by Jackson Browne (from “The Pretender”)
Originally published on January 18, 2007, the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death, to honor his memory.
1. He had a very dry, witty sense of humor.
He actually looked a bit like Henry Fonda and had a droll, dry sense of humor much like the character of Norman Thayer in “On Golden Pond.” (But my father’s humor was not biting or cruel.) Just when you least expected it . . . zing! you would find yourself laughing heartily.
2. He never allowed us to disrespect our mother.
Many men today could take a lesson from our father’s generation. They knew how to command respect — for themselves and the mothers of their children.
I remember mouthing off to my mother a few times and living to regret it! That old cartoon series, “Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home,” comes to mind. I used to hear his footsteps and try to hide (which was futile) because I knew that as soon as he came through the door, my mother was going to tell him exactly what I did, and then he was coming straight to my room . . . and, well, you know the rest: “To the moon!”
3. He was a gentleman who would never use foul or distasteful language in the presence of his wife or daughters — or allow anyone else to do so.
Men in my father’s generation did not curse or use foul language in front of their wives or daughters. It simply wasn’t done.
I remember once bringing a videotape of “The Verdict” over to my parents’ house. I really thought they would enjoy watching it. But the beginning scene is the last one they saw. When Jack Warden’s character comes to the office of Paul Newman’s character to find him passed out and late for a court appearance, Jack Warden drops several f-bombs in the process of rousing Paul Newman’s character. My father got up, pulled the tape out of the vcr, and told me in no uncertain terms that we would not be watching the rest of the movie because of that language. I was surprised and, at first, annoyed because they were going to miss one of my all-time favorite movies. But I respected his feelings on the subject.
4. He was a regular “guy.”
It wasn’t until BigBob and I were married that I found out my father was really a regular “guy.” Up until that time, he was just my dad — I had never really viewed him in any other way.
The two of them worked alone on a home improvement project one day. I never heard the details, but I was assured by BigBob later that my dear ol’ dad was, in fact, a “guy” quite capable of engaging in “guy” banter when his wife and daughters were not around. I have an idea what that meant. I don’t really want to know for sure, but I suspect it involved some of the language he would never use in front of us.
5. He could fix anything. And if he said, “I can’t fix it,” you just had to junk the item in question because it was a total lost cause.
He was the master at all things mechanical. So many times over the course of the past fifteen years, something has broken or quit working and I have started to walk over to the phone to call and ask if he will look at it for me, only to catch myself when I remember that he is gone.
6. He always kept my car running perfectly.
I remember the first time I had to actually pay for someone to fix my car. I thought the world had spun off its axis.
Because Papa was an auto mechanic — a transmission specialist employed by a Lincoln-Mercury dealership for 27 years. We always had cars that were impeccably maintained and ran perfectly. And if something did go wrong, it was just a matter of giving him sufficient time to repair it. He always could. Plus, he never let the gas tank fall below half-full, and scraped the ice off the windshield and warmed up the engine for me in the winter so that all I had to do, quite literally, was get in and drive off to school. I was spoiled rotten!
Look at this picture of him standing next to his 1966 Mercury Park Lane, the ugliest car ever built. This photo was taken in 1989 just before he sold it. It had well over 100,000 miles on the original engine, but looked like the day he brought it home brand new from the dealership where he worked. My sister and I called it “The Tank” and hated when he made us drive it.1
My parents kept that car so long that it was notorious around Lodi. People would say, “Oh, I saw your parents at . . . ” or “Did your parents enjoy going to . . . ?” because they saw the car parked in various locales around town.
One day I drove by the mall and glanced over at the parking lot. There was “the Kennymobile,” as BigBob called it. When I got home, I called my mother and asked, “So what did you buy at Macy’s?” She started laughing, knowing that I did not go shopping myself, but just drove by and there, like a beacon in the fog, was this unmistakably ugly turquoise car!
I spent a lot of time in the backseat of The Tank. We used to drive to South Dakota to see our relatives. He would wake us up about 3:30 a.m. and we would stumble to the garage, curl up in the backseat with our pillows and blankets, and go back to sleep. He’d wake us up again as the sun was rising over the mountains in Sparks, Nevada, just in time to have breakfast at his favorite cafe. Then it was back on the road across scenic (not) eastern Nevada, across the Salt Flats of Utah, and all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. That was just the first day.
And, for the record, that’s a distance of about 1,100 miles and he did virtually all the driving.2 Then we would check into his favorite motel and get up the next morning to drive the remaining 900 or so miles to the little town in northeastern South Dakota where my parents grew up. We’d stay for ten days and then journey back home, arriving on Sunday night so that he could go to work on Monday morning. I still don’t know how he did it. I would collapse!
He worked all the overtime offered by his employer, then came home and worked in the yard, around the house, and performing small jobs (like a brake change) for his friends. The man just didn’t sit still.
8. He taught us to appreciate and take care of the things we worked to earn.
His toolbox is sitting in the garage right where he left it. His friends in the neighborhood come over to borrow a wrench or drill bit or other item. They still tell me, “Your dad took better care of his tools than any mechanic I have ever known. His tools were always clean.” I would use the word “fastidious” to describe his habits and philosophy.
9. He never thought of himself or my mother as “old” or “aging.”
And that’s what kept both of them young for so long. It’s all about your attitude!
