Personal, Stories Told

Trips to the store with Dad

About once a week I wish I could forward Dad an article I found on Hacker News. Dad and I enjoyed many of the same nerdy math and science topics. We especially shared in interest in the history of mathematics. I gave him those textbooks from college, which he kept until he died.

I wish my relationship with my father could have been closer. We never figured it out while he lived. We had the best relationship we were capable of, usually cordial and sometimes warm. I guess that’s not too bad, but it was a disappointment to me. I would not be surprised if it was a disappointment to him, too. I think both of us wanted something from our relationship that the other couldn’t give.

I sometimes think that if I could go back, I’d have a heart-to-heart with him about it. But then I remember that I tried more than once, and he would never go there. Maybe he didn’t know how. I give him the benefit of that doubt. It helps me accept.

I wanted us to share more experiences together so we could have good memories with each other. It’s why when I was 22 I convinced him to make a trip with me to his West Virginia childhood home, a place I’d never been. It was a good trip, but it didn’t bring that closeness I wished for. Nothing did, not enough. Perhaps that’s why I now look back through childhood for moments I can claim.

When I was small, once in a while when Dad needed to buy something he’d take me along. Not usually — I think he rather liked running his errands alone. I’m just like that myself. I love the feeling of freedom and autonomy. But when Dad brought me along I knew the deal: I had to keep up with him, stay quiet, not touch the merchandise — and never pester him to buy me anything.

Brite-Way. Joe Yaciw photo.

Dad went to two stores in particular: Cook’s, a cut-rate department store in a strip mall, and Brite-Way, a hardware store, more or less. Both are long gone. Brite-Way in particular was an institution on South Bend’s south side and longtime residents still miss it though it went out of business more than 30 years ago. But I have clear memories of both stores from the trips with Dad, even though our trips there were short. Typical of men, he didn’t shop. He went straight for what he was there to buy, and then we were out.

Even as a small boy I wished Dad were warmer on those trips, and that he would do something small and special just for me — buy me a candy bar, or carry me on his shoulders, or even just talk to me about the thing he was buying and why he needed it. That wasn’t my father.

But I can still hear his voice in my head: “C’mon, Jimbo! Let’s run up to Brite-Way.” I still remember my mind and body filling with feel-good vibes when he said it. It was just us men on the trip! I watched Dad closely to take in his behavior. This must be how men behave when they’re out in the world by themselves! I noticed how he moved through the store and how he evaluated this brand versus that. He was unfailingly pleasant and engaging with the checkout clerk. I paid close attention and emulated it the minute I was old enough to go to the corner drug store by myself. I still do it.

Me on the bumper of Dad’s van, used to haul lumber and finished pieces

There are other memories. Dad started making custom cabinetry and furniture in the 80s. It was a side business when the plant was running and his primary work when he was laid off. He usually had me help unload lumber or load a finished piece, and sometimes he’d need me to hold a piece in place while he cut or joined it. Mostly, he pressed me into service sanding his assembled pieces. I hated sanding! But it was time together in his basement workshop, building something that mattered. Many of his pieces went to the University of Notre Dame, where they are still used. He had learned classic joinery, techniques to connect wood without fasteners like screws or nails, and he frequently showed me the techniques. He was clearly trying to teach me something in case I could ever use it. I think that this was the only way he knew how to be close to me.

Several times a year our family drove up into Michigan to the little lake my grandparents lived on. We had no money for vacations, making these trips the closest thing to unstructured family downtime we had. I saw a different side of Dad at the lake, one of some relaxation and leisure. He rose before dawn to fish for bass, and would be gone for hours. He usually went alone, but sometimes my uncle Jack went with him. Dad came back in a good mood even when the fish didn’t bite. In his good mood there was an ease, a permissiveness, that let me settle into the good times there.

I made only one photo of Dad at the lake. Here it is:

It was a hot summer day. It was probably my brother’s birthday, because he’s on a blurry photo later in the roll blowing out candles. Dad uncharacteristically needed a nap that afternoon and stretched out on my grandparents’ big green davenport. That’s what Grandma always called it, the davenport.

I also remember going to visit my dad’s Uncle William. He and Aunt Frieda lived in an old house downtown. We used to go over there to watch the city’s Fourth of July fireworks from their front porch. Sometimes Uncle Tom came over and the three men sat around William’s parlor talking about work, telling stories from their jobs past and present. When Dad was just starting out, William and Tom got Dad his first good job and they worked together for some years, so their mutual work history went way back. My brother and I were welcome in the parlor if we sat quietly, but we mostly watched TV in the room across the entryway. We could hear everything, of course. Those men obviously loved swapping their stories.

In the last couple years we had Dad, his vision deteriorated. After a minor car accident, he finally admitted he couldn’t see anymore and gave up driving. Of all the big-box hardware stores I prefer Menards. But to get to the Menards nearest my home, I had to pass a Lowe’s, a Home Depot — and Dad’s place. So anytime I went to Menards, I called Dad to see if he wanted to ride along. He always said yes, his voice unmistakably eager. We always talked a little about the home project that brought me to Menards that day; if he had any experience to share he always shared it. To the end, he hoped to teach me something. Then he’d ask me about my work and listen to my stories. Sometimes one of my stories triggered a memory of one of his, and he’d regale me with his tale.

