My dad died twenty years ago today.
He was a good dad, and a good man. He had a lot of those positive character traits that you look for in a novel’s hero. Or in real people in real life.
1. Handsome – What can I say?
He was a good looking man, even if I am biased. Warm eyes, sincere smile, clear skin, slim but solid build, strong hands. I wish I had complimented him more when I grew old enough to recognize his finer features.
2. Resourceful – When Dad was sixteen, he graduated from high school and left his family’s small Iowa town to make his way to the Windy City. He took a job as a shoe-shine boy and later as a line cook in a diner in downtown Chicago. From there he was offered an entry level position in an insurance agency, and his career launched. Sure, times have changed. These Horatio Alger stories are harder to find. But I still respect people like Dad who aren’t too proud to start at the bottom and who can make something of themselves, especially when the odds aren’t in their favor.
3. Resilient – Dad grew up on farms during the Depression. He served in the Army Air Force and narrowly missed being assigned to a flight that was shot down. Before I was born, his appendix ruptured and he nearly died. He hiked and hitchhiked home from downtown Chicago during the Blizzard of ’67. He survived a stroke. He made it through a heart attack. Even an automobile crash threatened his well-being. We often said he had nine lives, but I think what really kept him going was a strong constitution and a love of life. Sometimes I wonder how resilient we all would be if we didn’t have all the technological blessings these days.
4. Patriotic – Like many WWII veterans, he saw death and destruction. Then he came home and put it behind him. It was just something he had to do, he would say, neither bragging about his conquests nor whining about the war’s effects on him. Nowadays, we’re surrounded by news of political corruption. We’ve been facing wars that we needn’t face, and veterans are struggling financially and psychologically. In general, it seems we’re finding it harder and harder to feel those warm fuzzies toward the country that my dad once fought and nearly died for. I wish I’d been smart enough to ask him more back then about how he reconciled his personal doubts about war and government with his sense of duty. I have a feeling his wisdom could teach us all a thing or two. Then again, maybe it’s good he doesn’t see what’s going on these days.
5. Comforting – One of my earliest memories is sitting in Dad’s lap with his arms around me. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as secure since then. And when life’s great challenges came along over the years, he was always there for me.
6. Tolerant – Dad never made mountains out of molehills, and there were a few times (yes, only a few…ahem) that he caught me in activities not exactly parent-approval-worthy. Rather than rat me out to Mom, or scold me with his righteous judgment, he gracefully let these instances go and assured me he loved me unconditionally. His willingness to accept me for who I was has stuck with me for decades.
7. Creative – I used to think everybody’s father built custom-designed bookshelves or made fudge from scratch on Saturday nights. Guess I was wrong about that.
8. Thoughtful – Dad was always good at letting me know he was thinking of me. He sent little notes to me, penned in his chicken scratch penmanship, when I was away at college. And when it came time for Christmas and birthday gift shopping, he always accompanied Mom, who frequently told me that the gift they’d selected had been Dad’s idea because he knew it was just right for me.
9. Committed – Dad was faithful to Mom, to his kids, to his job and church. I never saw him quit anything, or walk out on anyone. Ever.
10. Value-driven – He believed in honesty, accountability, loyalty, cooperation, patience, gratitude, respect, self-reliance, and empathy. Just to name a few. I know this not because of what he preached, which was very little, actually. He was really a man of few words. He taught us who he was from what he did, from how he behaved.
11. Friendly – Everyone knew Dad as the friendliest guy around. When he was a church greeter, he wasn’t just one of those types that stand at the door and shake your hand while their thoughts are somewhere else. He looked you in the eye. He memorized your name, and your kids’ names, too. He really cared about you. The joke after he passed was that he was now standing at heaven’s gate greeting the newcomers.
12. Giving – Dad was not a rich guy. He worked hard for what he earned. He worked hard to balance the family budget. Still, he put the three of us through college, made sure there were plenty of gifts for us under the Christmas tree, and contributed to his church and other charities. More than money, though, he gave of his time, whether it was coaching Little League or driving my sister and me to ballet lessons or visiting with infirm family and friends. Or cleaning my stove, even when I didn’t ask him to, even when he was on vacation.
13. Playful – Dad laughed a lot. He teased, lovingly. He poked fun at ordinary things. And he loved to play games, whether it was a dinosaur game with the kids, or a game of cards, or a round of pool, he was always up for fun.
14. Sensitive – Dad cried. Sad times, happy times, touching times. He was never afraid to show his emotion, and he never told us to toughen up. If we needed to vent or sob or laugh hysterically, it was fine with him.
15. Interested – I cannot remember a time Dad didn’t want to listen to whatever I had to say. Period.
16. Awed – My family took a lot of summer road trips, and even though Dad had to do the driving (till we got older), and pay for the expenses, and deal with kids goofing off in the backseat or vomiting in the tent, he was always able to set aside the tedium of being human to witness and appreciate some of the most fantastic scenery imaginable. Thanks to him, the natural landscape is hugely important to me.
17. Trusting – Dad believed in people. Whether it was with a car, with a home, or with his health, he trusted others to do the right thing. And he was the type of man that warranted that trust, because you just didn’t want to let him down.
18. Unflappable –Dad always maintained his cool, whether the stock market was tanking or a group of bears was approaching the family from behind. “Take it one day at a time,” he always said, which allowed the rest of us to stay strong, too.
19. Kid-friendly – This was the type of man who could calm a crying baby, play peekaboo with toddlers, build pine-cars with young Cub Scouts. Kids loved Dad.
20. Loving – Did I say this already? Dad loved his wife, his kids, and the rest of his family. He loved his friends, his co-workers, his church. He loved God and country. He loved life, and it showed in pretty much every thing he did and said. Love was his foundation.
The problem with Dad was that he was just too good.
He didn’t have enough flaws, at least not enough to be the basis for a character in my stories. Characters are supposed to have more problems than he did to be credible. Real people aren’t that nice.
Sure, he didn’t have a college education. He wasn’t rich and famous. He didn’t invent computers or staplers or microscopic widgets. He didn’t make a noticeably huge difference in the greater world.
But he made a difference in my world. And the fact that his influence was too favorable to be worthy of literary merit might actually be a really good thing. I’m not sure I want to be remembered as a literary-worthy parent either.