I wish my dad had permitted me to know him better. He was such an enigma to me.
I always sensed there were so many interesting things about his life he could have shared but simply chose not to. I would loved to have heard little anecdotes about his life as he was growing up, like what kind of games he played, what he and his friends did for entertainment, who his close friends were, what his family talked about at the dinner table, what kind of books he liked to read, or what it was like attending a one room school. If only I had asked questions like these while he was still alive maybe he would have answered them…..if only.
I do know some basic facts about his life. I know he was born in 1901, grew up on his parents’ farm in rural Ohio, and was the second of four children. I also know he had horses because I saw old photos of him with his horses and in every photo he had a smile on his face. But what I wish I knew were the little things like what he named his horses, where he went when he rode them, how much they meant to him, things that would have given me glimpses into what he was like as a teenager.
I know my dad’s first car was a Model T Ford and that my mother and a few of her friends stopped to admire the car when he was in town (and maybe admire my dad) and that’s how my parents met. I know that story because my mother shared it, not my dad. He never shared what attracted him to my mother other than the fact that he once jokingly said she knew nothing about farming or how to cook an egg, but in a way I guess that appealed to him because he decided to marry her and raise a large family of eight children (I was number seven).
My parents got married as The Great Depression was making its presence known. Times were hard and my dad regularly worked two jobs to support his growing family. He was foremost a farmer and he worked hard at it and I sensed that being in the fields, planting crops, cultivating, and harvesting them afforded him a certain solitude that he enjoyed. His tanned face and arms conveyed the fact that he was constantly in the sun. Though we children never commented on it to him, we often chuckled at his “farmer’s tan,” which were arms tanned up only to the elbows, the result of rolled up sleeves. He never wore short sleeved shirts or tee shirts. Instead, he wore what we called his dark green “uniform” shirts with long sleeves year round. He never shared why he preferred to wear these types of clothes every day. He just did.
My dad’s part-time jobs while farming full-time were at the local stone quarry and the nearby hay mill, both requiring hard labor. I recall seeing him come home after a long day of working two jobs, tired and dirty, sit in his favorite chair, and fall asleep while reading the newspaper. But not once did I hear him complain about working two jobs. He eventually took a full-time job working for the Ohio Department of Highways while still maintaining his farm work. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to fully grasp how devoted he was to his family and how willing he was to do what he needed to do to support them.
I don’t recall that my dad ever played childhood games with us children, that he took us fishing or threw the ball with us, or that he ever held us on his lap and read stories to us. I don’t recall that he ever attended a parent-teacher conference or attended school functions, or that he took us to Sunday School. I don’t think he was inclined to take part in family recreational activities, but even if he would have wanted to I doubt that after working two jobs each day he had much energy left over to participate.
The older I get the more I admire him for the tremendous commitment he had to his family. I wish I had seen this more clearly at the time and let him know how much I appreciated his efforts.
My grandmother died when I was seven years old and my dad had concerns about my grandfather living alone. So he made arrangements for us to move in with my grandfather on his farm and care for him. Up to this point I had not known my grandfather well, but over the next few years became aware of how much alike he and my father were. It was amazing how similar their values, interests, and behaviors were.
When I was sixteen, my grandfather had a stroke and was hospitalized. He was incoherent and at times combative with the hospital staff. My father said little about it but I could sense how sad he was to my grandfather’s condition. He faithfully visited him in the morning before he went to work and later before he went home from work.
On one occasion my dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to the hospital. I was surprised at the invitation and gladly agreed to accompany him. What I experienced at that visit gave me insights into my dad that I will never forget and opened my eyes to a whole different side of him.
I watched as dad took his electric shaver and shaved my grandfather. I was amazed at how careful and gentle he was. I watched as he ran his hands over his father’s face and rubbed his forehead with a tenderness I had never seen in him. And I watched as he examined the constraints that were on my grandfather’s arms because of his combativeness and I saw tears well in my dad’s eyes. I watched this man that I didn’t know very well hover over his father with a compassion I didn’t think existed. That visit was a moment in time that froze in my mind forever. I’ll never forget it. He said nothing about the visit after we left but what I saw was worth a thousand words.
A second moment in time is frozen in my mind. My dad, who never attended school functions, showed up at my high school graduation. He never told me he was going to be there and I didn’t expect it. He just showed up. He had on the only suit he owned, the suit he only wore for special occasions, mostly funerals, and his shoes were dusted off and shined. It was all I could do to keep from crying as I looked out at the audience and saw him sitting there with my mother. As usual, he didn’t talk about it after the ceremony. He didn’t slap me on the back and say, “Congratulations, son, I’m proud of you.” He didn’t have to. He was just there. Again, what I saw was worth a thousand words.
A third moment in time that’s frozen in my mind was when my eight year old niece died from leukemia. I’m not sure how it happened that my dad was riding in the car with me as we left the cemetery. What I do remember is him crying and saying, “I wish the Lord would have taken me instead of her.” I honestly think he would have given his life for hers. Again, I saw a part of my dad that I had not known.
Dad died when I was forty-one. I miss him. I wish I could have had more years with him. I wish I could re-live pieces of the past and share stories with him. I wish I could have a cup of coffee with him or maybe lots of coffee (he loved his coffee) and just talk. I wish we could have hugged each other and said, “I love you.”
As I look back over those forty-one years I had with him, much of his life is still an enigma to me. There’s so much I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have been fortunate to have had some important glimpses of him as a dad and as a person. And the glimpses have shown me how special he was. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he shared much more of his life than I thought. What he shared is enough. I’m convinced he thoroughly enjoyed his role as a “dad,” but he did it his way. I’m just glad he was my dad.
by Charles Milton Lee