Letter to Dad

It’s these short tidbits that help me connect the many disconnected dots within the world that comprised my mom and dad.” 

* * *

Fathers Day, 2017


In my earliest memories, you are there.  I felt your presence in the house.  To me, you were a foundation for the family, with a bearing that informed your small son that everything was well.  In memory I see your face, your smile, warm, radiant, reassuring.  I recall my young, small self before you, following you around the house and yard, watching the things you did.  Even the sound of your voice was a source of comfort.  I always felt guarded, protected, secure, safe.  In my small experience of life and the world, I thought it would always be that way.  I never wanted it to end.

You were a Dad of the 40s and 50s.  I’m told the father’s role in that time was to be the provider, and maybe occasionally the disciplinarian, a job I don’t think you wanted or liked.

And so you were the provider, first, foremost, always.  You went to work, you held down a job, you brought home the bacon.  You were also the maintenance guy, keeping up the home, fixing the cars, countless other things your kids probably never noticed, things we may never have properly appreciated.  The flip side of this, my sisters tell me, is that they scarcely knew you.  I think I did, a little.

It is true, with very few exceptions, you never spoke much about yourself, who you believed yourself to be, what you believed in, what was important to you.  Much of what I think I know about you is really only inference.  It’s like that fuzzy memory of mine, of me riding on your shoulders on a family car trip to Mount Rainier… or is it perhaps my memory of the photograph of it, you in that shirt with the graphic of a ship anchor on the front and your toddler son perched high above you?  Is either one accurate, or have they both merged into a composite blur which I accept as reality?  I don’t know.  In the last twenty years of her life, I often listened to Mom when she reminisced, trying to put together pieces, even fragments of pieces, to learn more about who you were.  

I suspect you were a man of your time.  You were a stoic, with a quiet, uncomplaining ability to endure, a dismissal of feelings, defined boundaries between the self you showed to the world and the self that lived within, the one that perhaps only you knew.

Coming of age during The Great Depression, when you were young and single, you told me with pride how you relied upon hustle and opportunity to get on, scavenging, scrounging, coming up with money enough to start some enterprise or other, in the absence of a regular job.  You sold magazines door to door.  When enough doors had been closed on you and your sales pitch, you used what you’d earned to buy small quantities of coal, gathered in gunny sacks, and offered them for sale to families who could not afford a wagon load of it delivered to their cellars, but who might afford the price of a sack, enough to heat their home for a day or two.

The story you most enjoyed telling was how you’d scrounged discarded Ford parts in alleys and gullies, a chassis here, a wheel there, putting these disparate castoffs together to make up a whole Model T.  Your boast was that you made your own car for only fifteen dollars, money spent only for what you could not find.  I never doubted a word of it.  I always heard the pride in your voice with each retelling.  And I think this was as close as you could come to telling your family about your sense of accomplishment, having lived through a time of adversity, getting through it with your own initiative, shrewdness, practical intelligence, individualism and common sense.

These brief stories were my only insight to how you saw yourself, how you saw life, what you did, what happened and what you thought of it.  There is so much about your life that you never revealed.

There was so little told of your parents or any of the others in your family that I scarcely ever heard their names.  I have only one or two mental snapshots of visiting your father with you, my grandfather in name only.  The images are obscure, out of focus, confusing rather than recollections of pleasant moments.  I was surprised to learn, when I took my car to be serviced at a nearby garage a few years ago, that I was related to one of the owners, the son of one of your relatives.  I never knew, had never even heard about him.

