My village elders

It takes a village, and mine was well populated.

Father’s Day weekend is my ‘take stock’ time; gratefulness for healthy, happy, successful-in-their-own-unique-ways children, a self-check on how I’m doing as a father and grandfather.  It is also a time of reflection and a reminder of the men who played the codified  dad and grandpa roles in my life: my dad, Gramps, my pseudo-grandfather Ivar, my uncle Don and stepfather Gary.  The value of what I received from all of them is incalculable  – the sum only as great as it’s multiple, generous parts.

I am simply thankful that I was blessed by having them all.

Along with dad, Gramps, Ivar, Don, and Gary, there are other men that I think about on Father’s Day – gentlemen whose lives intersected with mine in a wide, ongoing array of ways for many years each; they all brought something special to the smorgasbord that is me.

There were Elving, Albert, Art, Cleo, and Harold, helping ride herd on me every Horseshoe Lake summer of my youth. Len, Henry, Win were family by choice, not blood.  Hjalmer and Palmer, father and uncle of boyhood friends and our up-the-street neighbors; master mechanics, guardians of our block.

It’s an impressive roll call, and humbling when I stop to think of all the time and wisdom they invested in me. Each of them played very significant roles in making me into the man – the husband, father, grandfather, teacher, and leader that I am.

The list of tactile, hard skills that I learned from these guys would fill a flash-drive: plumbing, house painting, carpentry, roofing, lumberjacking.  Ivar and would be proud that I still know my way around underneath a sink and can still handle a pipe wrench with aplomb. With satisfaction, Elving would see that with house paint and brushes, I’m pretty damn good at cutting a doorway or window.

The lines of memory blur when I try to place a specific skill to the individual in learned it from. Even so, I learned things then learned that everyone has their own way of doing things. So much the better for me.

Truth be told, it was a village effort.  No matter who may have shown me how to do something, each person added their own take on how to handle, for example, chainsaws, splitting mauls and axes, logging chains and cross-cut saws – among other tools of the wood cutting game, and when and where (and why not) to use each of them.  Knowing the difference between a framing hammer and ball peen hammer is good; skill with each of them, better.  A number of these guys took a hand in teaching me the nuances (and their own peccadilloes and quirks) about how to drive a stick shift, change spark plugs or oil in Detroit’s finest, bait a fish-hook, hoe the weeds from a potato patch, scale and filet a sunfish.

Len showed me how to use a lathe, Albert how to properly seine for minnows, Harold showed me how to whittle. I handsremember each of those initial lessons vividly, and later looks of accomplishment and satisfaction when I showed some mastery at them.  Those were just some of the unique slices of expertise I was served that stand out.  Those guys were all present (and responsible) for so much more.

I also remember others who played lesser, but powerfully remembered roles as additional father figures; Mr. Keuken across the alley, Vic the taxidermist, Joe the bartender, and Birkland the electrician.  That’s how I knew them, anyway, and what everyone else called them. Vic and Joe did have last names, Mr. Keuken and Mr. Birkland had given names.  There was also Ray, the anthropology professor-cum-writing-coach/encourager, and Super Joe the grocer: laughing boisterously is a learned skill

As I peruse this list, I know I am forgetting somebody.

To this day, I tend to get more than a bit peeved with someone when they marvel at some skill I have displayed, or expertise I have shared. “Wow, where’d you learn how to do THAT?”   Their ignorance, my bliss, I suppose. In my days as an employment counselor, I helped develop and then taught a class on skills identification – an easy and fun assignment, as I have significant expertise – and the thrill of acquiring it.

Writing that curriculum came rather easily to me. I saw it as a tribute to all of the men on this list, and quite a few others.

There is a popular meme that makes its rounds on Facebook pretty regularly stating  ‘Well, another day has passed and I still haven’t used algebra.’ I used to  share that attitude, but I now know better. Algebra? Maybe not; but the skills that go into solving equations, the critical thought involved…oh yeah, I use all of that. But I am still lousy at algebra itself. As an English teacher, I constantly have students complaining that (fill-in-the-blank) skill I am trying to impart on any given day will never be of use to them.

Their ‘aha’ moments will come for them. In time.

One more aspect to the men listed above that I have always been aware and in awe of: I wasn’t their sole focus. For the most part, there was no palpable obligation to include me in much of anything; these guys were volunteers in the purest sense of the word.  They had their own children and grandchildren, other things to occupy their time.

