A scant two months into my senior year of high school, my father died. Long afflicted by a variety of physical disabilities caused by an auto accident and serious illness, he never lost his sense of humor, trust in a loving God, positive outlook on life, faith in people.
Although strange in light of today’s understanding of how families prepare children for the death of a family member, my parents followed the accepted pattern of the day: do not involve your children. They never discussed the condition, diagnosis, treatment or prognosis. In the year before his death, my dad taught me how to drive: “Your mother doesn’t like driving, especially at night, so you need to learn.” The driving lesson was in a 1939 (stick shift!) Ford on a narrow, gravel, ditch-framed country road. At one point a road grader appeared—surely as big as a Mack truck—and Daddy simply said, “Just go around.”
Some studies indicate that when the death of a parent occurs during one’s adolescence, a myriad of negative psychological symptoms occur because of the lack of guidance. In my case, however, I think my father’s assumption that I would be “adult” somewhat counteracted this possibility. After the early tears, the gathering of family and the huge church funeral, my life as a high schooler moved blithely on. It’s hard for a teenager to hold sadness too long and Daddy obviously believed that his admonition to “just go around” was sufficient.
How I wish I’d had the privilege of an adult relationship with my dad (always known as “daddy”) but such was not to be. I also wish I’d been curious enough—and he had been forthcoming enough—to discuss his childhood. I know only barebones, anecdotal information. Born in 1904, he grew up a first-generation American in a German-speaking family in Pennsylvania. Eight grades were his only formal education, and—wanting at all cost to avoid the life of a coal miner as was the determined future for his peers—he moved to Detroit where he attended a trade school for the training that positioned him for a successful factory job akin to lower middle management for the rest of his life.
Hard work in the factory and life in the country interspersed with fishing, hunting, annual “vacations” (visits to grandparents to assist in their simple lives) were the norm. He and I (to my mother’s chagrin) loved listening to radio broadcasts of the era. In summer we tuned our ears to broadcasts of Detroit Tiger baseball games and I became adept at recognizing players of those years. His sense of humor—never, ever at the expense of another—seemed to sneak up when least expected to the delight of all and was remembered long after his brief fifty-one years on earth.
As an only child I perhaps had more exposure to adult conversation than do children growing up with siblings. I listened; they talked. As I look back through the lens of time, I realize that the information about my parents—their values, character, relationships—filtered into my mind from “overheard” casual supper time exchanges.
An enduring and caught-not-taught lesson came from my dad’s acceptance of people when such tolerance was not culturally suitable. The N word was unhesitatingly used in the culture of my childhood but never crossed the lips of anyone in our home. While others felt free to speak deprecatingly about African Americans, often with rude humor, I remember hearing conversations about how he and “the sweeper” chatted over their brown bag lunches. Everyone knew that “sweeper” meant janitor and all janitors in factories at that time were black. And shared lunches were unthinkable. No lessons on tolerance, just a life lived according to an unswerving moral compass.
The picture accompanying this blog is important though its edges are blurred with time. Daddy sits in his favorite chair in the living room after a long day’s work. On the floor to his left are the “funny papers” which he religiously read to me every evening while I sat on his lap. On the floor to his right is one of my dolls, discarded in pursuit of something more important like a book or radio program. The picture spells peace, acceptance, love, relationship. The very best memories to have on Father’s Day.