The Great Depression and WWII must have shaped you in many ways, must have changed, or reinforced, how you saw yourself and how you saw life.  You seldom spoke of those times, unless some point was to be made.  I know some anecdotes, like the Model T, but nothing of what you felt about living through them.  I suspect the difficulties of getting on, making money, striving for as much security as you could provide, resulted in the sense I got from you of the importance of getting and keeping a job, never letting go of it.  You didn’t say it in those words, but your reaction when I quit the job I’d had for eight years to try something completely different was one of alarm and concern that I was making an irresponsible and irreparable mistake.  Here again, in the absence of anything you ever told me, all I have is inference, but it was from that and a few other small episodes that I think I saw a certain fear that life in the 30s and 40s had put there, a reflexive insistence to seize whatever was available, hold tight to it, avoid risk and gather as much security as you could.  It seemed as though whatever you had which was good, or at least not detrimental, was preferred to whatever else might be possible.  It seemed to be at the base of many of your choices, decisions, beliefs and thoughts.

You seldom mentioned whatever dreams you may have had, but occasionally there were words spoken from father to son in appropriate settings.  In the basement workshop, your element, you would sometimes allow yourself to reveal such thoughts to me, brief and abbreviated though they were.  

During one such moment you said you had been born in the wrong time, many years too late.  As I understood it, you would liked to have been part of the early days of industrialization, of the age of invention and mechanization of society, to have been in on the imagining, the discovery, the creation and crafting of tools and devices.  

A link to that inventive part of you sat on your workbench.  I remember a carefully crafted and shaped prototype made of wood, a device I think you hoped to create and market.  It was to be an instrument to transmit exhaust pipe temperature to the helm of a powerboat.  It would have been cast in metal by the hundreds, curved to fit the contour of the pipe.  Inside, a small rectangular enclosure with a removable cover would contain a heat sensor.  That small, beautiful wood prototype was a fixture on your bench.  It remained there, a physical manifestation of your dream, representing not only cleverness, but the promise of the reward which would come from it.  I recall you telling me every boat owner would want one, thousands could be sold.  

Like many of your generation, the wood prototype may have represented the dream, the escape from wages and the ticket to the good life.  I think it represented your hope for not only monetary success but the security which I think you prized more than money.

Alaska was, I think, like that, representing adventure in the last U.S. frontier.  From commercial boats in the panhandle, Anchorage and the Bering Sea came the parts orders for boat engines which you pulled from inventory and shipped.  You saw the money spent on these engines and imagined, I think, the money the skippers were making.  I never heard you say you wanted to own a fishing vessel, but I think you imagined the rewards coming to those adventurous enough to profit from the economic expansion following statehood.  But before reward comes risk.  When offered a job at a branch of the business somewhere in Alaska, you declined, offering only a word or two about not uprooting Mom as your reason.  It wasn’t an excuse.  That which you believed was best for Mom and your family was the bedrock of every thought you ever had. But having turned down the offer, the dream of opportunity in Alaska was never mentioned again.  I wonder if there were other reasons you never spoke of.

I think you had a vision of a better life which had something to do with adventure, personal achievement, of becoming the rugged individual, which may have been how you saw yourself.  I’ll never know, but I think you held a personal set of dreams and ambitions which epitomized your own private spirit of optimism and enterprise, adventure, accomplishment, wealth, recognition and success, of creating something from nothing.  I wish I knew that part of you.  I wish we had been able to talk about it.  

The books on the shelf by your chair in the living room, authored by Richard Halliburton and Thor Heyerdahl, may have hinted at it.  There was in you, I think, a desire to live bigger, to reach for the stars, which was perhaps felt by many who lived through hard times.  To your everlasting credit, you kept your footing, kept your head down, did what you needed to do to earn a responsible living.  Every thought and consideration was for Mom and family.  We always came first with you.  You were, I think, adept at denying yourself and your dreams.  Safety, security, a roof over our heads, food on the table and a little money in the bank were the priorities which surmounted all else, objectives which you held above anything you might have otherwise wished for yourself.  

I don’t know if you recognized it during your life but you managed to provide for Mom very well.  It might have surprised you.  Your devotion to thrift and saving left her with more than ample resources, more than she was able or willing to utilize during the remainder of her life.  You held down a job, Mom managed the money and took care of everyone.  You both did your separate tasks very well.

