Sunday, June 16, 2013

Had the Time of His Life

My dad had a funny relationship with his mother-in-law. It was one of those relationships that you had to witness to vaguely understand. You also had to live with my dad to appreciate what he invested and tolerated in that relationship. But what it all boiled down to was the fact that my dad enjoyed my grandma. Despite the fact that she never really took her foot off of his neck – not since he left my mom in the lurch and went into the seminary his sophomore year of college when his parents gave him no other option.

What we saw, especially in Esther’s senior years, was a dance of two sharp-witted people: Esther never letting my dad forget that he was constantly under scrutiny and my dad always intent on making Esther laugh. I think she was a sucker for his humor and charm, even though she would never admit it. In the end, I have never seen a son-in-law willingly and enjoyably give so much of his time and energy to his mother-in-law. And I’ve seen a lot of things.

My dad was definitely grateful to Esther. She gave him the best thing he ever got out of life. She also outlived my dad’s mother by over 20 years. So maybe she filled a void for him, in a way.

I had a fun relationship with my dad. He had his stressful moments, but, honestly, those are blurry, rare spots in my memory bank. Except for the time he backed out of his parents’ driveway after a much-needed drop-off of kids and bent the rear passenger door backward against the brick house because one of us forgot to close it! That one sticks! But even that is more legend than scar. Fatherhood is hard work. Even in the 60s and 70s when we recall how men were less involved with childrearing, it was hard work in a different way. Most of my dad’s working life was spent in jobs he really didn’t like. An amazing thing about those situations is that none of his co-workers ever knew he was dissatisfied. Even more amazing is he kept his career disappointment out of the house. I think that is a phenomenal accomplishment, while feeding a family of 6 by working jobs he really couldn’t stand.

Me, Maureen & Dad
My dad always made time for fun. It was so natural. It was built in to his personality. We had raucous games of “Michigan Kitty” using his big 10-gallon bottle of pennies for betting. He took us white-water rafting with his buddies or ours. He took us camping, from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon and back. He tried to use one of us to pay off a speeding ticket on a family outing. He told us to pull up a seat to watch Johnny Carson with him as we snuck in late from a night out with friends. He played on a men’s softball team until my former classmates were on his team, and then he still needed persuading to retire. He mixed a mean whiskey sour and hosted hilarious charades parties with his many friends. He vamped in the revue at the college where he taught. He wore wigs off of mannequins when he took us shopping on Christmas Eve to have us “help” pick out gifts for Mom.  He volunteered at the K of C's haunted house for years, bringing us in to scare the daylights out of us. He whipped us all at every board game - especially Trivial Pursuit - but made losing fun. He conducted the orchestra from his car’s driver seat, complete with a baton he kept stuck in the air vent. He held up scorecards with the number 10 after my solo music competition. He let me play pick-up hoop games in our driveway with his friends. He slid down Sharkey’s Hill on only a trash bag with two leg holes (a hill that would be classified as a cliff by today’s standards). He took us ice skating, indoors and out. He organized a city-wide bike ride on the new highway, before it officially opened. He and Gene Hanzely stole the show at our Jr. year Father/Daughter Dinner Dance. He taught me to waltz so we could dance together in style at my wedding reception.

He wrote us each letters on the day we were born and tucked them away for safe keeping. He helped me figure out what it means to be a good person and how a man should love and respect his wife. He always showed up. He gave and he gave and he gave. He made me laugh until I cried.

He went out of his way to give strangers a pick-me-up. You never knew when he would burst out in a public place and start a conversation with someone nearby. You always knew he would try to break up the monotony of a waitress' day with his "surprise me" order. He enjoyed what he had. And when his physical mobility was slowly, then rapidly, taken from him, he accepted it with amazing grace and humor. 

I take so many pointers from him, it would be silly to list them here. But most recently, he is reminding me to not wish for things to be different: To enjoy what I have. "Having the time of my life" wherever he went was borderline crazy - or at least appeared so to outsiders. You were right, all along, Dad!