Thursday, November 5, 2009


originally posted 11/5/04:
How do you sum up half of your gene pool?

This is the 10th anniversary of my dad’s last, fatal heart attack --ten years that began by being overshadowed by the death of his daughter two weeks later. Later, two of my siblings would tell me, separately, that she was his favorite.

Dad didn’t have a fun life, or an easy one. Born in November 1919 on a homestead claim in western Colorado, he was the only son in a family desperately trying to get ahead. His father was so poor that he couldn’t even work on his own claim: he farmed at home when he could, but mostly for neighbors. What drove them off their (unproven) claim was a series of horrifying experiences:

  • A pitchfork falling off a hay truck pierced my grandfather’s neck. Grandma had to pull it out. The tines missed everything important. No doctors. He survived.
  • Rattlesnakes loved the root cellar. One nearly bit Dad, but Grandma cut off its head with a hatchet before it got to him.
  • One of dad’s sisters died on the Western Slope of scarlet fever. No doctors. She probably would not have died if they’d lived in town. There was no money for a marker for her grave; it has daffodils growing over it now, 84 years later.
  • The final straw was financial: Grandpa spent the whole summer of 1922 (?) working for a farmer who, at the end of the season, had no money to pay him.
Life in suburban Denver was much easier and safer. They got their feet back under them.

Until the Depression hit.

The streetcar ran down the street in front of their house, but it cost a nickel, which were scarce. But every summer and fall weekend day, Dad would load up his wagon with garden produce from their big yard and walk the two miles to the sanatorium (now the hospital) to sell it. He’d then walk home, refill the wagon and return, earning a couple of dollars each week to help support his family.

As a child, Dad watched his dad build houses, and was often drafted to help in any way he could. By age 16, he was eager to design and build his first house, from basement to roof. I think he sold it for $3,000, in 1936. It is still standing, directly across from where the high school is now. I could see it from my English classrooms.

The one thing that reminds me the most of my dad was his hearing aid. That was the basis of humor, annoyance, subterfuge, and intentional misunderstanding for my entire childhood. It was easy to talk about Dad, in his presence, if we pitched our voices just right. Or at least we thought we were putting things past him; now, I wonder how much he just chose to ignore.

Here’s an example of how I internalized his "disability" (although he never, ever referred to it that way): When I was quite young, while riding across town with him, I was proudly showing off my new knowledge of letters by spelling every traffic sign we passed. All parents recognize the inherent tediousness of this activity. We passed one yellow sign which I spelled out: D. I. P.
Dad said, “Pip?”
“No, Dad,” I earnestly responded. “D-i-p.”
“Mip? What does that mean?”
“Dad! D.i.p. DIP!”
“Oh, zip, okay.”
“No! DAD!! DIP!!”
I felt as if that went on for miles, but later I realized that it was only about 2 blocks. I remember getting more and more frustrated because he couldn’t hear me. In hindsight I know he was probably winding me up, and trying to get me to stop spelling the signs, but at the time I was sure it was his hearing aid batteries going out.

That was one of the two types of "jokes" my dad could do. He was hopeless at telling actual jokes or funny stories; he’d always start laughing. However, he loved listening to them, especially puns, and he’d always follow his attempts at them with "the lowest form of humor" and a roll of his eyes at Mom’s rapidly retreating back. She hated them. My brother would perform Bill Cosby and (clean) George Carlin routines at the dinner table to make me shoot food out of my nose and to watch Dad chortle helplessly and endlessly.

He loved a good story. He would cry with laughter at my brother’s firehouse hazing stories, and in trying to retell them would have to stop, in hysterics, after two or three sentences.

Dad’s job, from my little girl perspective, was to build things. He built houses, office buildings, anything really--even mortuaries. My older sisters and brother spent the night with him and Mom in a mortuary he built in Hobbs, New Mexico. They all survived. Ghost stories never scared me because of that family tale. Another time he designed and built a mortuary in a cemetery for which he was partially paid with four burial plots. His parents are in two of them. My mom’s name and birth date are on the stone next to his name and dates in their plot.

Mostly, though, Dad built and rehabbed houses. He built the house we all grew up in--there is only one other house anything like ours in the world. When I was on the way, he added a bedroom above the single-car garage. It is a wonderful room: about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, with four windows and a giant closet. I coveted that room. Still do. He also built about 200 other houses over the years, most of which are still around. He made a scrapbook the last few years of his life, driving all over Colorado taking pictures of whatever buildings and houses were still extant. It's a treasure.

Since Dad was always building things, I got to "help" him by handing him nails, retrieving forgotten tools, bringing him something to drink.... Usually it was pretty boring, but he would sometimes get to talking, and that’s what kept me coming back to help. He never yelled at me, like Mom tended to do. When he got mad because things weren’t working for him, that’s when I’d disappear.

