On Giants' Shoulders

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Memories of Daddy

I was thinking about my father this week. It actually happened because of something my son said to me about gas stations and full service. I commented that in the fifties gas attendents were not only supposed to provide full service, but they were supposed to provide it in clean uniforms (tan uniforms at that). He asked whether my father did that. I said, "He always wore blue coveralls, and they weren't always clean." Actually my father thought that the company was pretty crazy to try to enforce those kinds of standards. He often went from working on someone's car on the lift, or fixing a tire, or working under the car in the pit to pumping gas. All of those other activities generally got grease on the person doing them, hence the uniform tended to get dirty. I think the company probably thought you should have a person dedicated just to pumping gas, but in a small town service station that simply wasn't economically feasible. So my father got chastised regularly (when the company inspector showed up) for not having his uniform clean enough. Imagine how dirty a tan one would have looked!

Just think how happy we are today to find a gas station where they still pump your gas! No one would complain at all about grease on the attendants knees.

Anyway those blue coveralls didn't get discarded when we finally moved onto the farm. My father continued to wear them to milk cows, to bale hay, to spread manure, to plant fields, even to pick stone. He wore them so much that it's hard for me to come up with a memory of my father when he wasn't wearing them.

What seems so strange to me now is that I'm probably the only person left in the world to have that memory. My cousins spent so little time with my father that I doubt they have it. My aunts and uncles are mostly dead, or too forgetful to have those kinds of memories, my mother is dead, my sister is dead. So the only one to remember Daddy, his blue coveralls, his black shoes and how he smelled is me.

How fragile human life is. How hard it is to capture some memories for posterity. My memories are so connected with my senses in an elemental way I find difficult to capture in words. I can tell you that he wore blue coveralls, I could probably be even more descriptive about the blue coveralls, but only I can really still remember the feel of the blue coveralls, the feel of the big black shoes when I put my small feet into them, the special smell that was my father (which had a goodly amount of petroleum odor connected to it nearly always between gas, and oil, and diesel fuel). Only I can remember the feel of those blue coveralls when they came off the clothes line and off the stretchers in the winter time. They would be frozen stiff and have to thaw and finish drying indoors.

Only I can remember the exact place on my father's arms where they changed from farmer's tan to pale. Only I remember his last morning when we were trying to figure out whether the chest pains he was having were significant or not and how I tried to reassure him. Only I can remember years early riding in his lap on a tractor down a dirt road and just how exciting that was. Only I can remember the sound of his laughter.

I wish so much that I could give those memories to my children, to my niece, and my nephew. There is just so much about all the grandfathers that these young people had that they have missed. My daughter had a grandfather until she was 13, my son until 16, yet they missed out on his healthy years. They only knew him as a retired person with chronic illnesses. My niece never knew either of her grandfathers and my nephew was only two when his other grandfather died. What an enormous loss they have suffered by not knowing them better (or in the case of my father, at all). I identify with them in a way because one of my two grandfathers died before I was born and the other when I was just about to turn 11. Like my children I was fortunate to live near my surviving grandfather and I have many lovely memories of him.

I am feeling the weight of being the keeper of the memories lately. I feel inadequate to convey them all. Sometimes the memories that I do try to share seem not so significant to the next generation. Some of the questions that they want the answers to I just wasn't paying enough attention to at the time. I wasn't interested enough in the details of planting and silage to be able to answer the questions I get asked. The work got done, the silage went in the barn. I could describe the hay rake, but not tell you what brand it was. I know we had two John Deere tractors, but I certainly don't know the year or the model.

But I could walk into the kitchen of that farm house and know exactly where to find doughnuts or chocolate cake, where the yeast was stored, where the glasses were, and where the scale to weigh the eggs would be found. I could find salt pork and raspberry jam, I could find the genetian violet my mother painted on sore throats or the peppermint extract that she kept for stomach aches, the drawing salve that my sister swore by. Except that I actually can't. That kitchen no longer exists, the people who bought the farm completely remodeled that part of the house. The kitchen only exists in my memory.

Yet the memory is so vivid that I could almost walk through the kitchen door, shove the dog out of the overstuffed chair and plunk down in it with my feet over the arm (as always) and proceed to complain about the amount of math homework I've been given. In my memory I walk into the living room with a, glass of milk, a dish of homemade applesauce and some sharp cheddar cheese (a gift from Uncle Merle, "the Cheese Man) plop down on the couch to watch To Tell the Truth or The Edge of Night. I spend a half an hour practicing piano, and all too soon it's time for supper. We almost certainly have warmed up potatoes (a sort of version of hashbrowns, but nowhere near as crispy)which I hate, and hamburg or cottage cheese with some sort of canned vegetable. There will probably be dessert, and hopefully it won't be my sister's raspbery crisp, which never has enough sugar, but instead will be wacky cake with chocolate frosting. If I'm lucky there's no major argument between my father and my sister. That possibility always makes suppertime tense. After dinner my sister and I fight about who's going to do which part of the dishes. She doesn't like me washing because she says I get soap in the rinse water. I hate to dry and put away. After we sort that out and get finished I'll think about doing my homework, but may well get distracted by either a good book or a not so great tv show. We'll all be in bed by 9 because my father gets up early and the living room is right next to my parent's bedroom so late night tv is out. I'll probably read for a long time because after all what else is there to do... What I don't do is think about someone 40 years later trying to figure out what sort of tractor is sitting out in the shed next to the barn. More's the pity.

