HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD
“You’d better get that timing belt changed. If that goes, nothing will work.”
And so goes the memory of one of the most important things my dad ever taught me as a young, independent woman. I don’t think I ever got that timing belt changed on my car, but I traded it off soon thereafter, so it didn’t matter.
Turns out that in life, just like with cars, it is indeed all about timing. It is what makes things work out the way they do. The lesson went much deeper than a simple rubber automotive belt.
Dad was born in 1934 via Cesarean-section. In that era, it was an inexact science, and his mother wasn’t able to have more children. She died when he was eight. He told us that the doctors told his dad it was cancer, but she was never well again after his difficult birth. After she died, he was raised by his dad and his dad’s two sisters–Madeline and Marie, who, because they played the parts, were like our grandmothers. They were never married, and Dad was like their only collective child. They were a gift to him, and I’m sure he was to them, too. His dad never remarried.
Life as an only child was very lonely, Dad said. He knew he wanted a big family, and got one: we were their Magnificent Seven, they said.
One of the earliest pictures we have of Dad; it’s condition tells a story, too.
Dad and Grandpa in the wheat field. Swheat boy.
Dad–left, with childhood friends.
And, with his best friend.
Grandpa and Madeline playing Monopoly with Dad.
Grandpa, Dad, Madeline and Marie.
Dad had a brilliant mechanical mind, but more than that, he was wise beyond what he could feasibly put to work. He knew about all things automotive and mechanical, and used this brilliance on his farm machinery and vehicles.
As an only child, however, the family farm was his destiny, no questions asked. He was a steward of that family legacy until he turned 65, at which he time he promptly handed the reins over to two of my brothers. One of them still farms it, living on the original homestead. The house that built me, the farmhouse that was in our family for four generations, was torn down last fall. Mold overcame it, and it was time for a new creation.
Dad and Mom moved into Osborne in 2000, the small town of about 1,300 people, the town where all three of us girls, and two of our brothers were born. They lived there until they died, both of them immensely enjoying the “city” life, as well as the social connections they made.
Dad was a local conversational legend. He was known far and wide as a gifted talker, and could strike up a conversation with just about anyone. It was reported that when he would frequent the small hospital there to visit someone he knew, as well as the nursing home, he made rounds as the self-appointed visitor extraordinaire, making new friends with patients/residents he didn’t yet know . I made my own rounds to that nursing home in the year before they died, visiting them every time I came to town. I treasure that opportunity to have seen them perhaps 15-or-20 times in their last year. I left a “really good” hospital job to travel the uncertain nursing home circuit as a speech therapist, deciding—against all reason—to do so exactly a year before they died.
I know now, in crystal-clear hindsight, why I was supposed to listen to that little voice that, for no apparent reason, nagged me to go. I would have gravely regretted it if I hadn’t.
Not long after they died, I was called there to see a new patient, an older gentleman who was having problems swallowing. He was cantankerous; I was warned. He wanted nothing to do with me when I arrived and introduced myself. I knew that my dad had recently befriended him, so I pulled that strategy out of my arsenal. I told him who my dad was, and he softened immediately.
“He was your dad? Why sure! You just come back to see me anytime!”
Dad’s reputation preceded and succeeded him, always in a good way.
Suzanne, when asked to recall something he had said that stuck with her, came up with this generalization, an exchange that was safe to make between a father and his adult daughter:
Suzanne: “Every time you tell me something that I might question or doubt or might not like, it turns out you are right every time, and it’s really starting to piss me off!”
Dad laughed, knowing his opinion was not always the most popular. He was a man of integrity and honesty, always calling a spade a spade, whether you liked it or not—even if you were his daughter.
Mom loved to write; I’ll claim that trait in myself from her. Dad was an ardent reader, and I will credit him for my love of reading. He loved to learn, and much like me, he read mostly factual and informational reading, rarely—if ever—works of fiction. He read biographies, and so do I. I really didn’t want to know that much about Lee Iacocca, but after listening to Dad talk about his autobiography, I decided to read it, and I’m so glad I did. Likewise, I learned–from the book he had just finished reading—the multiple theories surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I will never look at just one side of that historical event ever again.
Very simply, Dad was a brilliant man who educated himself further by reading. He knew at least a little bit-if not a lot–about everything.
And, like Dad, I am an expert sleeper. At least, I try harder than anyone else in my family, and for better or worse, it is something I am recognized for among my siblings, as well as my own family.
Gail frequently speaks of Dad’s greeting upon your arrival to his home: “Sit down, stay awhile.” And when you did, you were in for an informative and informational conversation, for as long as you were able to stay. He always had time to talk.
Dad, while his guest sat down and stayed awhile.
On our way to my future husband’s first meeting with my father, I warned him that he would likely talk his leg off. He indeed did, but Mark loved it; loved him. We all did. I don’t know if Dad had even a single enemy, but if he did, it was likely because the other guy didn’t like his words of truth.
