“The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.” ~ G. K. Chesterton
I’d like to think my dad just started telling me stories about his life—why he didn’t serve in WWII (he had a deferment as the only son left on the family farm) or where he earned a college scholarship (UW-Madison) and why he didn’t go (he thought he was “smart enough already”)—though most likely I just started paying attention. It charms me that over 75 years later he can recall the exact amount of money he lost when the local bank collapsed during the Depression ($12.12) or that when he and my mom married and moved to Chippewa Falls in 1948 they had no furniture, not even a bed. They went to a store downtown, and when their furniture couldn’t be delivered for days my dad threatened not to buy it. Their bed showed up later that afternoon, and it’s still in their upstairs bedroom. I slept on it throughout high school and college without knowing its history.
Any father story is a story about a family. Now more than ever, as my mom succumbs to Alzheimer’s, I want to know the ordinary details of my parent’s lives. My older siblings recall where Mom and Dad took them before their weekly ride to Irvine Park: Creamland Dairy for a nickel cone. And the flavor Dad liked best: maple nut. Or how Dad distributed Christmas presents from under the tree? He threw them to us, and Mom yelled at him to stop. And Dad’s advice when we drove anywhere? “Keep ’er on the road.” Or the product Dad went to Iowa to buy because it was illegal in Wisconsin in the early 1960’s? Margarine.
For my dad’s 83rd birthday party, I compiled a list of memories about his life for a “Joe See Trivia” game. Here are just a few from the pages my siblings sent me:
What was Dad’s Saturday night routine when his kids were small? He gave baths to two of us at a time, and he saved the water for the next two. When we were all out of the tub, he lined us up on the floor in front of the couch and combed our hair and made waves with the white Tupperware comb. Dad always took his bath last.
What was his usual punishment for naughty kids? He made us kneel on the floor register.
What did Dad call his little kids when they did something dumb? Kaczka dupa. (Bonus question: What does that mean? Polish for “duck butt.”)
Name at least two of the “delicacies” Dad used to make that his kids wouldn’t eat? Pickled pigs’ feet, which he called “soltz.” Head cheese. Tongue sandwiches.
What did Dad always say when someone asked if he wanted a drink? “You don’t have to twist my arm.”
How did he call us all to supper? “Soup’s on.”
At his birthday party, my oldest sister read our questions out loud and some of his 8 kids and 16 grandkids called out answers. We often turned to Dad to confirm the correct one.
“Beats me,” he said. Or, “I don’t remember that.” Had it been a competition, my dad surely would have lost.
Maybe the poet Anne Sexton was right: “It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” Here’s what I remember most about my dad: everywhere he went—to church or the grocery store, the tavern or a basketball game, small town or metro area—he talked to everyone as if they were old friends. My dad always showed up. School meetings, football-basketball-volleyball-baseball games, god-awful beginning piano and guitar concerts, grade school plays, First Communion, and Confirmation. Just sitting through more than two dozen high school and college commencement speeches may qualify him for sainthood. Even less tangible, consider how many fishing lines he untangled for his little ones or how many sleepless nights he spent worrying about all of us.
I remember my dad never let me win at cards, and he called me “the wood tick” because I constantly clung to my mom. I hated when he called me that name, but later I discovered teasing was love for my dad. He teased me a lot.
Recently a picture of my mom and me resurfaced, lost for years in an attic shoebox. In the photo, I’m wedged in a lawn chair with my mom, asleep on her shoulder, my fingers gripping her even as I snoozed. For the first time I see that my dad was right—I was her wood tick. According to the writing on the back, the picture was taken at Barron County Park, Memorial Day weekend, 1974. I was almost six years old.
When my dad showed me the picture my eyes welled. “Oh,” I said. “Oh.” Later I gushed to him, “I remember Mom’s green sweatshirt with the gold lining that she wore camping all the time. And I loved my blue flannel pajamas. Look how the knees are worn.” My dad gazed at the photo.
“Yeah,” he said, “and I really liked that lawn chair. We could never find another lounge like it.”
I’m the youngest, what my mom called her “change-of-life-child.” She loved babies and had to know I’d be her last one, so perhaps we clung to each other. All I know for sure is that I sat on her lap till long after I was taller than she, my spidery legs hanging down the sides of her rocking chair.
My mom no longer knows me, nor any of her children or grandchildren, and—most tragic to me—she’s forgotten who she is. Yet she can sing most of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and say all of the “Our Father,” and after sixty years of marriage she still recognizes her Joe.
One morning, months ago, I washed and dressed my mom and walked her out to the living room. She spotted my dad in the kitchen and intentionally changed her direction to get closer to him. When she was about six feet away she said, “Hi Joe, hi Joe, hi Joe,” in her softest little girl voice.
I laughed and said to my dad, “How many ‘Hi Joe’s’ do you think you get in one day?” He shook his head. I started to lead my mom back to the living room. She planted her feet and said to me, “What do you mean?”
I told her, “Every time you walk into a room you say ‘Hi Joe’ like it’s the first time you’re seeing him.”
“Well,” she said, “that’s love.”
As her Alzheimer’s got worse, my mom endured bouts of anger, depression, and outright confusion—which meant my dad endured them. He still cares for her at home with the help of his kids. As we try to ease our mother’s dying, my father’s position as Dad is the one he falls back on.
“Be a good girl,” he says sweetly to his wife when he leaves for the grocery store or when he slips off to take a nap. For over 83 years, my dad has accepted his duties as son and brother, farm boy and railroad worker, husband and friend, but it seems that his role as “father” sustains him. After all, he’s had plenty of practice.
A version of this appeared in the Chippewa Herald on 6/21/09 as “Life Lessons from Joe See: A Daughter Examines her Dad’s life on Father’s Day.”