Church and God were the foundations of Dad’s life. I can’t think about him without thinking about his earnest desire to live the life God had given him. He had, by the time I became aware, an easy, friendly relationship with his Creator. He also had an easy way of discussing "God stuff" in the sense that he never backed away from telling us how angry he was with God when things went badly: his business failures, my sister Ellen’s near-death, etc. He always tried to bring Sunday’s sermon home, asking how it applied to my life. His favorite biblical person was David, because he messed up so much but God still favored him. I grew up really almost thinking that Jesus was a member of the family, one that lived a long way away and was, apparently, camera-shy.

Speaking of cameras, every Easter, Dad took a picture of The Kids in the yard wearing our new finery. We have over 35 years of these photos, on slides: first with just two girls, then with four kids, then back to two, and finally just me. We’d often come close to freezing waiting for him to adjust the camera, with mutters of "come ON, Dad, hurry up!" the constant commentary behind them. I love this series of pictures.

Another perfect memory of my dad from young childhood is reading. We--well, I--would pile two couch pillows just so on the floor by the couch for him to lean on. One time I was so eager to read that I brought all the pillows I could carry into the kitchen in a stack, six or so, to let him know I was ready: "Too many!" he said with a smile as he dried the dishes.

He would lie on the floor, and I would sit on the couch behind him with all of Mom’s bobby pins, the box of barrettes and hairclips, and his comb. While he read, I would "play with his hair." He used VO5 in his hair, which meant it was sticky enough to stay put when I created a new style. He then would admire it in the always-cracked hand mirror from the bathroom I kept handy. By the time I came along his hair was white and his forehead had gotten pretty high. But he rarely complained, and was pleased to announce as he aged that the reason his hair was so thin was because of our messing with it.
[ASIDE: I tried this a few times with my son. The last time we had a reading session of the beautician variety, he got my comb so badly tangled in my hair I had to have the comb cut out of my hair with wire cutters! Some things just don‘t translate as well as you‘d think.]
Dad had his first heart attack in 1967, just after his dad died and his business went into bankruptcy. I was 3 or 4. During his recovery, my brother ran over his foot with a lawn mower, and Ellen was in dire health as well, though improving. It was a very bad time, although I certainly wasn’t aware of all of it. Hospitals were regular parts of my preschool years.

Dad had his second heart attack in 1981. Mom was overseas: that sister had just had a baby. Dad and I were spending quality time together without Mom. The school secretary called me out of a college-planning meeting with my counselor to drive me to the hospital. This same woman had, 40 years previously, introduced my parents. Small town?

He ended up having triple-bypass surgery, after Mom returned home about a week later. I ended up losing my part-time job--at the library--at the same time all this was going on. Thank goodness my brother was an EMT and could figure out what was going on when Dad reacted badly to the meds he was on.... Dad was back at work just a few weeks after the surgery.

Dad’s third heart attack happened in 1987, in Milwaukee while visiting my sister and me (and our families) who were both living there at the time. He had another bypass during which there were intimations that this surgery, being an emergency, was much trickier than the last one. We met lots of interesting people in the waiting room. The one thing I remember the most vividly is his disgust, upon finally being moved out of ICU, that the first meal was jello. Oh, how he hated jello! A gift from his years in the Army Air Corps, where, according to his stories, he was fed nothing but rice and greasy lamb, and jello.

I think everyone in the family, including Dad, felt from that point forward he was truly on borrowed time. He made a point of telling each of us "important stuff:" memories from his childhood and early adulthood, exactly how he wanted to be remembered at his funeral, where the money and important documents were, and how he’d like us to live our lives to honor him. It was all very calm and relaxed, not maudlin or terrifying. He knew his time was short and he wanted to live it the best he could.

He knew Mom wouldn’t be able to handle the house by herself, so he found a nice retirement building for them to move into, which they did on November 1, 1994, moving out of the house in which they‘d lived for nearly 50 years. On the 5th, Dad celebrated his 75th birthday. He went to church for the last time the morning of the 19th--his grandson Don’s (the favorite daughter's favorite son's) 19th birthday--walking across the street from the hospital where he’d spent the night having some tests. He had to do his prepared talk at church that morning; it was about the thankfulness he felt for his family. By that time, he knew his favorite daughter was dying. His heart spasmed that evening in the shower. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Ellen was too sick to travel to his funeral on the following Saturday, but the rest of his kids were there.

1 thing(s) to say:

molly said...

This is beautiful and beautifully written. It breaks my heart in places. Thank you.

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