I have been alive for 51 Father’s Days. There were 25 during my lifetime when my father was living. There have been 25 since he died in 1989. Then there is that one in 1989, not quite two months after I married the man who was to become the father to my own children, he woke in the morning but did not go to bed that night. I had given him his Father’s Day gift (a Korean War Veterans t-shirt) earlier in the week and was scheduled to visit him on that Monday. When I dropped him and my mother at the house I’d been raised in on the previous Friday, after he’d had a brief hospital stay, he told me “If you behave yourself, I’ll take you to lunch on Monday.” Those may seem like funny words coming from a grown man to his adult daughter but our relationship had always been filled with funny exchanges.
Where my relationship with my mother had been a somewhat fragile thing throughout my growing up, my relationship with my dad was a sturdy and reliable one. I knew I could depend on him and he knew that I was in his corner. The thing that both of my parents and I had in common is that all three of us were the youngest in our families. For each of us it seems to me that being the youngest kept us perpetually immature, with my mother this manifested itself in a certain fear and anxiety, with my father and I it was more of a desire to find the humor in everything or the idea that any attention was good attention. My mother and I both had two older brothers, with very similar age differences. My father had an older brother who was smart, calm and during his teens went to bed for a year with Rheumatic Fever. My father was bright, a fidgeting bundle of energy who by comparison was a vision of health; a gymnast who loved to dance, who played the drums and sailed the waters of Minnesota lakes in the summers and their ice in the winters. While his brother was sick my dad moved upstairs in the family duplex where his grandmother and aunt tried to fatten the thin athlete up with their baking and cooking.
My uncle sustained heart damage during his year of being bedridden and later died during open heart surgery while in his forties. Their mother was a practicing Christian Scientist, which meant that neither of her sons received the necessary care of a doctor during their youth. I was in the fifth grade when my father suffered his first heart attack and it was determined that he had likely sustained some valve damage from illness as well and that the well-meaning attempts to fatten him up by his aunt and grandmother had perhaps not had the intended health benefits they had hoped. Despite diet and exercise modifications, surgical procedures, regular doctor’s visits and numerous medications he aged dramatically over the years and eventually died at age 57 from congestive heart failure and complications from Emphysema which was only discovered via his autopsy, his enlarged heart having prevented reliable x-rays.
It might seem that such a tragic story would be intended to convey sadness and a sense of loss but oddly, for a man that we were aware was sick for over half of my life (at the time he died) I have mostly good memories of him. My childhood friends, neighborhood kids and my cousins all loved him because he was funny and genuinely engaged in their interests.
When I was little I did the grocery shopping with him on Saturday mornings. I have fond memories of going with him to Zayre’s Shopper City, a grocery store, pet store, pharmacy, that sold records, huge twist cones and popcorn. You could get a haircut, have your taxes done as well, purchase toys or buy cheap and low quality clothing and jewelry. Going there with Dad was an adventure! Typically in the dog food aisle my father would say “It’s your brother’s birthday this week, so I’ll pick up some canned food as a treat.” after catching the attention of other shoppers he would then ask “What dry food do you want?” then in my best eye-lash-batting five-year-old Tony Award eligible performance I would respond “Can we get something that makes gravy when you add water to it?” We would relive our performance in the car on the ride home, recounting the mortified reaction of other shoppers.
When I moved to college, it was not home cooking and free laundry that I missed, it was my dad. Being gone for months at a time made his failing health more noticeable but despite his frailness his humor never wavered. Even when hospitalized he was a favorite among nurses for his quick whit and charming ways. My father shared things with children that many of our friends parents would not have. We knew that throughout much of school he spent his homeroom in the principals office. We knew that he orchestrated sneaking beer into the band room in high school and that when caught by the teacher they were given a lecture regarding offering a man a drink when he comes into a room, followed by a warning not to do it again. We know that when moving cars as a job while a teenager that he pulled down part of a garage wall at Knoll’s Ford in Minneapolis. As a youngster on his way home from school he spotted his grandmother returning from getting her dentures and shared how he shouted across the street “Granny, how are your new choppers?” When he struggled in a science class he built a still in his folks basement and took the results of his experiment to school for the teacher, who gave him a passing grade. When I came across an 8×10 photo of a man bent over in front of a fridge that was full of bottles stacked on their sides and the bows of his horn rimmed glasses filled with “church keys” (bottle openers) he told the story of he and a half dozen high school classmates who rented a house for $5 each per month and letting an exchange student from the University of Minnesota (who worked nights on campus) live there for free if he cleaned up after their frequent parties. He appreciated the fact that I was his offspring that had a bit of the mischief in me.
