This week, we are at the annual family reunion near Boulder Junction, Wisconsin, a tradition that started 62 years ago. We still love every moment. But what we wouldn’t do to have Dad, the Master of Ceremonies, here with us one more time. Our gathering is always right around his birthday too. He would have been 95 this year. This tribute is for you, Daddy.
(This essay is reprinted from my book, Manifesting Paradise, published in 2014.)
July 20, 2012. Boulder Junction, WI. Dad is here at the lake with us, the one we have been visiting every summer since I was two years old. It used to be my grandparents, my parents, their siblings and my cousins; now it’s my generation and our kids who fill the resort on the little bay. And of late, my nephew and niece have brought up their babies – the fifth generation at the lake.
My sister brings Dad’s favorite cap and hangs it on her porch. It still smells like him, a mixture of Old Spice, Brylcreem, cigarettes and brow sweat, even though he’s been dead for nine years. He was such a joker and storyteller.
I see him everywhere: on the pier, on the cottage porch he and Mom shared, out on the lake in his boat, heading to the fish house with his catch. He loved to drive to the state forests, the Boulder Junction Flea Market and to town at dusk so we could spot deer along the way. On the road, he’d rev the Merc as we crested a hill so that we’d experience a moment of free-fall on the downhill side. He loved to hear us squeal.
Mom is here too, but her presence is not as strong. Dad completely overshadowed her. He was bigger than life. He worked in the Manitowoc shipyards and survived a tough early life. At age 14, when his father died of TB, he became head of the household to his five brothers and sisters. They and their mother lived through the Depression without the kind of social network we have today. They were poor.
All my friends loved Dad, the gregarious father who actually paid attention to kids, told corny stories and listened to us as if we mattered. But I always fell short of his expectations. I wasn’t good enough. At least that’s what I told myself. I think Dad was hard on me because I was the oldest. The next oldest, 2½ years younger than me, was “The Goodest One,” a moniker attached to her to this day. The youngest sister, 9 years younger, was the baby.
While we never talked about college until I was well into high school, Dad made it clear he wanted something better for his children than he had out of life. He was smart, but couldn’t afford college even with the GI Bill. So I brought home the A’s and B’s, but still never felt good enough. I knew he loved me, but I felt I had to be perfect. Yet once I did excel in a life away from my hometown of Manitowoc, once I became a corporate executive, I transformed into someone my parents no longer understood.
He taught me his important life lessons. I absorbed some and modified the rest to suit myself. Much of my reaction to his teachings was normal rebellion. But it also occurred during the upheaval of the late ‘60s, a double whammy.
- Save your money. I was the only second grader that understood compound interest. This lesson stuck, but I didn’t actually start saving for retirement until I turned 35. I was too cash-strapped before that, spending way too much time in college.
- Love and respect God. We regularly attended church, usually more often than required. One instance in particular began to shape me in a direction Dad didn’t anticipate. At my Catholic grade school, we went to Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoons during Lent. On Sunday, Dad wanted to go again in the afternoon, after we’d already been to Mass. Only seven, I finally rebelled and said I wasn’t going. It just happened that the Disney movie, “101 Dalmatians” was showing in theaters. So he came up with a challenge: “No Stations, no Dalmatians.” I’m not sure he realized it: at that moment he gave me a choice and I took it. I didn’t see that movie until I had kids of my own. This was my first leap toward independence. As for the Church, I confirmed at 12, left at 19 and didn’t return for 35 years.
- Obtain a good education that will provide you with a good job and security once you graduate. Why would you need a Master’s degree or Ph.D.? He didn’t understand my educational path.
- Love and respect your elders. We spent every Sunday with Grandma and Grandpa, eating supper, then settling down to The Ed Sullivan Show and Bonanza. Living so far away from my parents as an adult, I was not able to show my love in the same way.
- Be safe; don’t take risks. Living through the Depression, he extended this lesson to every aspect of his life. Through osmosis, we girls became risk-averse too. Luckily, I learned to throw this off as I grew older, another way I thought I disappointed him.
He was a proud man and wanted to give us everything we asked for, but couldn’t. Dad worked hard, taking second shift at the shipyards so he could be home with us during the day while Mom worked a day job as a bookkeeper. Dad also worked overtime as often as possible to bring in extra money. That allowed him to tackle many large-scale projects around the house, doing the work himself or bartering with others in order to provide a nice home for us. And one day every week he’d walk down to Lake Michigan and catch fish at the city pier, not for pleasure but to put food on the table.
Despite the demands of these projects, he spent time with us. I remember Sunday afternoon walks on the trails at Point Beach State Park, Dad listening to a football game on a transistor radio and Mom gathering mushrooms. He taught me the finer points of football as we cheered on the Green Bay Packers during the glory years. It’s probably why I unconsciously sprinkle my vocabulary with football terms: tackle, score, punt. We swam at Harp’s Lake and Lake Michigan and, of course, there was the trip Up North to the lake every year.
We hosted many barbecues in the backyard with extended family and friends. Dad was the Grand Master of Ceremonies. He’d splurge on a “Miami roll” – a large rolled beef roast – put it on the Weber in the morning, and watch the roast turn on the spit, dousing it with water when the fire roared on dripping fat. He brought out a case of Kingsbury Beer to share with his brothers and brothers-in-law, and declared the roast done when the case emptied, late in the afternoon. I can still see him proudly carving that roast, divvying it with his brothers and sisters and the kids.
I remember Dad dancing with me when I was little, singing to me, holding me close with my head on his shoulder and crooning a refrain that rumbled in his chest: “Ho-ho, ho-ho little Diney.” He kissed us goodnight every night. It was clear Dad loved us and he often told us so. Even when we were adults, he always said we could turn to him for help. He promised us “a hamburger and a bus ticket home” from anywhere, no questions asked. That meant so much to me, especially as I started taking more risks in my life.
Yes, he expected much from me. His hopes shaped me to be the leader I became. But my neurosis about “not being good enough” was crookedly absorbed from his lessons of unconditional love, not from disdain. This misinterpretation of his message was my problem, not his. His intentions were always good. He always wanted the best for me. He believed in me. I was the one who decided I needed to be perfect. I only figured that out in the last few years.
It’s great to see him again, here among the pine trees and on the lake. I miss him so much.
For other essays on our trips to the lake, see: