Archive for June, 2009

Remembering Dad

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I’ve been a little slowed down last week and this week due to a number of reasons, one being Fathers day coming up soon.

Dad passed away three years ago this coming September. It was a sudden accident that ended his life. He held on in a coma long enough that many many people could come to his bedside to say goodbye. I really wasn’t one of those people, thinking for weeks that he would wake up. But that wasn’t to be and he passed quietly in the hands of the caring staff from Rainbow Hospice.

Dad’s wake was impressive, a steady stream of people for six hours coming to say good bye. Some privately came and went, others visited with us and the extended family. I was so impressed, people Dad helped decades earlier, but hadn’t kept up with came to thank him for helping them become electrical apprentices, the person Dad bought cars and trucks from came from miles away because he had been someone they could trust to keep his word. High school friends from St. Georges came by, friends…and adversaries from the local political scene came by. Golf and bowling friends who only saw Dad for a day every other week came by too. i was impressed that day, and more impressed today at how many people felt it important to take the afternoon to say goodbye.

I remember feeling more responsible after Dad passed. To help Mom, to somehow be at the leading edge of the family, something it turns out I’ve not been able to effectively do. Even though years pass, it gets harder somehow to be back, to sit in his chair, fish in his boat, I don’t feel ready.

Anyway, this time of year, more-so than Sept. when he passed away, I think about Dad. Typically I’d have driven across the country from Virginia to meet him in Chicago, then drive to the lake cabin in Minnesota, a round trip that would take up one full oil change increment in the car.

It was always hard to leave my own family to go and be with Dad and Mom for a day or so, then with Dad for a week or more at the lake. On the way we’d stop in Eau Claire Wisconsin for an overnight at the Antlers, dinner at Red Lobster, then stocking up with sinkers and jigs for fishing at the lake. My departures from the Lee street house were usually in the early morning, taking the last bag, scratching dixie as she slowly raised her head, alert watchdog that she was, and trying not to wake anyone on my way out the door. There was neither sendoff when I left, nor greeting when I returned. Something I came to accept as the cost of seeing my parents, but always wish went differently.

The last few years had been the first in almost a decade that we could focus on fishing. For ten years or so my vacation would be spent building with Dad. it started innocently enough, looking at a sagging roof and tipping stone chimney, thinking “how long could it take” to demolish the chimney and save the roof from being pulled over. It was a ten day demolition project. All manual labor. Swinging a hammer, tossing bowling ball-sized glacial granite rocks to the ground, discovering huge nests of ants, some spiders you could hear walking, and swiping mosquitos away from our faces while holding a 5 pound sledge….we learned quickly not to swat them on each other while we held the hammer. That next year, it might have been 1992, we laid out an addition to the cabin.

The addition was simple too, “how long could it take?” turned out about ten years to finish. One year of utilities, one year of foundations (we both were tired when we set the elevations for the pilings, and read the surveying instrument backwards, making the pilings a foot above the old cabin floor instead of a foot below.) One year of cutting down footings framing the floor (i blew out my elbow driving nails into plywood) and panelizing the walls so Dad could set them in the Fall when he was up there by himself…(neighbor Floyd watched.) One year of framing the roof which Dad did by himself! How he set the rafters and hauled the plywood up to the roof with no help I’ll never know but I’d guess he built a ramp to the roof, set a pulley on the ridge, and hauled the plywood bundles up by pulling with the lawn tractor from the opposite side. We hired out the shingling, Tom ??? did that, but had a year of enclosing with siding, window install and trim, followed by insulation…a very itchy thing to do, made trickier when sweating and while covered with mosquitos… When we began the interior fit out and trim we both learned that framing hammers were not the right tool for installing the celotex wallboard, and was worse when you tried to nail in baseboards with them. I think by the end of that first week, we both had the checker pattern from the hammer head semi-permanently embossed on fingers and thumbs…the next week we got the right hammers and it went much smoother. The year after interior walls and trim was flooring, a relatively smooth process, Dad had some things going in Chicago so I got to lay the bathroom tile and carpet while he brought up the kitchen cabinets. Dad did all the piping for the wiring and pulled all the wire himself, it was a beautiful work to be sure. You know that houses don’t use conduit as a rule, most simply use a bundled wire called romex pulled through the studs but this was Dad’s addition, a place to showcase his physical skills, and the conduit showed it. Every pipe, every curve was parallel to the one next to it, a thing of beauty befitting that word Dad would associate with someone who had developed their building skills to a high level, that of a “mechanic”, a term we associate with cars nowadays but for his generation, it applied to all the trades. It was a high honor, and a moment of great pride when Dad checked the square on the floor I’d framed and declared the work to be worthy of a mechanic.

Working with Dad meant getting up at just before sunrise most days, layering on clothes for the ride to Marcel for an egg and bacon breakfast in the laudromat, where we planned the days work, estimated the materials, tools, and projected the next few day’s work. We’d go over to the lumber yard next, filling Dad’s station wagon with wood and fasteners, ordering more to be delivered that afternoon. Then to the worksite.

We were living up at the Arcadia end of the lake in a little cabin Dad bought after his falling out with Grandpa who owned the land where the addition was being built. We did a lot of building at that cabin too. The “stairway to heaven” the deck that had more square feet than the cabin, and it seems like Dad built one shed per year at that place. I was with Dad when after five or seven? years of not talking to each other, Grandpa called. I handed the phone to Dad, telling him who was on the line and was still near enough to hear Grandpa say he was in trouble.