My father had open heart surgery the summer after my sophomore year of college, a surgery he delayed until my brother’s wedding was over that spring. His surgery consisted of a valve replacement and the relocating of some veins in his leg to repair his heart. On a nearly 100 degree day late that summer I was with him on the rare occasion that he wore shorts in public. We were together at the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis, a place where he had stopped after high school some afternoons to see if whatever jazz band was playing later would let a kid sit in during their warm-ups. A man seated at the bar commented on the nasty looking scar that began near my Dad’s knee and disappeared into his shorts. Dad responded by tugging at the neckline of his T-shirt to reveal the top of his incision on his chest and simply said “It doesn’t end ’til here.” To which I added “Those sex changes are hell. Aren’t they Mom?” It was 1983 and the man simply picked up his drink and moved to a booth without saying a word.
When I shattered my elbow in a freak accident shortly after graduating from college, it was my dad that took me to get my hair cut just an inch longer than his own. Then we went to find me skirts with elastic waists. When I came to after surgery and was in so much pain, it was seeing the worry on my father’s face that made me tell the nurse “please make him leave”. He returned to the hospital later that night and tucked in my favorite childhood stuffed animal (Joyce, who ironically still had a small bandage on her right elbow from playing with her when I was little). He later told me that he had dug through all of my packed boxes to locate her because it was the only thing he could think of that might bring me comfort. Six months later, alone in Missouri and headed back for elbow surgery I took Joyce along.
Less than three years later, shortly after Christmas, my mother and I were taking a bus home from downtown after spending the day choosing my wedding dress. It was dusk and we were seated near the rear when my dad got on coming home from work and sat in the “peanut seats” (how he referred to the seats that faced each other near the front of the bus). He looked much older than he was and I whispered to my mom that I was going to go sit by him. A “normal” young woman would approach and greet their father and tell them about their day picking out a wedding dress. That would have been too ordinary for us. So I approached and said “Excuse me but is this seat taken?” he removed his work bag from the seat beside him and offered me that space. We acted as if we had never met and made casual conversation, providing improvisational theater right there on a bus. When we rounded the curve near St. John’s church on Sheridan Avenue he boldly stated “I don’t mean to be too forward but I’ll be getting off shortly, would you be interested in joining me for dinner this evening?” I responded with a “Why certainly.” A few blocks later my father and I got off the front exit of the bus, joined hands and began walking away. My mother got out the rear door and we stopped for her to join us once we knew the bus was safely out of sight up Upton Avenue. She said that people had actually gotten up and crossed the bus to look out the window to see if what they witnessed was real. Did an old man just pick up a 25 year old on the bus?
Another time I will document some of the truly valuable life lessens I gained from him, his stubborn nature, his cleverness and how incredibly bright he was. Each of his children got some of his skills and abilities, none of us got them all. We love music because of him and are each creative in our own ways. Today however, I am content with focusing on his unique humor and how it has inspired my own bizarre interactions with his two oldest grandchildren. I will leave you with what I have recently recalled as a shining example of his presence in our lives, despite his absence.
A number of years ago when my daughter was perhaps 11 and my son about 9 I took them to the eye doctor where all three of us had appointments. I was handed three clipboards to complete and we went to a seating area around a coffee table where other patients were waiting. I handed Betsy and Eddie their clipboards so they could complete their own forms. Since both of my children go by nicknames, they asked almost simultaneously “Do I put Edward?” and “Should I use Elizabeth?” to which I responded “Yes, the man from the witness protection program said that those are your names now.” We knew that other patients pretended to read, while looking at us over their magazines and glancing at one and other to confirm that what they had heard was accurate. Both kids performed flawlessly and we never laughed about it until in the car on the way home.
Though none of his grandchildren ever had the opportunity to meet him, just like with me and my brothers, it is evident that his legacy lives on in varying ways in each of them; musicians, performers, nature lovers, sailors, dancers, fancy dressers, nonconformists, hyper, intelligent, inventive, creative and the valuable trait of a quirky sense of humor. I know I would miss him a lot more, if it were not for the fact that he makes himself present so frequently!