Five Things I Learned from My Dad

June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing.  I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes.  And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.

dadMy dad was a flawed man.  He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children.  He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.

Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model.  But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities.  Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me.  I hope you will learn from them too.

1.  Listen to the music

When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus.  Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary.  We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.

My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain.  What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played.  Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better.  Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.

2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.

I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his.  From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future.  Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened.  There were no lines drawn by age or maturity.  Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.

3. Laugh loudly and heartily.

My father was not a silly man.  He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV.  dad 60sHe rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone.  However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard.  He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter.  One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark,  and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.

4. Find your voice. 

When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets.  I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon.  When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table.  Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings.  Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race,  and had been missed in the presentations.  His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon.  Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.

5. Figure it out.

Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him.  It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction.  Those who could read could certainly follow directions.  He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard.  I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade.  I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering.  Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions.  Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.

I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by 70s

So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad.  Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me.  I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend.  I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.

Weep for Anne

In March of 1978 I left the house at 30 Green Street and taking nothing but a guitar and a suitcase, flew across the country for a week of VISTA training in Seattle, Washington. A week after that, I took a train through snow-covered mountains and crashing waterfalls to Boise, Idaho.

Two days after arriving in Boise, I reported for my assignment at the Adult and Child Development Center. The director led me to the office that housed three other VISTAs. It was there that I met Paul. One look at his smoky eyes, and I knew I was a gonner. We were engaged by June, and set a wedding date of August 31.

When the week of the wedding arrived, Paul and I traveled back to Massachusetts by train. I had briefly met his parents during a side trip to Tucson in June, and they arrived a couple of days before the wedding, along with Paul’s brother John, his sister Anne and her husband Jim.

At the rehearsal dinner, my future in-laws were much subdued- and no wonder. My family was big, loud, and outspoken. Our family dinners were rambunctious events where teasing one-liners were hurled across the table like dinner rolls, and bursts of laughter erupted every few sentences. Paul’s small family had set its roots as mid-western farmers. Dinners were eaten quickly and quietly, punctuated by minimal small talk, so they could return to their work. I looked across the table at my fiancé and wondered if trying to meld our two families would be as successful as a spaghetti and ice cream casserole.

Paul looked more bewildered than I.  I couldn’t tell if he was nervous about his family’s visit, or the wedding ceremony, or if he was having second thoughts about the whole marriage, but he silently shoveled food into his mouth, avoiding eye contact, saying nothing. I stole a glance at my mother, who returned my gaze with questioning eyes.  My stomach churned and I couldn’t help but wonder if our families would end up like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

anne stoutimore spencer0001Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice rose over the din- a happy, celebratory voice, filled with laughter and warmth. It was Anne.

Anne was beautiful. She was vibrant and well-educated and articulate. Her smile lit the room and her eyes danced. She engaged my younger siblings in conversation and joined in the teasing, and by doing so, bridged the gap between the two very different families. And in the early years that followed the wedding, she and I shared clothes, opinions and conversation during family reunions and phone calls. She gave birth to two chocolate-eyed children during the years that I delivered three with eyes the color of the sea. We exchanged gifts at Christmas and cards containing snap shots of our growing broods.

And then one day, Anne called and calmly informed me that Hitler was residing in her refrigerator. She knew this because he spoke to her. She was dead serious and my heart sank.

The next years were a steady downward spiral of my husband’s beautiful sister. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, her laughter turned to bitter accusations and her conversations were peppered with claims of abuse and outlandish threats. She went in and out of hospitals, and endured countless trials of medication but her glow was never to return.

A few days ago, I learned that  Anne passed away in her sleep, and although I am relieved that forever her torturing voices are silenced, I weep that she and her family were relentlessly tormented for so long. I weep because when we don’t know how to respond to those who live in a different world, we say nothing.  I weep that we speak candidly about cancer and chicken pox, but we whisper about mental illnesses. I weep because for yet unknown reasons, a bright star was extinguished far before its time.

But God does not let us linger in anger and sadness. I was reminded of this when I read an email that Anne’s son Joseph so eloquently wrote:

“Well, my Mom died yesterday around 4AM.

