There’s something like a line of gold thread running through a man’s words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself. — John Gregory Brown
My father died last Sunday at age 87 and I miss him. The fact that he lived a long and happy life is comforting but I selfishly wish I had more time to hear his voice and laugh with him.
While talking with my siblings during and after he died, I understand that he was a different man to each of us. Each of us shaped our memories of him, and our relationship with him, through our own lens — our own needs. And each of us was shaped by him in our own way.
My father was my rock. He was strong both physically and mentally. He was also strongly stubborn and never gave into anything he disagreed with. This meant ferocious fights during my teenage and young adult years but he taught me the value of holding my ground.
The smell and feel of wood is my father. He often smelled of the woods outside or of the sawdust from building or furniture making. He was a man of the forests of northern Michigan and his greatest joy was to walk the hills and forests of Alcona County. I learned so much about nature and wildlife just listening to him comment about the world around him. A walk in those woods today brings back such powerful feelings of happiness that I am amazed I have been able to continue to live an urban life.
Each season meant a new adventure and I loved being with him to discover the joys of changing landscape. Memories of Fall — the smell of leaves, the crunch of our footsteps and the search for the sight of the white-tail deer — is like home to me. I remember traipsing along behind him (always behind him as he could outpace everyone) and looking for a prize of fresh wintergreen berries. Popping a fresh wintergreen into your mouth was heaven and I remember being very confused as a kid when I first tasted wintergreen gum and it tasted nothing like that fresh flavor from the woods. Michigan woods in the fall are so beautiful and spending time in them with dad was always a quiet, special time.
In December we would put on our boots, mittens and coats and head out to find our Christmas tree. He usually had his eye on one he’d seen during the earlier months, but it was still like a treasure hunt to find just the right one. It was best when there was snow already on the ground and our fresh tracks led from one not-just-right tree to another, until…there it was. This was an art form to him and one year I think we cut and hauled back at least five trees to find the one that was just right in our living room. When it wasn’t right, we’d give it to a family that didn’t have their tree yet and head back out to find just the right one. It wasn’t just symmetry in the tree’s form we were looking for, there was a whole list of characteristics that the tree had to have before it was just right and then it had to fit into our living room with just the right attitude. I smile now to think of those times. I loved those hours of laughing and joking as we walked — our breath coming in little steam puffs in the air.
Spring was when the morel mushrooms came up amid the debris of the forest floor and we’d pick as many we could. My mom would almost always accompany us on those trips and when we had a full bag we’d head home and she’d saute up the mushrooms for us to smother a broiled steak for dinner. My poor mom hated the smell of those cooking mushrooms, but she held her nose and did for us out of love. I also learned how startling flushing a partridge or pheasant could be and I can hear my dad laughing as I screamed from the surprise of the flapping birds.
Summer meant the smell of hot pine woods, sandy soil, and wild blueberries. It was swimming and fishing in Crooked Lake, looking for crayfish and eating the fresh fried blue gills that we caught that morning out in our little row boat (with me wearing that heavy, bulky, bright orange life vest that smelled of bait and my dad shushing me every minute or so).
My father was also an incredibly talented businessman. Along with my mother, they built one business after another and sold it once they had made it a success. They would move along to the next one that interested them and worked hard and used such instinctive intelligence to make it the best it could be. Dad was always disappointed that he didn’t earn a college degree but he was one of the smartest people I know and a degree would have been wasted on his natural business sense.
During his middle-aged years, many in the local community turned to him and my mother for advice. He helped everyone who asked for help and he did it modestly and quietly. He was generous to a fault and, until he was physically incapable, was always busy working. He was very rarely idle (something that made any time I had with him seem extra special) and worked from the time he was a kid until he couldn’t work any more. I’m sure today he’d be labeled a workaholic but I know that he would have gone crazy not working on one project or another. He was restless and between them, he and my mother seemed continually moving and working towards one goal or another.
The side of my dad that my husband enjoyed most was his wicked, dry sense of humor. As in all families we had our melodrama, but we also laughed more than most. With a room full of either my dad’s side of the family, or my mom’s, we’d laugh until our stomachs hurt. Or we’d argue politics until our voices grew hoarse. Or we’d tell stories about someone’s secret escapades that got us laughing once again. During college I went through a period of very dark depression and when I’d call home at midnight crying, it was my dad who got me laughing and feeling that, perhaps, I’d be okay after all. During those times of humor he’d have a sparkle in those grey-blue eyes that would light me up with joy. He kept that sense of humor right up until the end.
I could write for days about all that he meant to me. He was a joyfully loving and very proud grandfather. He was a WWII vet and grateful he could give his service to the country he loved. He was a generous and giving man to his children. He was a respected and well-known pillar of his community. He loved westerns, sharp cheddar cheese, my mom’s apple pie, fly fishing, cigars, a shot of whiskey, playing poker and new cars. He loved his family and always tried to do the best he could for all of us. He was, in the beginning and through the end, courageous and brave.
He was also very human. I came to know him so much better once I grew out of my little girl father/hero worship and became a parent myself. When he became a human to me, with all of his faults and frailties, it was even more wondrous to be his daughter.
I love you dad. Your memory is a blessing to me and you made our world a better place.
Beautiful tribute to your father – I’m sure he’s looking down proudly on this writing.
I’m, some how, comforted by the fact that your father and mine are once again roaming the Northern Michigan woods together.
Out of pain and happy once again.
Much love Jen –
The thought of our dads together again just put the biggest smile on my face! Thanks so much for your nice words. I will try to plan a stop-by trip to you the next time we’re headed north.