Today my dad would have turned 73. He’s been gone more than three years. Sometimes it seems like three days. Most times it seems much longer.
Our boys, now mature men in their late twenties, both resemble him — in very different ways. The elder has grown to look a lot like my dad. The younger inherited his mechanical abilities and technical acuity. I’m proud of the way my dad seems to live on through my sons.
As a pre-teen, I spent a lot of time following my dad around. I was the second in a string of four girls which, I assure you, is not the ideal birth order placement. I wasn’t the oldest, or the youngest, or the middle child, each with their unique perks and common pitfalls. Instead, I was stuck in quasi-obscurity.
I eventually found my way, in large part by modeling after my dad. Years later, I’d tease my parents that I was their first-born male. I was only half-kidding. My mother found it a difficult concept to embrace. I’ve never understood why, given that she was quite transparent — from her first to fourth baby girl — about hoping for a boy, for him. (Years later she would be relieved to conclude it didn’t matter; girls worked out just fine. Whew.)
My dad was an honorable man and good provider but the relational aspects of fatherhood weren’t intuitive to him. We girls had to worm our way into his world. (Speaking of worms: I really hated baiting my own hook. Just one of his many firm rules.) We learned to drive boats, snowmobiles, and motorbikes to stay in his space. Go-Carts were a bonus! Good stuff. We were routinely enlisted to haul and stack wood, do every aspect of yard work, and other chores for our pony or swimming pool or what-have-you. Then I did consider mom might have been onto something.
I remember trying hard to find my niche. Many nights I wiggled uninvited into his big black recliner while he read the newspaper. I spent untold hours in his shop at school helping to clean and restore a VW van — with a toothbrush, no less. Whatever it took. Dad’s interests inevitably became our interests. We tagged along when he went to the woods, especially if there were berries to pick or fish to catch. Although I only recall one hunting expedition, it’s no wonder. We certainly didn’t improve his odds for success by trooping through the forest in his wake.
It’s surreal to think of the times the entire family loaded in the VW van for an evening of cheap “entertainment” — driving the backcountry roads in search of woodchucks. “They’re a big nuisance to farmers,” he insisted. There may have been an overpopulation. They were also convenient target practice. We’d spot one popped up from its burrow across a hayfield or pasture, he’d pull the van over, issue a sharp whistle to gain its attention, and … POW! Clean shot, direct from the driver’s seat.
Dad taught auto mechanics at a vocational school. Weekends and evenings, he expertly serviced foreign and small engines out of his garage. Volkswagens were his specialty. We always owned a VW-something. Despite the fact that our early models were tiny and had black vinyl seats — cold and brittle in winter, hot and sticky in summer — with poor heating and no AC, I remain attached. Every time I see an old VW Bug for sale I stop to consider that maybe it’s time to buy. Until I also consider who would repair it and at what cost.
For several years, I helped dad out in the garage on weekends by cleaning parts and restoring order to his tool bench. He was a task master. Grease stains on concrete floor were intolerable, to be immediately eradicated. Everything had a place and best be in it. Sometimes I would stand by to hand him tools throughout a repair. I felt like a surgical assistant — except it was vehicular viability at stake.
I wish I’d picked up more auto mechanics but I did gain a lot of practical knowledge. I learned the difference between English and metric units, to identify, handle and apply various tools, and something about essential engine components and functions. I learned to take care of my things and maintain a meticulous working environment. Most importantly, I learned to respect my dad for his knowledge and skill.
Today I see indelible marks of my dad’s influence in my own aspirations and achievements. Neither of us had an easy path. I was determined to get an education and complete graduate school, against considerable odds. I took up a career in teaching and technology. I have an innate ability to fix things — or at least figure them out — and an inordinate (sometimes ill-advised) confidence in jury-rigging or creating a work around. These all reflect his strengths. It took me a long time to realize that we were at least as much alike as we were different. In many ways, I am my father’s child.
Today I celebrate the best of what was in him, the good gifts he passed on to me and to my children. So, here’s to you, Dad. Happy Birthday. I really hope they’re serving up a heavenly strawberry shortcake.