I will always wish he had stretched himself, met me in the middle, to connect with me in the ways I wanted. But Dad connected with me in the ways he knew how. I stretched myself as far as I could to try to meet him in the middle, but it wasn’t enough.

Dad would have been 80 on Saturday. He died three years ago yesterday.

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24 thoughts on “Trips to the store with Dad

  1. Mike P says:

    My Dad died when he was 37 years old, I was only 8. Phlebitis got him, a pulmonary embolism, they didn’t have the treatments then that they do now. As I grew, through my teenage years, into adulthood and parenting and now as a grandfather, I often found myself studying others around me. Mostly males and the relationships that they had or didn’t have with their fathers. I experienced a bit of jealousy of those who had what seemed to be good relationships with their fathers, the ones who spent time with each other. Doing all of the things that I never got the chance to. And often found myself scratching my head over those that didn’t. I remember going to New Jersey to visit a close friend whom I served in the Marine Corps with and going to his house to meet his folks. His Mom was the typical doting one, all “Let me fix you boys something to eat”. His Dad made a brief appearance and was then gone. I saw the disappointment in my friend’s eyes when he tried to explain it away, but he couldn’t hide it. It was then that the reality sat in, that not every male is cut out for parenting, at least not past the part of impregnating his mate. I watched that friend marry, have kids and begin to do those same things that his Dad did. I’ve taken that knowledge and kept it tucked back, always trying to give guys the benefit of the doubt when I judge their parenting skills. But ultimately knowing that some men just don’t have what it takes. It’s a vicious cycle.

    • I think it’s on each of us to try to break our family cycle. All families have them — the patterns that repeat in our families that do nobody any good. It’s hard to see the cycle let alone break it, but that’s no reason not to try.

  2. A lovely and poignant description of your relationship with your father. This one resonates with me as my father and I were similarly mismatched when it came to bonding. I still wonder if either of us tried hard enough to meet on the other’s emotional turf.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Jim, yours is a great story about the Dad/Lad dynamic! Those who know about these things say that fathers and sons usually draw apart in the sons early teens years, and then start drawing closer together when the son ages into his 30’s-40’s. A lot of people just run out of time…

    I had the fortune of having older parents, but the downside is that my Dad passed at 87 when I was only 49. Altho I’m grateful I wasn’t a kid being raised by “kids”, I envy my friends who are my age and their parents are still alive. My last Dad/Lad outing was taking my Dad on the train to Chicago for lunch on his 80th birthday, and that trip on the train made him open up about a lot of things I had always wondered about. Unfortunately, I left for Washington DC after that, and didn’t see my parents much except for a weekend here and there until I spent the summer before he died, for a few months, in between jobs in DC.

    When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, my parents always bought all the Sunday papers, I believe there were three. I remember as a kid, walking down to the corner paper kiosk with my Dad on Saturday night to buy the “bulldog” editions of the Sunday paper; I still remember it to this day. Wilson and Clark in Chicago.

    • I lost my dad when I was 50, but he was just 77. He was the oldest male Grey anyone can remember, however. The men in my family don’t live to old age.

      It sounds like you have some truly lovely memories of your father! That’s fortunate.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        If I had to warn people about one thing: please, please, PLEASE audio record your parents. I could never get my Dad to sit down and record anything with me, and my Mom died the spring I was going to take a digital recorder and record her while I was driving around her neighborhoods in Evanston, so it never happened. I’ve been a photographer since I was 13, and I have plenty of pictures,, and some movies, of my parents; but it’s their voices I miss. I occasionally used to call my Mom’s house when she wasn’t there, just to listen to my Dad’s voice on the answering machine, but the machine ate the tape before I could get it off of there!

        With the ability to record on smart phones, as well as the proliferation of sub-hundred dollar audio recorders, you could just place your unit on the table and turn it on, anytime your parents are getting poetic! They wouldn’t even know! You will cherish it when they’re gone!

        • I do miss my dad’s voice. Unfortunately, in the last five years of his life his voice became thin and strained thanks to the cancer treatments. I had some voice mails from him in the weeks before he died that I saved but never listened to again because I wanted to remember his voice as it was. Then a glitch blew up my phone and I lost them. :-(

  4. Michael says:

    As you know, I’m in sort of the same boat. I’m hoping my parent’s apparently imminent move to IN will help our relationship through more exposure if nothing else. If they do end up in TH, I at least plan to go watch football with him as often as I can. I was pretty frustrated that he didn’t help me much when I went down to help get their house prepped for listing. I’m not really sure why that was. I know he didn’t have the greatest relationship with his father, and while I’m better than him in some ways I can clearly see that I still have some of his negative traits to some extent.

    BTW, I haven’t heard the term davenport in quite a while!

    I also think you meant to write Toys R Us rather than Menards. ;) We have TWO of them in TH now!

    • Two realizations are hard: (1) that we can only have the relationship with our fathers that they are capable of, and (2) that we are more like our fathers than we realize or care to admit. I know you and I both have worked hard to be more engaged, loving, and involved fathers than our fathers were. That’s the best we can do.

