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.
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.
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.