I always tell people if there was one thing you had to share with your son it was how to use tools.  On that small list you made before you died, near the top of the things to be thankful for, was your ability to fix things.  That’s what you shared with your son, in the basement workshop, in the projects and maintenance around the house.  I haven’t held a paintbrush in a long while, but I never pick one up without hearing your voice; “Get some more paint on that brush.”  “Don’t scrub it, make long strokes.”  They were words which I suspect had been said to you by your father-in-law, a professional painter.  I hope you would not be too disappointed to know that fixing things and working with my hands didn’t stick.  For example, my interest in working on cars lasted only several years.  I was content to leave auto maintenance to guys with more knowledge and better tools, content to pay someone else to do what I didn’t care to.  House repairs and maintenance eventually went the same way.

There are, though, ways we were, and still are, alike.

It has always been interesting to me that your working life involved parts and pieces, spares, and replacement items for marine engines.  Engines were things you had a strong affinity with.  During the time I was growing up, your work was no longer with wrenches but tools of a different sort; part numbers, inventory locations in a stockroom, files and records, catalogs, price lists, communication with men at other businesses and owners of vessels of all sorts.  You may recall my first “real” job was in a stockroom, pulling kits of parts for the assembly of mechanical products, receiving them into inventory, keeping records of stock movements with a Kardex file, much as you did.  I watched you at work precious few times, but I felt as though I understood what you did.  I have combed my memory but have never found any link that informs me that you sought to influence my choice of career in any way.  Still, there is an undeniable reality; the son, at the beginning of his working life, doing largely the same work as the father.  

With your strong work ethic, you might also be pleased to know that I’ve been working virtually since high school, with few interruptions.  I changed jobs a lot more than you ever did, but then the world changed, making that a fairly common event in the lives of many people, changes driven by choice and opportunity, rather than the reality of hard times.  I was lucky to live in a time of economic expansion, with the ability to do the kind of work I did best.

You might also like to know that I’m living in your house on Mary Avenue.  Mom told me four years after you died that she wasn’t comfortable living there alone anymore.  She wanted to move to the apartment complex where many of her friends were, without the responsibility of taking care of a house.  She asked “Will you help me sell it?”  So I helped by buying the place.  We’ve been here for twenty years.  No one is more surprised by that than me.

In fact, she and I are now at the same point you and Mom came to when you were both in your sixties.  I find myself thinking about when we should leave the work and expense of this house behind.  That time is close.  Before too long, we need to be living in a situation that is as close to no-maintenance, no-effort as possible.  But I think we still have a little time left here in the little house on Mary Avenue.

Mom died a few years ago, but your three kids are still here, close enough to see each other occasionally.  And we have these electronic gadgets that let us send messages to each other… if I said “phones”, I think you’d get the wrong idea about what these things are.  It’s hard to explain.  Anyway, we’re still close, still in touch with each other.  We get together for lunch from time to time and talk of you and Mom.

With Mom’s passing, the flow of information about you has ended.  The short tidbits which have helped me to connect the dots has been stilled.  

I wish we’d talked more.  I wish I had known more about you.  Conversation was limited to what lay right on the surface, right on top of your experience and mine.  What we each thought or felt, anything that came from anywhere deeper inside us, seldom came into it.  And yet, there are things about me that I believe came from you, if only by heredity or osmosis.  

I have come to realize that personal responsibility, the obligations which I have to others and the commitments which I make, as well as my attitude, motives and ethics, came from you.  If anyone had asked me earlier in my life, I would not have known, but I now feel certain they were wordlessly installed in me by you and Mom.  They are certainly part of who I am now.  That which you both gave me is a very conscious reality.

The realization first came to me as a disagreeable truth.  I don’t think I aspired to being responsible, conscientious, a facilitator of the needs of others, a good steward of commitment, or dedication to the obligations placed before me.  But, with the passage of time, I now see these attributes more kindly, with some acceptance, even gratitude.  I can no longer deny the reality of their existence, inconvenient though it may have seemed at times.  In retrospect, I now see them as having been present in every part of my life.

