Yesterday's Magazette

4 – Dad Was My Rock

Dad Was My Rock

By Sheron Donahue

Like the little old woman who couldn’t feed her brood, Dad’s mom couldn’t provide for all her offspring. But unlike the woman in the shoe, his mom knew exactly what to do.

She sent Doc, as Dad was called, and his two brothers, from Maine to Mooseheart—a little farming area in Illinois that housed and schooled orphaned children of Moose members; and also cared for youngsters of members who could no longer feed their children—kids like Doc.

After graduation from Mooseheart, Doc met and married Veronica, and they began their journey together through the Great Depression and World War II. He tried to enlist in the Army, but was turned down due to poor vision, classified 4-F. Some termed it four-eyes. Still, he forged ahead with his ingrained ethics and worked in a nearby town running a printing press.

In the evenings, Doc helped around the house. Above all else, he treated Mom like a queen. He cooked, tucked in the clean bed sheets, and carried hot water from the stove, dumping the buckets into a galvanized tub for the family’s weekly baths. He also fixed the neighbors’ radios. Sometimes, it simply meant changing the burned out tubes. When the sounds of The Shadow or President Roosevelt’s speech crackled across the airwaves again, they gratefully handed Doc pocket change for his trouble.

Before he married Mom, she had been deserted by her first husband and left to raise two little ones on her own. During my parents’ early years together, her ex appeared and stole the girls away. Doc set out hunting for the children and didn’t stop looking until he found them in a nearby state. They had been left alone in an attic, huddled together—dirty, hungry and cold. He wrapped them in blankets and drove them straight home to their frantic mother. The kidnapper never returned.

Ten years into their marriage, this little rascal (namely me) came along, disrupting their even-keeled lives. But Doc—Dad, as I knew him—didn’t mind. Even before I reached school age, he took me fishing. The two of us dug for worms in the backyard, and then trekked to a spot behind the library. Dad taught me to thread a worm on a hook just as the sun glistened on the river. We kept an eye on our cork bobbers while listening to the water lap the rocks. When we caught enough, he cooked the fish over a small fire. Then, we ate our delectable dish, just as our little town bustled to life.

Dad and I also ventured into the woods that meandered down a hill, right across the road from his old alma mater. The leaves crunched under our feet as we gathered fresh green-skinned walnuts. After drying the nuggets in the sun, we pounded off the hard skin. Later, we cracked open the brown shells, using a pick to dig out every last morsel.

On a warm summer evening, my dad hammered holes in an old Mason jar lid with an ice pick, so I could catch fireflies. We named each lightning bug as we placed them in the jar. Later, we released them back into the night.

My dad was handy around the house. One time though, after squeezing through a trap door in the bathroom’s floor to repair the plumbing underneath, he left to fetch another tool. That’s when I came tearing through the house into the bathroom and fell straight through the gaping hole, skinning my sides from my waist to underarms. (It felt like a tiger had just sharpened its claws on my sides.) Dad hearing my scream came running and pulled me out. He tended to my wounds and apologized—for weeks.

I spent many fun hours in that bathroom’s old cast-iron tub, playing in the bubbles. So, when Dad showed me a picture of two girls in a bubble bath, he said it was me playing in the suds with none other than Margaret O’Brien. Later he said, “I was just pulling your leg.” Sure, after I showed the snapshot to everyone I knew. Now, he tells me. Painfully, I had to admit the other girl more likely did resemble Elizabeth Taylor.

When I turned five, my oldest sister prepared for her wedding. During the hustle and bustle, I snuck off to the river. Dad led a frantic search for me. When I was found, I was grounded and not allowed to attend the ceremony. However, my father was elected to stay home with his impish daughter; so he also missed the wedding.

Dad fixed the toaster when its side doors no longer closed due to a broken spring or, sometimes, he replaced its frayed cord. He painted the house and planted seeds for green onions, carrots, lettuce and luscious tomatoes. His green thumb produced purple and yellow irises and blazing colored tulips. He proudly added a little white picket fence around his blooming beds. He not only taught me how to scrape off the old paint, sand, and apply new, he showed me how to use a spade, dig a trench, and sprinkle the little seeds into the furrows. Then, he said, “Cover the rows with dirt and pat it all down firmly and make sure to water daily, but gently.”

He demonstrated how to cool the house on blistering hot evenings. With no air-conditioning in those days, Dad propped a huge fan in his bedroom window. He told me to crack open certain windows which would pull the cool air in while expelling the hot air out through the fan. Outside of the fact that it really cooled the house, the best part was when I heard the motor’s thunderous roar. Then, I would walk partly up the stairs, stand still, and watch the strong breeze lift my skirt in the air.

My parents had hoped for a boy and picked out the name of Michael. The closest I came to that was being a tomboy. But Dad treated me like the son he never had. He explained all his handyman tricks to me, and I put them to good use in my adult years.

One day, I watched from the window as Dad tended his garden. Suddenly, he stopped and looked at the disheveled ground under the window. Then he glanced up at the roof and his lips pursed. Oh, oh! I thought. Now I’m in for it. He sees my footprints and the bent gutter. Sure enough, he headed in the house and ordered me to pull down my britches while yanking off his belt.

I pleaded, “Dad, I’m too old for you to spank my bare behind. I’m ten now.” He froze momentarily, and then ordered me to my room. Soon, he appeared with a hammer, and nailed my window shut. I couldn’t climb out and jump off that roof anymore. However on the first hot day, he pulled out the nails and allowed a breeze to enter. He never mentioned my stunt again. Of course, I never jumped off the roof again, either.

When my seventh grade teacher announced an upcoming spring dance, I begged Dad for a new dress. That’s when he sat me down and showed me where all the money had to go, and why there wasn’t enough. But later, he added, “I’ll put a nickel in the wish jar every time you remember to shut off the water while brushing your teeth and when you turn off the lights when you leave a room.” I also noticed my parents scrimped on meals, and dropped the extra coins in the jar. Dad even slipped a little extra into my allowance for good grades, and I gladly plunked it all in the jar. The night of the dance, I pranced off to the school in my new party dress.

During my teen years, a friend confided, “I think your dad is mean. He scares me.” But she didn’t know him like I did. Yes, I sometimes treaded softly around him, especially when I tested his patience. But by this age, I could usually finagle my way into getting what I wanted. Sometimes, when I did something unacceptable, like bringing home a bad grade, I had to wait for just the right moment to penetrate his hard shell. Yet, once I found this softer side, I avoided the harsh punishment he originally had planned for me.

Dad toted this adolescent to football games, potlucks and concerts. He took turns standing in the pouring rain so his adult daughter could receive unemployment. Then, he trudged out in sub-zero weather to start my stalled car. When I divorced and needed assistance, he fixed my broken furnace, and slipped me a $20 bill. “Here,” he said. “Your cupboards are bare, get the kids some food, but don’t tell your mother.”

I thought he’d taught me all he could, until I found a scrap of paper with a little poem he wrote long before I became a twinkle in his eyes: My darling, my life, you agreed to be my wife…..  If only he had lived to know I shared his love of writing. He gave me so much—his knowledge, patience, compassion, dignity, and good old-fashioned morals. Dad was my rock—the mountain I built my life on. He will, forever, be missed.

Vol. 37 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Summer- 2010

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