The skills were hands-on, as was the problem solving; the lessons often implied, frequently not grasped until after the fact.   Thanks, guys.

If you were to Venn diagram all of the key dads, granddad and facsimiles thereof in my life, the outlying rings – the ‘not in common’ stuff – would be filled to overflowing.   As a village, ‘eclectic’ would be a good name for this tribe. The inner circle – the ‘in common’ – would be full and diverse as well, and would make a good primer for how to live a life: treat people with kindness, respect, dignity. How to develop patience and put it into practice. Do onto others. Help somebody. Follow your gut and your heart, but don’t lose your head doing it. Don’t get frustrated – figure it out. Have faith, live it out.

Clichés?

A good instruction manual for how to live a life.

No, I do not regularly use most of the skills I mentioned here on a day-to-day or even-year-to year basis.  As an urban guy, I don’t have much need to lumberjack anymore, and adjusting a carburetor is not something I will probably ever need to do again. It is unlikely I’ll  anytime soon be needing to shingle a cabin, patch a fiberglass canoe, or lathe a wooden flower vase. Maybe I will someday get a chance to again pilot a pontoon boat. Will I have to treat a maple dance floor with dance wax again? Probably not – but there is always hope in that one.

Oh, I may someday get a chance to play cribbage, or whist again, hopefully.  Or canasta, chinese checkers, mumbly peg, the harmonica.  But I will definitely have to fix another toilet, and there will always be a room that needs a new paint job, something to be repaired or replaced, and each day brings something that needs to be brainstormed, benignly finagled or simply figured out.

I will always write, always need to think.  I will forever need to laugh, need to cry, need to empathize.

This is where the rubber meets the road; because of what I learned back then, refined and cultured through the years, I can dive in with confidence – anytime, ay place, anywhere. I am Mr. Problem-Solver, because of all of these guys

If anybody wonders how I can always say “I got this” it simply because….

I had them.

Advertisements

Father’s Day, 2011

Father’s Day. T-shirts that say ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mugs emblazoned with the similar (‘number 1’, ‘best’ ‘all star’ dad sentiments). Neckties given in abundance, most only worn by a dad because it came from one of his children. A Sunday in June filled with corny greeting cards – or overly sappy, sentimental ones. A dinner out at dad’s favorite cheap restaurant. Deference not usually granted in discussions. Tradition.

A big deal, to us dads.

Like for most, Father’s Day is a day that has changed dramatically in focus and thought process for me throughout the years.

When I was a kid, I eagerly awaited the day, as I always had something unique to give my dad, and that his reaction (or over reaction) would always be amusing or pleasing, and always worth the effort. This is not rose-colored glasses nostalgia; the cache of stuff given by me to my father over many years was discovered as I went through his belongings following his death when I was 27.

This included the set of reddish granite cuff links and tie bar I made for him with the rock tumbler and polisher I got from mom and dad one Christmas.Granite not a precious stone used in jewelry you say? I beg to differ. There was also a tiny bottle of ‘Hai Karate’ after-shave purchased years before at a large department store during a ‘secret shop’ for parents, chosen in secret by me and my elf escort, given with aplomb, used by dad once, never to be smelled again (I later got some Hai Karate for myself; I know why it was a one-shot, one-dab deal).

There was also more ‘mature’ gift or two; from my junior high days, the plastic egg head-on-a-stick figure stuck into a small flower pot with a small sign proclaiming something humorous and related to having a drink. (Hey, it was the 70’s) I also found some of the more yuck-inducing cards I had given him through the years, and could easily see the evolution of our relationship from kid and dad to more adult father and son. I remembered the trepidation as I once gave my father a more, umm…risqué card, and how he laughed heartily, then looked at me strangely, realizing, I am guessing, that our relationship had moved to a new and different level.

My last Father’s Day with my father came just weeks before he died of cancer. He had been Ill for a time I don’t remember much of the details, but I do remember thinking this would be the last card I would be buying him, and that I spent an inordinate amount of time choosing the funniest card I could find. My father was an aficionado of all types of humor, and it was a well-received card, much more than any maudlin sentimentality would have been at that point.

Oddly, that’s all I remember about the card of that Father’s Day.

