I recently finished reading Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace. It is a humorous and warm look at the author's father, but with a twist. It is almost as if the father were a mythological being. He outlines the Three Labors which his father accomplished, one of which was saving a three-year-old girl from a wild dog.
I can be proud because my father also accomplished several labors in his life, twelve in all like the immortal Hercules. So there.
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ONE- He finished the upstairs. The house my parents originally built was a simple one-story salt box Colonial, with a living room, kitchen, bath, master bedroom, and children's bedroom for the two toddlers. This was a huge improvement over what was basically a small apartment in the city-run housing development after the war. But when a third child was on its way, the one-story had to be exploded into a two-story. I doubt this is ever done nowadays, but basically the roof was cut off and lifted up so a second floor could be inserted under it. You could still the line if you looked closely at the stairway walls.
So anyway, he paid for someone to raise the roof, for plumbers to put in the second bath, for electricians to put in the wiring. Then he went to work plastering and painting the walls, laying rubber tiles on the floors of four rooms, and moving the older children's furniture up there so each would have his and her own bedroom. He threw sand into the plaster so that it would have some texture. He mixed the paint colors himself, always adding a touch of blue no matter what the final color was.
And then he put his foot thru the floor of the unfinished storage room. At that point, there were just the joists and ceiling plaster between the storage room and the master bedroom below it. Well, somehow dad's foot slipped off a board and his leg up to the knee protruded from the bedroom ceiling. Cussing up a storm, he managed to extract himself and go about mixing a batch of plaster to patch the hole. If you looked at the ceiling in the right light, you could barely make out the outlines of where the hole had been.
TWO- He built the garage. It was a beauty. While he forever kidded that the next big storm would tear off the top of the house, no such thing would ever happen to this solidly-built garage. A two-car garage with room for a line of cabinets along the left for large and small tools and supplies, it was roomy in a way that no room of the house ever was.
He went to the library to find a book on how to build a garage. When the inspector came, he thought it looked like an old-time carpenter had done the job. When the outlines of the walls were constructed, us kids and mom all came out to hold an old-fashioned barn raising. It was fun, even without the big feed that was supposed to go along with barn-raisings in the movies. Anyway, he had some help from a brother to put up the big ceiling beams; those were massive and even my dad's muscle was not enough to control such long beams while trying to nail them, too.
THREE, FOUR and FIVE- Raising a son and two daughters. Doting on them is more accurate. No one grew up to be a doctor or lawyer, but at least we all stayed out of prison.
SIX- He managed to stay married for fifty years to the same lady. Never sent flowers to her, just kept coming home every night for supper, and handed over his paycheck to the bookkeeper of the family.
SEVEN- He worked on the bubble chamber project for the Argonne Lab. His company got the contract to build the magnet for the bubble chamber (the University of Michigan received the contract to build the main unit). This was a huge job, the magnet when complete was about the size of a city block. And precision up the wazoo – the tolerances for each piece were measured in ten-thousandths of an inch.
EIGHT- Fought the good war, you know, that WWII thing. Fixed the fighter planes so that they stayed up in the air and gave the pilots a chance to get their licks in. Got four bronze stars. Never told us kids what those bronze stars were for – oh no, that might seem to be bragging, and anyway the real heroes didn't come back home. I do know that one time he had to hang out the plane and manually crank down the landing gear, which refused to budge otherwise.
NINE- Spoke two languages, he said. Polish and broken English. He was only kidding, his English was pretty good – he rarely had to point at stuff to get what he wanted.
TEN- Teaching all of us kids how to drive. Sure, we had the Drivers' Ed classes. But someone still had to put a family car at risk of scratches and dents and let us practice the parallel parking and Y-turns. And he had to teach Mom, too, ages ago. Now that was a good one. How they managed to stay married thru that, I don't know. He told her to put on the gas, and she did. In reverse, right into some shrubbery.
ELEVEN- He told me he loved me. Telling a family member that you love them often falls into the category of stuff-you-wish-you-had-done-and-now-it's-too-late. Well, he did this one years ahead of the point of imminent death.
TWELVE- He died without complaining to everyone within earshot of every ache and pain. After a lifetime proclaiming that dying was easy, it's living that's hard, now he had to prove it. Dang, don't you hate it when you have to live up to one of your personal mottoes. Went in the hospital on a Thursday, died on Saturday, my that was quick n easy.
Some forgotten book I read described a father's death like this: You know there is that mountain over yonder, looking like it will be there forever. Then one day you look and the mountain is gone.
That's what it is like when a good father dies – the mountain vanishes, it's like it was never there, and only you and your memories are evidence that at one time, there was a beautiful mountain in that spot.