It might have been the perfect opportunity for payback for some people, or the perfect time to vent years of frustration, or declare the truth of wrongs set upon oneself, when the other party is weakened. But Dad just said “get your hat, lets go.”

Grandpa had been driving to the lake from Chicago for, what, sixty years? He’d had his share of adventures, a blown trailer tire flipped a load of …stuff he had to have at the lake… and spread it all over highway 6, he hit a deer one year, but this time Grandpa had lost most of his sight while driving and had almost hurt someone. Dad didn’t bring up any of the reasons Grandpa shouldn’t have been driving, or any of the conflict between them, he helped Grandpa to the car and we took him to the hospital in Bigfork. It turned out he had a retina detaching, a problem associated with his blood pressure, and needed to be seen for surgery at the Mayo in Rochester right away. Dad left me at the lake and took care of his father. I never heard if they resolved their conflicts during their drive, it was just all better when Grandpa came back. They had spent seven years or so avoiding each other. Dad would go to see Grandma and take her to church and lunch when he knew Grandpa wouldn’t be around. But think about that, seven years because they couldn’t forgive each other, couldn’t tell each other they needed each other…and then, forget it all and pick up like nothing happened.

Some days Dad and I wouldn’t agree, strongly, about something we were doing or about to do. Dad had a way of looking at difficult tasks as opportunities for invention, a motorized platform for the stairway to heaven, a dock made of unistrut and telephone pole anchors, sixty piles instead of four foundation walls, he saw problems as opportunities. As the labor end of the invention cycle, I looked at the work it would take and frequently look for the way I would spend the least time on my back under the crawlspace fending off porcupine quills and spiders, but when I would come out fuming, and Dad would raise up his hackles in reaction, we learned. One of us would say “how many years will we not talk to each other over this one?” Then take a break, drink some iced tea, and go back to work.

I liked most of those building years. Missed fishing, but when it was all done, and we had a season to fish, and conducted the ritual of launching the boat, fixing the motor, finding the oars, mounting the sonar….in a 30 mile an hour wind pushing us aground… I realized the boat was just not comfortable for him, and being on the water was not the necessary escape from the pressures of work that it had been for him when I was growing up, and had become for me. We’d spend the next few years working on sheds, fixing, filling with all sorts of … things we had to have at the lake…. including three Raymond Loewy designed tractors… a cast iron stove “they just don’t make them like that anymore” a fifties-era radial arm saw capable of shooting a 2 by 4 through the steel siding of the shed…. a birch bark canoe… among other things.

Our ritual became about two weeks of getting everything to work, the water pump, still a source of challenge for all of us, thanks to Lori for having the patience to figure out the Rube-Golberg inspired array of valves and filler spouts to make it work each year. Then the pickup for running to the dump, then the pickup Floyd would borrow to go to home depot in Duluth or Grand Rapids, then the lawnmower, then each tractor. By the end of vacation, we’d have most things working or would have found another one at a garage sale somewhere and hauled it back to work on the next year.

I never thought the next year wouldn’t come. I guess that’s how it goes, you never know. I’m glad I spent that time with Dad though, I learned a lot, mostly that its easier to share work, to share a project than to sit around…unless you were playing gin rummy.

You can’t help but wonder what your own wake might be like. I’m guessing kind of sparse for me. I’ve moved too much, focused all my energy on students who enter my life, exchanging energy for a short but intense period of time, then sending them out into the world where you’ll never really hear from them again. Not that I expect it, the goal is for them to succeed independently, and I’ve been fortunate that so many have. But few will hear about my wake when it occurs, fewer still will be able to travel to wherever it was that I lived when I passed, maybe fewer will want to, I am just one of many teachers they’d have had over the course of their lives.

Coming home was never easy. Leaving your spouse to be the only line of help with your children was not a good thing to do, and I was always torn by having to leave, then working through the silence that surrounded re-entry. Each year I’d want to tell the stories of what happened, what I’d learned, but each year it would seem less welcome.

Still, I think it was the right thing to do.

Spending time as an adult with my parents, seeing them as adults while respecting them as parents. Yes, you see their weaknesses, you disagree with them on how they do things, or what they expect of others, but it’s important to do, not always pleasant, but it’s important I think to see your parents as human, with strengths, weaknesses, blind spots and all. I think it was important to be part of Dad’s dream at the lake. Mom never really understood how much Dad did to be ready to have her there, in the cabin where they honeymooned so long ago. She never saw the wide doorways, ramps and decks Dad built to give her ease there. But Mom liked the time Dad was up there. She could have her house without compromise, listen to her shows, eat when she wanted, so in some ways, Minnesota gave her a few weeks in her dream too.

I didn’t get to the lake cabin last summer, moving here to Texas took all the time and energy I could find. I won’t get there this year it seems, but lying here at Brook Hollow, with the doors open late at night I can hear the frogs and crickets, and while it lacks loons and bullfrogs, it takes me north in my dreams. I can smell the pine, the water, and if I leave my screen door open here, I even get the mosquitos!

Remember your Dad this Father’s day, and your Mom on Mother’s day. Remember their dreams, take part in their dreams if they are still with you. Say what you need to say before you leave them this next weekend, you never know if you’ll get another chance.

Stay safe, be tolerant, take care of each other.