By the time my dad died, I was a father myself; my daughter was two, and at the stage where her mother chose the card and gift. It wasn’t many years though, before I was on the receiving end of the unique, child-chosen homage trinkets and I began to amass my own collection of Father’s Day totems. It also became clear very quickly that she, too, spends more time than most in choosing a greeting card.

A few years later I was divorced, and my mother had remarried. My Father’s Day now included the ‘step father’ section at the Hallmark store (yeah, I am one of  those people – I take greeting cards seriously; my daughter comes by it honestly) and the Father’s Day cards and gifts I received were delivered during weekend visits.

Times change, Father’s Day changes.

Eventually I fell in love, remarried, and had two boys, who are now 12 and 15. Over the past nineteen years of marriage I have gone from being the non-custodial dad blending a new family to new dad again with mom-chosen gift and cards to present day, where the boys pester me about what I might like for a gift, then miss the obvious-to-me hints I drop on Facebook or stick with magnets to the refrigerator door.

Nearly two-decades ago, Father’s Day was an odd hodge-podge of emotions, with a young, transient daughter who inherited my knack for quirky, endearing gifts and off-beat, humorous cards that she has retained and refined. She will hopefully find a lot of these herself in a box someday and wonder aloud “He saved that?”

Now, the cycle will begin anew; my daughter is expecting a child of her own in November. Next June will come another, new and improved (if that’s possible) version of Father’s Day.

Ahh, as they say here in New Orleans,”It’s all good.”

Fortunately, I am still picking out those step-father cards , though I long ago just skipped the specialty section and just get something that says ‘Happy Father’s Day’ with humor. Or an e-card. (Check your email on Sunday, Gary!)

Ecards. Times do change.

In my half-century plus, I have learned that Father’s Day isn’t just about dad.

My father’s parents both died before I was born, my mother’s mother when I was four. My mom’s father (always ‘Gramps’ to me – I don’t ever remember calling him ‘grandpa’ or anything else but Gramps) was an engaging and integral part of my life until he died, just a few years before my father did. I remember fondly family vacations the four of us took; the Black Hills, Colorado, Wisconsin Dells. The year I lived with him while going to Brown Institute. Great times.

Gramps, too, held to an eclectic collection of treasures I had given him throughout the years; rock jewelry in the same vein that I had given my dad, along with a collection of handmade ashtrays and coasters from my encase-things-in-clear-acrylic phase in my early teens (less noisy but more smelly than the rock tumbler, my parents frequently used Christmas gifts to encourage my creative side) and candles from my more regrettable candle-making years, plus a couple of lopsided beer-bottle beer glasses from the year after I got a bottle-cutter kit. (keep in mind, it was the 70’s)

Some of these goodies were stashed away, but many were on prominent display in Gramps’ small apartment – including the eight-inch alligator with coins and stamps from his native Norway enclosed and visible all along the gator’s back and tail. No, there are no alligators in Norway. Yes, it is a rather ugly looking thing. But I made it, for my grandpa, and he kept it out and on prominent display for a lot of years.

There was also Ivar, at whose lake home in northern Minnesota I spent a dozen joyous childhood summers with he and his wife. Many of my friends from that era were surprised to learn years later that I wasn’t their grandchild, just a family friend. He too, left a collection of stuff from and made by me. he too, apparently, had a penchant for ugly candles he never burned. And beer glasses couldn’t drink from.

My dad, Gramps, Ivar – all are long gone from the scene, all missed on Father’s Day….at least, missed in a physical, wish-I-could-see-you-again sense.

As dads and stepdads, granddads real and ‘adopted’ go, I hit the mother (father) lode.

I was truly blessed in that regard, and their presence in my life one of the greatest of all Father’s Day gifts I have or will ever receive. They aren’t trinkets stuffed in a dresser drawer, aren’t sitting dusty on a shelf in a living room. I do have some of their physical artifacts, but the good stuff is all where it can’t be seen, but is always in use.

Best of all, I can use what they left me and partake in one of the grandest of American holiday traditions: re-gifting.

Happy Father’s Day.

Role model (requiem for dad)

He lived his life with
sly, infectious,
mock hubris
an egoless spiritual
panache

that inspired envy more
than disdain,
admiration that trumped
ridicule.

Women and men equally
found him engaging; he
counted many much older,
numerous considerably
younger than he
as close friends

Most admirably,

knowing himself
quite uniquely flawed
he never aspired to anything
other than accomplished
imperfection.