My dad left this earth six months ago, at the age of eighty-eight, succumbing to a combination of old age, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. I prefer to remember him as the stouthearted man he was before those diseases took over.
Dad wasn’t perfect, of course, but an interesting mix of the admirable and the annoying. He wasn’t known for his patience, and had a hard time admitting when he was wrong. He was remarkably tenacious, which also made him stubborn. For years he refused to admit that he needed hearing aids. It was all of us – we talked in whispers just to torment him. He was, in a word, human.
But I believe the day you grow up is the day you accept your parents as flawed, with hopes, dreams, disappointments and experiences that made them who they are. It’s the day you realize most parents do the best they can with what they have, trying to prepare you for life while they try to figure out theirs.
Dad wore a lot of hats in his lifetime. He was a farmer, cattleman, welder, carpenter, fixer-upper, repairman, and a born storyteller. Whatever the current project, it was important to do things right, and to start doing them as early in the morning as possible. He considered it unnatural for the rest of the family to stay in bed once he was awake. If all the noise he made clomping around the kitchen making breakfast, and listening to the radio at extremely high decibels, wasn’t enough to muster the troops, he’d holler up the stairs, “Hit the deck! What do you think this is, a rest home?” This didn’t endear him to his children. But that habit of get-out-of-bed-and-get-it-done was what got him through the ups and downs of farming, which included a few good years and many bad years of drought, debt, crops that got hailed out a week before harvest, high expenses, and low market prices. To be a farmer is to be a gambler, and it’s not for the weak-hearted. Or the late riser.
Decades of outdoor work meant Dad’s rough, rugged hands were never perfectly clean, his nails always slightly grimy, no matter how much he scrubbed them. This didn’t bother him. He regarded men who sat in offices all day, never getting their hands dirty, as slightly lily-livered and probably not trustworthy. I recognize the bravado in that now, but I admire his pride in who he was. His legacy includes the family farm, now worked by my brother and my nephew, the fourth and fifth generations of our family.
A brash sense of humor was one of Dad’s trademarks. His first meeting with my husband, Steve, even before I met him, is legendary in our family. It was a summer weekend, and Steve had come to visit my brother. He arrived late Friday night and camped out on the couch in the basement. Early on Saturday morning, Dad came downstairs, looking for a son to help him with feeding cattle. Assuming the sleeping young man on the couch was one of my brothers, Dad grabbed Steve’s nose between two knuckles, twisted, and said, “Geeeeet up, you lazy bum!” Steve’s eyes fluttered open, and Dad was face to face with a complete stranger.
He had an arsenal of nonsensical phrases. His parting comment when leaving the house for a day’s work, was, “Adios and Carbolic Acid.” Nobody had any idea what that meant. It was just Dad. I’d give a lot to hear him say it once again. Maybe right after he clomped around the kitchen and yelled, “Hit the deck!”
As far as Dad was concerned, age was no reason to give up your dreams. Around his seventieth birthday he got his semi-truck driver’s license, and spent the next six years on the road, hauling grain for a local trucking company. This was his idea of retirement. On the rare day he was at home, he’d tell Mom, “I’m retired today.”
I can’t leave out Dad’s devotion to Mom throughout sixty years of marriage. Mom and Dad were two halves of a whole. They regularly embarrassed their six children by hugging and kissing right there in the kitchen, with us groaning and gagging and saying, “Ewwww!” The truth is, it made us feel secure. Even until just a few weeks before he died, when he no longer called Mom by name or probably didn’t know who she was, Dad would light up when she came into the room. He still equated her presence with love and trust.
This stouthearted man left me with a lot of his traits. I want to pass on the best of those to my children and grandchildren. A line from the song “Stouthearted Men” says it well: “Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire.”