I just captured for you a bit of what one afternoon and evening would have been like with some of the emotions that surrounded it. I really did hate my sister's raspberry crisp, but I also hated nearly everything else made with raspberries (except jam) simply because we were inundated with raspberries every summer and I just plain got sick of them. It was years before I enjoyed them again. And I really did hate warmed up potatoes, although I don't mind them all that much now. My sister and my father did seem to battle a lot at the supper table, although I can't really recall over what. The argument about the dishes was a perennial one. And I still hate the drying end of dishes (or more accurately the putting away part).

There actually were far more times when supper had my father telling a humorous story and he would sometimes laugh over stuff until the tears rolled down his cheeks. He always had compliments for my mother's cooking, except when she attempted steak. He declared she could turn a piece of beef into shoe leather faster than anyone else he knew. Consequently when we raised a beef he'd have the butcher grind most of it and put the rest into roasts. Of course all the roasts got turned into pot roasts.She couldn't cook a beef roast rare either.

My father was an incredibly hard worker. He never took a vacation, after we moved onto the farm he rarely left it. At 56 he could outwork every twenty year old that came to help during haying season and they readily admitted it. He had an awful temper, especially when he was frustrated over financial stuff (which he was most of the time during my teenage years). He was affectionate with my mother and always called her "the old lady," or "the boss," or "the old battle axe," but we always knew that those were terms of endearment. She didn't have any real term of endearment for him at all. He was determined that we would go to college, and not any Bible school either (that was what the pastor was advocating). He was generous to a fault about providing what he thought we needed (like a decent car when we were out of college), he even offered to provide me with the down payment on a house so that I wouldn't have to pay rent (stupid me, I didn't want the responsibility of a house!). Yet he was also frugal in the extreme with us to the extent that I never had a new bike or a new pair of ice skates until I was in my twenties and bought my own. We always had to make do with second hand ones. He was a brilliant man who never had a whole lot of educational opportunities. He had to quit school after eighth grade to work on his father's farm. But when I was taking Algebra and physics he was the one who helped me with my homework. We rarely had an extra money when I was growing up. Yet when he died he left enough money for my mother to live comfortably for another 25 years and for my sister and I to both have our homes financed by his estate. He was complex and I realized as I got older far more sensitive than I gave him credit for when I was a teenager. I used to think he wasn't proud of me because he didn't show up for things like the plays I was in. I know now that he simply didn't realize that his presence was important. There never were plays in his teenage life and his relationship with his own father was far from pleasant.

There are all those nearly tangible memories floating around in my head somewhere. I can see places, I can feel textures, I can smell odors, I can even taste particular flavors. Elemental memories of my father, my mother, all the different places we lived, they're all tucked in there somewhere. Yet there's not another person to whom I can say, "Do you remember?" "Do you remember Wally Hazleton and Waleco bars?" "Do you remember the coffee frappes, or the smell of the paper coffee cups at the service station?" "Do you remember Daddy opening the coke machine and letting us have the change?" "Do you remember picking wild flowers in the Gulf with Grammy Drown and Mommy?" "Do you remember sliding down the snow that Daddy piled up in the driveway?" "Do you remember getting locked out of the house and my having to go through the rose bushes to get in through the kitchen window and how scratched I got?" "Do you remember the night there was a peeping Tom outside of the kitchen window at the farm?" "Do you remember the day that Colonel the bull put Daddy through the fence?" I can tell those stories to my children, my niece, my nephew, perhaps someday to my grandchildren (God willing), but they will always be once upon a time stories, not do you remember stories. Once upon a time stories are great, but in the do you remember stories there is an element of understanding and even forgivness that is shared. That's what I miss, someone who truly does in every sense of the word remember all of it.


At 11:10 AM, Blogger shenyuen said...

re: dentisit
so... that whole 'blood in the mouth thing" turns out to be acute gingivitis... :) hehe

I laugh now!

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Cathy said...

Thank you for sharing your memories. As I read this post, I could remember similar things from my childhood.

You said in such a wonderful way some things that I have thought. By the time I was born, three of my grandparents were gone. I am often amamzed -- and not in a good sense -- at the way children now do not appreciate having grandparents and any other extended family.

My father died before any of my children were born. All they will know of him are my memories. I tend to remember and share the better moments. It's amazing how many more of those there were when you reminisce as an adult than you thought there were as you lived them as a child and teen.

My mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly a few months after my youngest child was born. He will never experience the wonder of unwrapping a package containing clothes she sewed or hats and mittens she knitted "just for you."

Sorry -- I didn't mean to start a post in your comment section. Once again, thank you for sharing your memories and making me think about mine!

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Liz said...

I think that my children are much more acutely aware of how much they've lost by not having known my father, or by having my husband's father die so soon ever since their two grandmothers have died. My mother-in-law only died this past December, and my daughter and niece have become incredibly aware of the things they wished they had talked with her about only this summer. They read diaries she wrote when she was about their ages and they began to see a much different person than the one they remembered. Now they really wish they had discussions with her about those years. Interestingly, even there I am the main keeper of the memories. I was the one who sat and talked with her and listened to those stories when I first got married. She told me things that she never told her children in part because I took the time to listen to her.

You are in the keeper of the memories position too. It's an awesome responsibility.


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