      I didn’t know your parents were moving to IN. I hope this gives you a greater chance to make your relationship with your dad into something closer to what you’ve wanted.

      I was so sad when they closed the Toys R Us (heh) that was near my home. I spent so much time and money in there. But if they hadn’t closed it, I would never have had those trips with Dad to the one past his condo.

      • Michael says:

        I suppose one advantage of your divorce is it forced you to focus on more quality time with your sons than you might otherwise have done.

        Mom has been talking about moving for a couple years at least but their situation prevented it. They sold the “extra” house finally over a year ago. They put up their main house in Oct finally, which sold MUCH quicker though is contingent on buyer’s house closing. That has “sold” as well, but they haven’t heard more on buyer’s status yet.

        It’s shocking to me that Menards closed a store in Indy AND that they opened a second one here. Thankfully that was advantageous for you at least while your dad was still around.

        • The divorce did force me to focus on quality time. It also forced me to be far more creative about fathering than I ever would have otherwise. It’s still a shame I didn’t get to spend more time with my boys, but the time I did spend was far better than it would have been.

          The store here that Menards closed was smaller and in a declining neighborhood. It’s all about the suburbs here. They opened one in Carmel and one in Plainfield or Avon and decided that would cover the area I lived in. It didn’t, of course; most of us went to Lowe’s or Home Depot instead as they were closer.

  5. Nancy Stewart says:

    I still say davenport occasionally …. it’s what I heard growing up. You reminded me of Cook’s which was also known as Clarks at some point … not sure which it was first. But Mike’s and Tammy’s dad, Jack worked there as an assistant manager for a while, and then he was asked to transfer to manage a store in Florida. We moved there and after 2 more transfers, Tammy was old enough to start school, so we moved back home to Indiana. Do you remember Duff’s Cafeteria that was right beside Cook’s ?? They had the best bread pudding I’ve ever had. When I remember your dad at any of the neighborhood get togethers, he always seemed pleasant, but more serious and on the quiet side.

    • I never knew that Jack managed Cook’s/Clark’s! I only remember it as Cook’s, but I’ve seen photos of it as Clark’s. I think Clark’s came first.

      I do remember Duff’s. I never ate there but a lot of my high-school friends worked there. Bread pudding! That’s what Dad wanted for his birthday every year when I was a kid. Never with raisins, though.

      Yeah, we Grey men are all quiet and serious.

  6. I had 5 brothers and a sister. The concept of a close relationship with our parents was never hoped for. They were overwhelmed with keeping food and a roof over our heads. But I know they did the best they could.

    • My wife is seventh of eight children and she had a similar experience to you with her parents. So I realize I am in a way privileged because As first of two I had an opportunity for relationship on a level a child from a large family can only dream of.

  7. Your recollections and memories of your Dad are so insightful; you’ve obviously spent some time and effort to come to the understanding that you have. Thank you for sharing that with us. Many of us in our generation have those kind of memories of our Dads. I think our generation expected more than the silent, strong, Dad model that our dads lived by. I have many similar memories as you do of youth. Hold wood while my Dad cut it, sanding and sanding by hand! My grandfather was a stern, gruff Italian immigrant, and I think my Dad grew up with a different model. As we grew older, we grew apart in many ways, both geographically and philosophically. My Dad passed away 2 and 1/2 years ago, and I’m comforted by the good memories that pop up periodically. tying a know, starting a campfire, laying sod, using a tablesaw, estimating instead of using a calculator – the list goes on and on. Sometimes when I do those things I think to myself that “my dad taught me bow to do that”. So, although I regret not being able to achieve the relationship that we could have, at least I can have the memories of the good times. THanks, Jim, enjoyed your reflection.

    Marty Cutrone

    • I did spend some time and effort because I wanted to be at peace. I was so wound up in my 20s and early 30s because of my relationship with my dad, such as it was. It was no way to live!

      I think our parents’ generation may simply not have valued their emotional and relational lives like our generation does.

      It sounds like you, too, have found peace with your relationship with your father, and are now able to enjoy the good memories.

  8. Darts and Letters says:

    These essays on fatherhood and family always really reach me in a deeply meaningful way. In addition to getting to know you better I feel like I leave my reading with good lessons or points on which to think about for myself. As always, much respect and consideration for your sharing these parts of yourself. it’s kind of beside my point but your dad’s connection with Notre Dame (through his craftsmanship) is pretty neat.
    -Jason

    • I’m so pleased that when I write stories like this that they connect with you. You never know when you put something like this out there whether it will connect or go thud.

      In 1966, just after my parents bought their first house, a couple moved in next door. The fellow, Dean, had just gotten a gig as a Professor of Art at Notre Dame. Dad and Dean became best friends. Dean went on to be the Director of the Art Gallery, and then built the Snite Museum of Art on campus. Dean knew Dad was into woodworking and said, “Say, can you build benches and pedestals for my museum?” Dad did (I sanded most of them) and then other people at ND got word and ordered more stuff from Dad. Dad’s cabinetmaking is all over campus!

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