to pull behind the riding mower; in the winter he’s pulling us on a sled. At parties, he laughs as he fills glasses from a pitcher. In other scenes he talks to adults or tickles children, and often puts up an arm to hide his face from the camera.

My heart swells to see my father so young and vital, so involved with his family, and with so much life still ahead. Being one of the oldest, I remember that man. I also remember the man he became: frustrated, saddened  and disappointed – often – with how his life had turned out, sometimes a little bit bitter.

It’s hard to know, because all change is gradual, what happened, and when, to make the difference. Age alone, I’ve come to realize, alters the world. There comes a point where some dreams have to be set aside; no longer is there time or energy or ability enough to continue to believe that anything is possible. Aches and pains can be frustrating. Everything that could once be done without a second thought, but that now is a struggle, becomes a discouragement. Losses build.

If I could spend a day with my Dad, I’d choose a time when hard work was possible, and hope was still alive. Let it be in the years when he always leaned over to give Mom a long kiss before he left the house, and when they’d snuggle together on the couch to watch cowboy shows.Let him be old enough to have his many children all around him, young enough so that we were still at home. I’d like to give each of us children enough foresight…or insight…so that we’d  appreciate Dad more than we did at that time.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the value in a person or a thing until it’s long past. If I could spend a day with my Dad, I’d offer him fresh strawberries with cream. I’d tell him everything that’s happened in our family; I’d talk to him about Aunt Katie’s health, Bob’s sheep and chickens and the new pond. I’d do my best to let him know I love him, and appreciate all that he was, and all that he taught me. I know his value, now.

…And How It Went

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So, our first winter on Beaver Island was the winter of 1978-79. It was “the year of the blizzard” in Michigan. All over the state, records were being broken, cars were buried and folks were snowed in. I had no idea. I thought it was just Beaver Island…and I didn’t know it was unusual. Dad had warned me that winters on Beaver Island were hard!

We were at the Stone House that winter, four and a half miles from town, one mile from our nearest neighbors. Bonnie and Denny Wagner lived about a mile south of us, in a big farmhouse that they were in the process of remodeling. Their son, Craig, started the first grade with my daughter, Jen. They also had a daughter, Missy, just a bit younger than Katey, and a toddler, Johnny. We all became good friends, and often shared dinners together.

My husband played poker once a week with a group of islanders. He played pool at the Shamrock. I played in a pool tournament that winter, too. Though I am awful at the game, I managed somehow to take third place! Now and then, Terry and I would hire a babysitter, and go to the Shamrock for the evening. Sometimes we played backgammon.

Did you count, as we were going through the rooms of the Stone House? There were four wood stoves! The only one that sat idle was the old cook stove in the kitchen. We had to keep the garage warm enough to keep the water pipes from freezing. We tried to keep the house heated with the other two. Fuel oil was expensive; we didn’t want to use that furnace more than we had to. We quickly used up the wood that had been in the garage when we moved in. Then, our main focus became finding more.

We got slabs from the lumber mill, free for hauling away. They were dirty, and didn’t give out much heat, so we used them only in the garage. We bought wood from people that had extra; we cut and hauled wood when we could. We gathered windfall and dead wood. We used the furnace more than we’d planned. It was a constant struggle to keep warm.

In the middle of February, a massive storm came through. It dumped several inches of snow, took out electricity for long hours and blew down the chimney on the Zanella’s house down the road. It blew a big tree down, right over our driveway. My husband and I looked in awe out the dining room window, where the top branches now reached, and were rubbing against the glass. The tree had fallen right across our car, crushing it. We stared. We turned and looked at each other. We grinned.

“Firewood!!” we said, in unison.

It wasn’t all good. My husband and I separated that winter. He was drinking heavily; we were fighting too much; he was homesick. Work on the island had slowed with the cold weather. He had jobs to do downstate. We decided it would be best to take a break, and see if we could figure things out.

It made for a long, lonely winter. Hours at work were minimal during that slow season. Keeping the fires going was my main occupation. My daughters were now four and seven years old. They were  almost my only company, and they went to bed early. Don and Florence Burke stopped in once. Topper McDonough visited two or three times. He’d bring a six-pack of beer. I’d drink one while he had the rest, while he told me stories of when I was a toddler, when he visited my Dad in Lapeer. “You were a little monkey,” he’d tell me, “You could run full out along the back of the sofa! You nearly gave me a heart attack!” It was nice to hear tales of when I was young. For much of that winter, I felt very old.

In the springtime, my Dad came to the island with my sister, Brenda and her son, Alan, with the intent of helping me move back to the farmhouse. The suckers were running in the streams, and Dad taught the kids how to catch them in nets or with their bare hands. They’d keep going back to the creek for more, while Brenda and I stood in the wood shed at the farmhouse, cleaning the fish. The ones set aside for smoking didn’t need to be scaled, but plenty enough of them did. We started with heavy spoons. At one point, Jewell Gillespie stopped in with an electric scaler. It was certainly fast, but sent the scales flying everywhere. I got back to the Stone House at about three in the morning…stood under the shower trying to get the fish scales off my skin and out of my hair…then collapsed into bed. What a nightmare!

And yet, in hindsight, it became a good memory. The kids all certainly enjoyed it! It quickly became a tradition, among myself, my sisters and our children, to come to the island with Dad in the springtime, for a cold, wet and fish-smelling splashing good time!

