Remaking Dad

My father grew up poor. The youngest son of four boys with a baby sister tagging along, his family subsisted on their father’s income as a carpenter and their mother’s frugal homemaking skills. Needless to say, there was not a lot to go around and there was no social welfare system in place in the early ‘30s. No discount food stores or food shelves or food stamps. You grew it or swapped for it or did without.

One memory my father recently shared with me was about his mother’s deep-dish clam pie. She’d send them out clamming in the Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut. They’d drift around during low tide, plunging their hands eight inches or so into the cold wet sand to bring up the hard shelled clams. It was worth it; she lined a big, deep ceramic bowl with pastry into which she put the clams with all the rest of the ingredients: potatoes, onion, and carrots. Was there a white sauce, I wondered? “It was like a beef stew only with clams,” is what my father fondly remembers. She would make this special dish only a few times a year.

Dad has a lot of stories of pranks he and his friends had played – friends with nicknames like “cricket” and “pudgy”. Skinny dipping off the railroad trestle into the high tidewaters of the Long Island Sound seems charming in an old-movie sort of way. Grabbing onto the bumper of the milk truck and “skiing” down the snowy road in loafers was also the stuff of movies; lighting the road on fire in front of the high school and eluding the cops through the swamp took their pranks to another level! Getting in trouble with anyone in authority meant you were punished twice — and the punishment at home was worst of all.

My father finished his secondary education by taking his GED’s while in the army. He’d soured on attending high school when he was ridiculed by a teacher in the tenth grade. The day he decided never to return to school was the day he began full-time employment with his father. He worked long hours and at that age, skinny and under his father’s thumb, he did a lot of the messy work, like pulling out old insulation and crawling into tight places. It was an education of a different kind and one that would carry him through to old age. One of the jobs he had, along with his father and brothers, was working for a famous marine company. There he labored with a crew of skilled carpenters to make mine sweepers at the end of World War II. I imagine his thin, gentle face in sepia photos on a wall of a historic museum, standing shoulder to shoulder with this rough and skilled esprit de corps of first and second generation Americans. My father was proud of the work he did and never regretted learning a trade.

When Dad wasn’t working, he was actively resting. I can still picture him stretched out on the couch, snoozing off Mom’s Sunday dinner while we ran in and out of the house. I know he did yard chores, like mowing the lawn and fixing things around the house; hanging the Christmas lights along the edge of the roof; working in his basement shop on a cabinet order. Occasionally he played with his seven children, hitting fly balls for us to catch, pushing us on the big rope swing (we were the envy of the entire neighborhood) or taking us swimming after supper. He enjoyed his time with his fellow volunteer firemen, spending Sunday mornings there while we attended church with our mother.

It was a gentler time. Blue laws were in effect back then so there was no frenzied shopping on Sunday. Only the local Rexall would stay open until noon so that we could pick up our Sunday paper on our way home from church. There were no local sports events like soccer tournaments. It was a day for family. Sometimes my mother’s parents drove up from Stamford to visit, always bringing along some jelly donuts. Occasionally we’d pile in the station wagon and drive out to the country to see my father’s parents in their little house in Falls Village. This was how we ceased from our labors and took a breath before beginning another work week.

What my father did NOT do was what we now call “exercise”. I don’t remember him playing a sport, like golf or tennis, for instance. He didn’t go bike riding or hiking or camping. We didn’t own a boat so there was no water skiing. When he swam, it was leisurely. I never saw him run a foot race, play baseball or chase after a Frisbee. When, as a smug teenager, I had the audacity to suggest he do some aerobic exercise for cardiac health, he let me know in no uncertain terms that he worked HARD every day to support his family, and pay for my dance lessons by the way. His hard, physical labor was enough and when he didn’t have to work, he relaxed.

My father is good at resting. But as he ages and becomes weaker, in part from inactivity, I long for him to see the benefits of moving around more. My invitation for “Just a short walk, Dad. It’s sunny out today. How about it?” is met with a semi-severe look of suspicion. “I’ve already done my PT today.” Other family members see him gravitating to his recliner and shake their heads: “I’d like to see him time himself when he goes for a walk, eventually going around the block, but a little at a time. If he sees his time improving, he’ll feel better about himself.” That’s not going to happen either.

Even IF my father really understood how being physically active would make him FEEL better and add quality to the remaining years of his life, he will simply not do it because he is stubbornly set in the examples of his hardworking father and cohorts. This may be the “greatest generation” but not when it comes to staying physically active! They’ve fought the wars, raised their families, paid off their mortgages and earned their rest.

And so, as his daughter, I will shut my mouth and offer no unsolicited opinions or bribes or laments. I will allow him to recline and snooze and remain unmoved in his belief that the pain in his legs will not allow him to do anything else. And I will listen to the stories of a gentler time and love him with all my heart.