Dad would have been 84 years old this Friday, March 30th. I found the following piece I wrote four years ago on his birthday. I hadn’t read it for a few years, and I was struck by how much stronger I have become, how time continues to heal.
I will close with that, but not before I say this: If you still have your own father, pay him a visit if you can. Sit down and stay awhile, even if what he has to say pisses you off. There will come a day when you will not regret it.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD
My dad was a Kansas wheat farmer. As I type, I am facing a bookshelf with a framed picture of him on his International Harvester “H” tractor, an antique, working tractor that was one of his favorites.
Today, March 30th, 2014, would have been his 80th birthday. I wonder, especially today, what he would be like if he were still with us. He had struggled with heart problems in the past, but always—sometimes miraculously—pulled through. I want to believe he would have still been going strong. In light of that thought, I am celebrating his life today. In honor of his wheat farmer heritage, I am grinding wheat. Wheat that was planted, grown and harvested by my brother John on the farm my dad was the steward of before my brother took over. My dad was the third generation of family farmers; John is the fourth. John’s two sons show promise to be the fifth.
Sometime around 1995, Dad purchased a small wheat grinder in hopes of grinding all the flour we would ever need so as not to ever have to purchase it again. For a while, he kept us all supplied. I have fond memories of him at the kitchen table with this new grinder, showing off its features and ability to turn his personally harvested fruit of the earth into a fine powder that was the foundation of so many things we ate. For a while. Then, the new wore off, and he didn’t grind as much, as often. Then, the grinder got put away.
I became interested in grinding my own flour somewhere down the road, and I borrowed it from him. He and Mom retired as active farmers in 2000, and moved into a small town nearby, so John was now providing the wheat. I took the grinder to my home on a long-term loan. It has been here since.
Every year when I make my trip to the farm to partake of harvest, I bring back several gallon buckets of wheat to be ground. Today, after looking yet again at the three remaining buckets on the shelf in my garage, I decided it was time to grind. It was a warm and windy spring Sunday afternoon, so the dust and mess would blow away. I set it up and plugged it in on the patio, and ground away. Before the grinding began, I took the large sifter that came with the grinder and I separated the wheat from the chaff. I realized the metaphor fits my life now, as I pride myself on getting better at sorting the unimportant from the important things in my life. I even drank a wheat beer as I ground it, just for good measure. I sent up a happy birthday to my dad as I did. It felt right.
On my daily run this morning, I had a great idea, like I do so many mornings when I run. My husband, our teenage boys and I would celebrate Dad’s birthday by having brunch at IHOP. So we did.
After my run and before we left, I succumbed to the guilt from not dusting my furniture and shelves for far too long, and I broke out the dust rag. I dusted the bookshelves where Dad’s picture on the tractor sat. As I moved past it—I don’t know how I did it—I knocked it off. I didn’t think I was very close, but it fell to the floor. I sat down next to it and picked it up gently and sorrowfully as if it were a living thing that had I had unintentionally inflicted injury upon. I cradled it, making sure the glass or frame wasn’t broken. It wasn’t. I felt myself become awash with tears. I felt myself entering the minefield.
In the past six years (and twenty-six days), I have frequently found myself in this minefield, not realizing it as I entered. Once in the minefield, I was typically stuck there all day, and any false move could bring another detonation. I never knew which way to step, never knew where the mines might be hiding.
Today, however, I fought back. I wasn’t willing to spend Dad’s birthday in the minefield. I made a conscious decision to back-step, to find a way out before entering any further. So I did. And, as of 5:11 pm, I haven’t found myself back in. I am winning.
My sister-in-law Lara—John’s wife—stopped by to see me on her way through town today. I needed her visit, as she always picks me up and encourages me as a writer. I needed her today more than ever. I showed her how I grind their wheat with Dad’s grinder. She seemed impressed, and she’s not able to fake being impressed, so I know she was. She, as the vintage picture on her kitchen wall says, is a “Nice, Swheat Girl.” I like the play on words/letters, being the word nerd that I am. For so many small graces like this one, I thank her. For many other graces from my siblings and their families, I thank them as well. I am blessed.
I choose to focus on these gifts that I have been given all throughout my life, not what I have lost. I chose to back out of the minefield today, I’d had enough. I celebrated my father today with gestures and positive actions, instead of wallowing in any residual sadness. It is there, but, again, not today. I can feel him smiling down upon me, and I will focus on this.
Happy Birthday Dad.
Special thanks to Lara for bequeathing me the “Swheat Girl” picture when they moved into their new house. And to Gail, who is crafting a frame for it.
Thanks, too, to another sister-in-law Joni, who enlarged and reproduced the picture of Dad on the tractor, and then shared it. It is a treasure.
Thank you for your support and readership. I wish you a blessed Easter next Sunday; there will be no post then as I will be enjoying the holiday next weekend.