It does seem to me we had little father / son conflict.  In hindsight, rather than a battle of wills, it was about me trying my wings, seeking to trust my knowledge on some decision or other, and about you speaking of your concern for me and my welfare.  I search my feelings but find no resentment anywhere.  When we disagreed, there were no grudges.  The next day we both could speak as amiably as if the incident had never occurred.  I did not realize it for many years, but this quality you displayed for me has become part of me too, for which I am grateful.

It’s not as though we were as friends.  We never watched sports together; never had conversations over coffee.  You and I never had the kind of talks which I am certain you had with Mom; exchanges of feelings or ideas.  Our relationship was never that specific.  But whatever it was or wasn’t, it was respectful, amicable.  

One of my last memories is of you in your bedroom here at the house, when the cancer had so eaten you up that you could no longer stand or walk or sit in a chair, so I visited at your bedside.  As you approached death, we had no experience with meaningful conversation and, with no previous knowledge of how to talk to each other about anything but the most topical of matters of the day, little was said then.  So I talked about the Inaugural Day windstorm that had just occurred that year.  I’d been here with my friend to repair the fence in your side yard.  Not being able to fix something at your own house must have hurt as much as the damn cancer.  I described the repair job for you, how we’d sunk new four-by-fours into the ground, filling each post hole with concrete, and sistered them to the old ones that had been blown over.  I suppose I wanted you to feel as though we’d done the needed repair correctly, as you would have done it yourself had you been able.  Then I told you about the windfall caused by the storm at my house, how the evergreen branches littered the street so completely I could not drive my truck down the street, how it took three days and many truckloads to dispose of it all, about how, the whole time the sound of the wood chippers never ended, as neighbors and the county did the same removal work I was doing.  And how you smiled at your memory of the wood chippers, the unmistakable sound of them.  In the absence of deeper, more meaningful conversation, of any skill or ability to share of ourselves with each other, a connection was made.  It was the best either of us could do.  I’ll never forget it.

At times I am tempted to think being with one’s father, so near death, should have contained something more, something which may have never been said during the life of either of them.  I don’t recall if you ever told me you loved me.  That was not something men did then, but I knew it with more assurance than I knew anything.

Instead, what we had in that moment was what we had had all of our life together.  That we should have spoken not of love or accomplishment or of feelings or of matters long withheld, things felt but not discussed, but instead of fence repair techniques, storm mitigation, branch removal, lot cleanup and mechanical wood chippers, of the stuff we knew and had in common, stuff we both understood, seemed exactly right to me.

In that moment at your bedside, we connected again, using the common understanding of work, of responsibility, of tasks and tools used to accomplish them.  A comfortable place for us both.

That day is now more than twenty years past.  And I have needed all of that time to reflect and finally to realize what you and Mom gave to me.  The principles, the qualities which I have slowly come to recognize in myself most certainly came from you both, as surely as if you had written them in your own words, handed them to me with detailed instructions for their use.

If there was one thing I wish I knew, it’s what you made of it all, how you saw your life and how you saw yourself.  In your summing up, what did you understand about yourself?  Did you recognize the good in yourself, about who you were, what you set out to do, what you did for your family, what you accomplished?  Did you see yourself as the good man you were, possessing the qualities you wordlessly gave to me, deserving of your own respect and admiration?  Were you able to see yourself in those terms?  

I hope so.  

Not surprisingly, I think I may be very like you, in a great many ways.  I seem to be the beneficiary of your very best qualities.  Others have said as much.  I think I was fortunate to have started with the good stuff you bestowed upon me, and the opportunity to build upon it.  

And I am at peace with it.

* * *

What I miss about my father, as much as anything, is life as it looked filtered through him, held up and considered against his inner lights. Yet the most important thing that vanished when he died is wholly unavailable to me: life as it looked to him, life as we all live it, from the inside out. All my memories can’t add up to a single moment of what it was like to be my father, and all my loss pales beside his own.

All of this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence. No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. As Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.

When Things Go Missing, Kathryn Schulz
The New Yorker, February 13, 2017



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