I will never forget the time a local widow stopped by to ask a question about her car. Afterward, we were eating dinner and my parents were talking about how long she had been living alone. My mother asked my father how old the woman was. He responded, “Oh, she’s real old. She must be about 60.”
Things got very quiet as we watched my mother decide how to respond. Finally, she said, “That old, huh?”
My father got a very sheepish grin on his face as he realized what he had said. You see, my mother was, at the time, 62 years old! But he didn’t think of her as a 62-year-old woman. In his mind, she was still his young bride and neither of them had aged a bit!
We laughed and laughed . . . and teased him about that incident for many years. Whenever the subject of age came up, we’d say, “Oh, be careful here, Papa!”
10. He taught us to be kind to animals.
Barney was a Cairn terrier. My sister adopted him from a rescue organization, but he ended up living with my parents. I told people that I’d finally gotten something I’d always wanted: A baby brother!
That dog was treated practically as well as my sister and I were when we lived with our parents. He was totally pampered and spoiled to the point that he almost became human. He had a huge vocabulary because my parents talked to him all the time. And my father actually used to go to the backyard and drag the bar-b-que out for the purpose of cooking 1 hamburger patty. Why? For Barney’s dinner, of course!
You think I could make this stuff up?
I would post a photo of Barney, but we don’t have any. He freaked out every time we tried to take his picture, with or without a flash. He ran and hid behind a chair and sat there shaking. After a couple of attempts, we never tried it again because to do so would have been cruel. We speculated that perhaps he was mistreated by a prior owner. My father always wondered if someone hit him with a flashlight, causing him to think the camera signaled more abuse. We’ll never know.
11. He had an iron will to live.
Through two open-heart surgeries, the second of which included the implantation of both a pacemaker and defibrillator, he was determined to follow his physicians’ orders and live. He did anything his doctors’ told him to, religiously adhering to a low-fat, low-cholesterol, no-salt diet, exercising, refraining from lifting, etc. He was a model patient.
When the doctors wanted to perform open heart surgery for a second time in 1989, they explained to him that it would be a painful, arduous ordeal. We all told him that he had to made his own decision because it was his body. He asked the surgeon if the surgery would prolong his life and for how long. The doctor responded that he would definitely die quickly if he did not have the operation, but if he did, his life might be extended for as long as ten years. That was all he needed to hear. He took the consent forms, signed them, and prepared himself for what was to come. It was a 7.5 hour surgery, followed by many months of recovery. But it kept him with us for 3.5 more years and he never regretted his decision.
12. He wanted to live so badly for one very simple reason: His boys.
After my parents became grandparents, I used to come over to their house and think, “Who are you people and what have you done with my parents?”
That’s probably not an unusual reaction. Like most people, they were transformed when the first grandson arrived. Simply put, no one and nothing mattered more to Papa than his boys. He would have allowed the doctors to do anything they wanted to him so long as he could come home, sit in his rocking chair, and have his boys climb up on his lap.
The January 17, 2007, Wordless Wednesday photo is of my father watching cartoons with my oldest nephew. The little wooden chairs and matching table are in my bedroom now. They were originally purchased for my sister, and then I used them (she’s eight years older). My father refinished them for the grandsons and I just couldn’t bear to give the set away so I am saving it in case I ever have grandchildren!
I think he laughed the hardest the day he spent hours childproofing my sister’s house for her. He installed little gadgets on every cupboard door and drawer in the house. He had just about finished the kitchen when my oldest nephew toddled in.
“Hi, Papa,” he said, as he studied what my father was doing.
Then my nephew walked right over to a drawer, opened it, popped the little catch that released the drawer so that it could open all the way, looked at it, and then pushed it back in. As he did it, we all just stared in amazement, realizing that my father had just wasted his entire day installing those gizmos. Nobody said anything for a couple of moments. And then I looked over at my father and the edges of his mouth were turning up . . . before we knew it, we were all laughing until we cried. My father mumbled something like, “Can you believe that little . . . ?” So much for the childproofing!
As to my #1Son . . . he somehow became “Peanuts.” I have no idea why. One day Papa just started calling him that.
Whenever we would come to my parents’ house, Papa would hear us drive up and be at the door before we could even pull the car all the way onto the driveway. The kids would make a mad dash for the door, hug and kiss him, and then he would tell them, “Go find Nana!” They would tear into the house, yelling, “Nana! We’re here!” My father was so busy chasing them, he usually didn’t even notice or bother to greet us. But we didn’t care. I don’t know who had more fun: The kids, my parents or us as we watched them together. I think it was a toss-up.
13. He would be so proud of his boys today.
Papa’s boys are now 23,3 20, 17 and 15, and they’re all more than six feet tall.
There’s nothing I wouldn’t give for a photo of the four of them enveloping my father in a big bear hug! I can just see him grinning proudly . . .
- It had the old-fashioned, highly sensitive power brakes. I remember nearly sending him through the windshield a couple of times when he was teaching me to drive. [↩]
- My mother only drove across the vast expanses where, in those days, there was no speed limit or traffic. [↩]
- My oldest nephew took my father’s death so hard that, to this day, we dare not talk much about Papa with him because he gets very upset. [↩]