In life she suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia and bi-Polar disorder. I never really had what most would call a normal relationship with her. The first half of my life was spent suffering from the stress involved with her illness, the last half was spent coming to terms with it and finally getting rid of any bitterness in my heart that built up over the years. Nothing short of God helped me through that.

She was the most giving person I’ve ever met. Never had I met anyone that would give like that. Even when she had nothing, she would still find something to give. I’d get hot chocolate packets in the mail from hospitals that she would be confined in. I’d get letters from her as well. I’m happy that I made the best efforts I could to reach out to her. In the end though, death was the most liberating thing that could ever have happened to her. I’m glad we were able to see her before she passed.

Life is so short, and before you know it it’s over. She passed away so suddenly, in the middle of the night without anyone knowing anything beforehand.

Love those you’re close to, rather or not you’re on good terms with them. Before you know it it’s over and the only thing you have to look back on are memories.”

Well said, Joseph. Well said.

Momma G’s Alaskan Adventure

Picture 098In the fall of 1978 I enlisted in VISTA- Volunteers In Service To America.  I was single, finished with college and wanted to make a difference in the world.  I loved my family and New England, but I craved adventure and a  new beginning, so after spending a few hours with a recruiter, I signed on the bottom line, and requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest- preferably Alaska.

The first assignment I was offered was in East Harlem, New York City.  I turned it down and was offered an assignment in the Midwest.  I turned down that one as well, but knowing recruits could only refuse a limited number of options, agreed to the next offer, which put me in Boise, Idaho.  I never made it any further west, except for a week of training in Seattle.

It took thirty-five years, but I finally made it to Alaska.  Almost two weeks ago, I stepped aboard a vision class ship for a seven night Alaskan cruise.  I’m afraid I lost part of my heart in the Pacific Ocean.

I was not one who dreamed of cruising.  In fact, I had always considered it rather bourgeois.  Indeed, once I agreed to accompany my brother and his family on the Alaskan cruise, I found that many of my friends and family had at one time or another elected to sail the high seas for their vacations. Still, I was apprehensive.  Mass media loves to tell cruise ship horror stories, and I had no desire to spend my vacation stranded at sea or praying to the porcelain god.   However, I committed and on May 31, 2013, with virgin passport in hand, boarded the Rhapsody of the Seas.

I needn’t have worried.

Before we left port I was settled in a chaise lounge, drink in hand, wondering what the people at work were doing.  By the second day at sea, I had forgotten that I have a job. 

And then we reached Juneau. 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI had seen mountains before.  I have skidded through snow in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch.  I have driven through the Painted Desert in Arizona and Utah’s Wasatch Range.  I have flown over Mount Rainier and camped in the high desert of New Mexico.  And although all these places are breathtakingly beautiful, they do not compare with the rugged beauty of Alaska’s mountains.

If the only thing I had done in Juneau was peer at mountains that extended past the clouds, it would have been enough.  But there was a whale watch and salmon bake to attend.  Whales are some of my favorite creatures, and I excitedly scanned the water’s surface for spouts that betrayed their location in Auk Bay.  We caught sight of a mother and baby humpback.  Seeing them glide effortlessly through the water caught my breath, and when they fluked, I nearly cried.

The following day we docked in Skagway and took a jeep tour through the mountain passes ofwolf 2 the Yukon Highway.  Our guides led us past black bears munching on spring grass, porcupines waddling across the road, and a lone grey wolf that regally eyed our passing jeeps and then calmly loped after the caravan as if to accompany us across the Canadian border.

After another day at sea, we rose at five in the morning to stand on a cold and rainy deck and watch our ship navigate its way through Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glacier.  Its jagged edges of turquoise silently reminded me that our lives are but a drop in the continuum of time. 

And then, all too soon, the trip was over. 

As a writer, I struggle to translate my heart onto paper.  But just as photographs fall short of paying Alaska’s rugged beauty its due justice, so do my words.  If I revered God before, I do all the more now, for such artistry to create the vast expanses of pristine land, ocean and sky could only be accomplished by His hand.  I can only bow to His creativity and the majesty with which he touched that portion of the world. 

bear2Since my vacation I am calmer.  More centered.  Less edgy.  I’m not sure if it was the crisp clean Alaskan air, or the gentle rocking of the ship at night.  But I can guarantee you one thing- Momma G will not wait another thirty-five years for a vacation again.

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