By the first of May, we were back in the farmhouse for the summer.

 

Continuing…

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Cindy and Brenda, Christmas morning, in front of the partition to the unfinished new kitchen.

My father had built a sweet little house, which his ever-growing family had outgrown in no time.

Before I was three years old, Dad had started the first addition, which was a large, flat-roofed kitchen, off the left side of the house. I remember being allowed in there when he working. As long as we behaved, Brenda and I could slide across the big expanse of floor, smell the fresh-cut wood, stand ready to hand tools or nails to Dad when he needed them.

Eventually, it was finished. A wide archway led from the living room to the kitchen, where the dining space presented itself first. A picture window in the front gave a perfect view of Lake Nepessing on the other side of the road, and created an ideal spot to show off our Christmas tree at holiday time. Windows on the far side offered a view of the garden and field beside our house, the black shed, two little cottages (one of which my mother was born in), the parking lot and – across from that – the Lake Inn, with its sign in cursive pink neon letters.

The refrigerator was framed in, with enough space on top to house Mom’s radio, on the far wall just past the side windows. Cabinets went all the way to the ceiling. The counters were all downsized to suit my mother’s “four foot, seven and a half inch” height. The sink – very modern looking in stainless steel with chrome faucets – was placed on the diagonal, with windows on either wall meeting in the corner, creating a little nook where Mom kept plants and religious statues. Around the corner on the back wall, a shiny electric range top had a strong fan above it to pull out smoke and kitchen odors. Cupboards underneath held stacks of pans. More drawers below and cupboards above continued across the back. Finally, a built in oven with a giant drawer below it and a huge cupboard above finished off the kitchen space.

Every cupboard and drawer were made by hand, painted palest gray, set off by shiny red trim, and finished with bright chrome handles. The counter top was deep red linoleum. The floor was a checkered pattern in red, black and white. The light fixtures were modern circular fluorescent bulbs. There was a slight pause, before the light came on. When we flipped the switch, we’d look with bright eyes at each other and say, “wait for it…” just as our mother had when she first showed them to us.

A doorway led to what was the old kitchen. Now, it was a hallway to the back door, a utility room with the furnace and many shelves for canned goods, and a stairway leading up. The bedrooms, though, will have to wait…

Crazy Lady

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My friend, Red, refers to his wife as “Crazy Lady,” though she’s as sharp as a tack, and he knows it. It sounds like a compliment when he says it.

I’ve been called crazy more than a few times in my life; it wasn’t meant as flattery.

It doesn’t matter; I take it as a positive assessment.

A woman can be labelled crazy for showing strength, determination, stubbornness…or humor.

I’ll accept it.

Most times, I work a little too hard at being in agreement…or at least not flouting my contrary point of view.

I used to be more argumentative. I think we all go through that stage, when we are forming opinions based on our own knowledge and experience, rather than simply what we were taught or told.

It felt powerful, at the time, to challenge ideas that were comfortably in place, in order to assert my own.

It started in Catholic school, questioning  the nuns about rules of dress that determined the length of skirt or the type of sweater allowed. It continued into public high school, where my class staged a successful protest to allow girls to wear slacks. Into young adulthood, I took on bigger issues.

I marched for peace. I joined the National Organization for Women and marched for the Equal Rights Amendment. I wrote dozens of letters to Congressmen with grievances large and small. I boycotted sugar, then meat, then all Nestle products. I quit buying aerosol sprays. I stopped using herbicides.

My actions weren’t outrageous, but my bent toward convincing everyone else was. I was haughty in my righteousness, judgmental, argumentative and crazy in my pursuit of changing minds. Not enough that I choose my own way, it seemed important that I convince others that any other way was wrong.

I shudder to think of that self-righteous loud-mouth now.

It was my wise Aunt Katie that showed me a different way.

My Dad was here on Beaver Island for a visit, and we were arguing. There was no end in sight. I was sure I was being as generous as possible, allowing for his age, and different life experience while holding to my principles. He was sure that I was wrong, and putting on airs to boot. We’d sit down to dinner; something would be said – maybe just a comment on the news from the little TV – and Dad would say, in his most conciliatory voice, inviting my agreement, “See, and you think you’re so gol-damned smart…” and we’d be off again, on our never-ending debate over whatever nonsensical, minor issue seemed so important at the time.

“I know he’s stubborn,” Aunt Katie said, “I grew up with him…and three other brothers.”

“Do you want to know how to win an argument?” she asked.

Did I?! “Yes!”

This is what she told me:

Let him talk. Let him put out his entire argument. Don’t interrupt. Don’t shake your head or even so much as raise an eyebrow. Listen. Let him finish. Lift your arms and let them fall. Bow your head slightly. Look him in the eye. Without a hint of sarcasm, say, “You are absolutely right.”

“But, Aunt Katie, he’s not!”

You will never get him to admit he’s not right. You could argue with him for the rest of your life, he’s not going to be wrong. Even if you express doubt, even if you say “You might have a point,” or “You could be right,” he’ll keep right on arguing. Do what I said, and the argument is over. Then go on and think how you want to anyway. He doesn’t need to know. That’s how I got along with four brothers!

Well, it worked! And it stands to this day as some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

Crazy smart!