This time of year is particularly difficult for me, and as some of my exchanges with my children have proven that it is for them, too. My father passed away eleven years ago. During his wake, to add a little humor, my daughter hung a skeleton with a missing leg off a bowl of Halloween candy which we provided to those who came to pay their respects. Just weeks before he died, Dad has his leg amputated due to an infection that spread from his toe up his extremity. The move was to save his life, but my guess, he gave up hope––what little hope he had left in his soul. Not even the promise of his first great-grandchild could entice him hold on. My daughter had just found out that she was pregnant and shared the news with him as he lay in his hospital bed. As I look around at my life now, watching my children raise their own––four in total––he is missing out on a lot. And so are they.
Of the one thing I know for sure, my father loved my children, and he loved spending time with them. Each day after work, after the birth of my daughter he would drop by our house, just to say hello. On one occasion, she had just dumped a plate of spaghetti on her head, creating a comic scene for dad and I to share.
Like most of us, my father was a complicated person. He was a hard-working man who provided for his family. We never went without. We may not have been “high on the hog,” as he would say, but we always had a roof over our head and food on the table. The family car was always new, and my parents took us on vacations to such places like Misquamicut, Rhode Island, New Brunswick, Canada, and to my grandparents fishing cabin near Jasonville, Indiana. There were always presents under the Christmas tree and new shoes before school each year.
I have memories of visiting Dad when he operated the train at the cement plant. I was probably ten at the time. Getting to blow the horn at the road crossing was a huge highlight for my siblings and me. There are also memories of family walks in the fields behind our home in Upstate New York. As my brother and I hopped from bog to bog in one marshy section, Dad stood by watching with my sister perched upon his shoulders. There were also ice fishing excursions on Copake Lake with my maternal grandfather and squirrel hunting trips with the teenaged boys who lived in the neighborhood.
As I grew older, Dad and I would have long conversations when he came home from work. I would often do my homework on the dining room table that was reserved for holiday events and birthday parties. He would come into the house and turn on the stereo after grabbing a sixteen ounce bottle of Schmidts from the refrigerator. As he sat at the head of the table, wearing just his white t-shirt and grey work pants, he turned his chair so he could see the yard. At first, conversations were sparse, as the music serenaded us. Tom Jones, Julio Inglesias, and the Bee Gees often topped the playlist. After the beer set in, he began talking more and more. I wish I could remember all of what he said. He often was reminisced about his time in the Air Force, where he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. Then there was his adventures on the family farm in Indiana. I remember he said he had been bucked off a horse once and that an uncle was so dark that he wasn’t allowed to purchase property. I’m sure with time, I’ll remember more. Especially now that I’ve made this a priority––to capture as many stories as possible for my children.
There’s so much I wish I could speak with him about now. I would love to know his dreams––the ones he fulfilled and the ones that went to the grave with him. Those are the ones that likely haunted his soul and caused him to turn to the six pack of Schmidts night after night. There are other questions as well. Like who was Ursula and what did she mean to you? At some point over the years, I had a ladies gold watch in my possession engraved to her and signed, “Love, Johnny.” Was she the source of his greatest pain, left behind in Germany, when he was flown back to the U.S. because of stomach issues? Why didn’t he go back for her? What made him stay with mom when it was obvious that they were pretty miserable together? How did he handle the loss of his first child, my older brother who was stillborn, about a year before my own birth?
There are some questions that will go unanswered, but hopefully, as my sister and I pour through the collection of papers my mother left behind, we will find some clues. I also have two aunts who are still living. Maybe they can shed some light on my father’s life, as well as those of my grandparents.
These stories might just weave together a grander picture of my own search for happiness and contentment––and be of interest and perhaps assistance to my children and their children as they move through life. My own deep sadness over stories lost, dreams unrecognized, and a deep desire to collect as many stories for my children and my grandchildren are moving me to find answers.
I know I’m not alone in wanting to preserve family legacy stories. So each week, I’ll add tips about how to collect questions and find answers in those still among the living. In essence, I’ll be sharing what I discover and how best to go about capturing the gold within our family histories.