Life is Good, Short & Sweet. And it’s truly the ordinary things that make it extraordinary.
Jackie Gleason always made him toss his head back and give a good belly laugh. Saturday night TV always meant Lawrence Welk, with Dad’s eyes twinkling and fingers tapping to the music. Thursdays he and I watched “Combat” together. Friday evenings meant “Rawhide.” (I can still sing the theme song, and know all the words.) “Gunsmoke” with Sheriff Matt Dillon was a big favorite of his – and so mine, too. He loved John Wayne, “Archie Bunker“, and Jack Daniels. He loved Big Band music, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America,” the voice of any Irish tenor, and could sing “An Irish Lullabye” better than anyone I’ve ever known – best of all, when he’d had just the right amount of that Jack Daniels.
He loved babies and kids, and encouraged me to swim and roller & ice skate: “the best exercise there is.” He taught me to ride my bike on the cool sidewalks under tall, tall shade trees, fly a kite in a big field at the top of a hill on a sunny & breezy spring day, feed orphaned baby bunnies with a doll baby bottle of milk, and drive a car with a clutch – I think that with his eyes closed. His hunting jacket rested on the back of a chair in the dining room with his gun propped up beside it all through the autumn hunting season, and he taught me how to safely pick up that gun, point it to the floor, and check to be sure it was not loaded.
When I was little – probably between 4 and 6 – each summer on an August night, he and I would go to the Street Fair together on an evening while my mother was on an outing with her ladies’ church group. He would let me choose whatever I wanted to wear, and if I picked my best dress, would then don a white shirt & tie to match me. He would bend down on one knee to brush my hair, smile and ask if I felt as pretty as I was. How happy I was, how proud to hold his hand as we walked together on the wide small-town sidewalks under the tall shade trees down the street to the fair! He stood patiently, always smiling, as I rode the kiddie roller coaster, and before we started for home, always bought me a big pink cotton candy. Best of all – and we saved it for last, just before the cotton candy – we rode the ferris wheel together – and I have never stopped loving ferris wheel rides. Stopped up at the top in the dark night, we would look out over the little town and the twinkling lights of the fair, and look at each other and smile.
I was the youngest — and the luckiest — of five, when it came to being his child. The others were older; I was what my mother called “a change of life baby.” I think to my Dad I was “a bonus.” I was somewhere between “the kids” and “the grandchildren.” It was a pretty good spot to be in. It was perfect for me.
We went together to choose a Christmas tree, just the two of us, & stood on a high hillside, looking out over a winter wonderland of snow-tipped evergreens with our hometown off in the distance, and he said “Is there anything more beautiful?!” He was great about savoring a view, a moment. He saw the extraordinary in the ordinary. In the summertime, he took me on long, slow car rides on narrow back roads through the country to the little village where he’d lived as a child, and told me stories of his grandfather and his mother, and what it was like to be a small boy in the 19-teens there.
He’d been orphaned at 8, lost his beloved grandfather that same year, and was separated from the brother he loved so much at the same time; the siblings were split up, and he went to live with his oldest sister, who was just 18. Their mother had died from the Flu Epidemic, their father killed in a tragic train accident just four months after, and his grandfather passed away five months after that. Just a few years later, an older brother died from WWI injuries. Life hadn’t been easy for this little boy.
Daddy reminisced about what went on in his mother’s kitchen, and down the road in the village, and how he loved to visit the shops of the local craftsmen. He talked of how it felt, at 8, to have his brother, 13, move to an aunt and uncle’s house where he could not go because he wasn’t big enough to help work on the farm. He told me what was said to him as the extended family – with his parents gone — explained his grandfather had been standing at the fireplace mantle reading the newspaper when he had a heart attack and died in December, 1919.
He told me about working as a pin boy in a bowling alley – hopping up on a small shelf, feet dangling above the pins, then jumping down to reset them. Despite the hardships, he laughed about that job & the friends he’d shared it with, and found fun in life.
He dropped out of school after eighth grade to work, but told me over and over that anyone who wanted an education could get one. He lost an excellent white-collar job at just 18 in The Great Depression, worked for the WPA, grew vegetables, raised chickens, hunted rabbit & deer, hoed corn when he needed the pennies to put food on the table, and later became an apprenticed machinist. He carried a black lunch bucket – the kind shaped like a mini-barn, with his initials scratched on the end. How I wish I had that now! It’s the little things… He took great pride in his work, and I’m lucky to have some of the books he used in it; the complex math amazes me – this man finished only eighth grade. I have some of his pipes, too – and will never clean out the tobacco, because its scent brings him back so easily. He always smelled of Old Spice after-shave and Lifebuoy soap, but the scent of burnt Half & Half tobacco is my favorite. Each night promptly at ten, he would wind the chiming clock (and I cherish it now), clean out and refill the bowl of his pipe with fresh tobacco, and go to bed.
He grew huge vegetable gardens, and talked about all the lessons learned from his grandfather. He loved flowers – blue Morning Glories, lavender widows’ tears, hollyhocks. He faithfully planted red and, sometimes some white, geraniums on his parents’ and his oldest brother’s grave each year by Memorial Day, and each summer Sunday evening – promptly at 7 pm – we would set out on a drive to the country to water them.
We shared many things; we were kindred spirits. I looked like his mother; he liked that – and I liked that he liked that. We both loved dogs, winter, Christmas, & music, and for some reason, both always wanted to travel to Maine. He never got there; I did once, and thought of him as I stood on that rocky beach. He loved onions and horseradish, and so do I. He loved natural remedies, herbal mixtures, trees and nature and fields of corn… and so do I. We both loved history, especially the Civil War era. Perhaps he instilled that in me – the grandfather he’d adored served in the Union Army and was injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
He and I danced at my sister’s wedding – neither one of us really knowing how, but just boogey-ing away, feet flying, and laughing together to the music of a live band playing a polka.
My Dad had two distinctive looks for me. One was a smile and a wink that melted my heart – and I can see it still. The other was a silent “You’re not really going to do that, now are you?!” Both worked wonders.
The last time I saw him at home, he held & smiled down at our newborn daughter – his youngest grandchild – and played with our toddler son. When we left that day, he wasn’t standing on the front porch to wave “goodbye” as he always had before. Somehow, looking out the rear window to wave & not seeing him there, I knew: it would be the last time I’d see him at home. There was one more visit, at the hospital, just about six weeks later, but he couldn’t speak. I said “I love you, Daddy.” He crinkled up his eyes with a smile and gave a familiar little cockeyed nod of his head.
He would be 101 now, if he were still here. He’s been gone 26 years. I still miss him, every day. I still love him, and I still know that he loves me.
His own childhood had been taken away from him, but he made sure I had mine.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. You gave me all that mattered.