Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Happy Birthday, Herman

My dad was a beautiful whistler. It's a lost art, really, but one that he had mastered. He didn't boast about it - he just did it, and it got him through some rough times. Whether he was born with the talent, I can't say, but if he wasn't, he must have practiced a great deal, because it was beautiful. Melodic and lilting and lovely. He tried to teach me, and I'm okay, but I'm not nearly the songbird that he was. Although I did take up the flute in Junior High. I did what I could. And he was proud of everything I did, as he was of all of his kids. I'm not sure if I can fathom how proud he was of me - as a kid, and even as an adult, I never felt that it was deserved, but from a mother's perspective, I get it now. You always just love your kids. They do what they do, and some days (months, years) they make mistakes, but you still can't get over how amazing they are. You can't believe that this person with all this light in them has your DNA. Even if they can't whistle.

Today is my Dad's birthday. He would have been 91 today. I miss him so much. He was 81 when he died in 1997. Almost two years after the big party we gave him for his 80th birthday. He had the time of his life at that party, and so did we. All four of his kids planned it, and old friends came and called. A group of men who served with my dad in England during WWII called him on a cell phone we had rented for the occasion. It was a time when cell phones were only used by doctors and high powered suits, just minutes before they became the ubiquitous annoyance/neccesity they've become today. He wept during the phone call, tears of joy, as they all listened on conference call as I read a letter they wrote to him. It was a perfect letter, full of memories and raucous, manly humor, and it was the highlight of the party for him.

My Dad served proudly in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, and it was a time that shaped his life, along with growing up during the Great Depression. He talked about his time in the service often as I was growing up, and even more as he got older. It gave him so much - adventure, travel, and lifelong friends. When he was in the thickest throes of dementia, when he was taken out of the here and now, he would live there, in that time, and could remember those details vividly. In the last year of his life though, when he was in a nursing home after a hip operation, he ventured back further - high school, dances at "Nat Park" in Spokane, early childhood in Superior, Wisconsin. I remember one particularly difficult visit was turned around completely by a phone call from an old high school friend. This was a lovely man that my dad hadn't seen in years, but talked about often. My sister and I had been with him most of the day, and he was going in and out of confusion, having a hard time remembering where he was and why he was there. When the phone rang, I spoke with his friend briefly, letting him know as gently as I could that Dad probably wouldn't remember him, but as soon as Dad got on the phone, he was there. In the moment, laughing at old memories. He was good at faking it if he didn't remember something, but this was different. He had total recall of the old days, but was also completely in the present as well. It was a miracle to witness, and heartbreaking to see it fade as soon as he hung up the phone.

He was a strict parent, from what I hear from my older siblings. But with me, he had learned to loosen up. Out of necessity and exhaustion, I think. My mom died when I was eight, and my dad was sort of flummoxed by the whole idea of raising a girl. In addition to this, the year after my mom died, my dad lost his job as a salesman that he'd held since the 40's. He was a meat salesman, and it was during the 70's, the Army Corps of Engineers put Bristol Packing Plant, which sat on the banks of the Snake River, under water. Dad was in a tough, stressful spot, and he handled it by drinking. It got pretty bad for a while there, but in those days, it's what you did, and to be honest, were I in his shoes, I'd probably need a good stiff one myself. He eventually slowed the drinking, and quit smoking altogether when he hit 70, doctors orders, but not before doing some damage. After mom died, he had a girlfriend, Dorothy, and she kept him out of trouble. I don't know why they never married - they should have. They loved each other enough, and were good for each other too. He was old fashioned, and a truly stubbon Norwegian, but I wish still that he had been smarter about this. But for whatever reason, they didn't, yet he was still fortunate enough to call her his girlfriend until the end.

He was an amazing example and role model, and my greatest friend and supporter, and an incurable tease. He could get my goat like no one else, until my son was born and found where all those buttons were. My little boy often teases me just like my Dad used to, and has other habits that his Grandpa Cy had, too.

My son is perfecting his whistle - he whistles everywhere, getting better and better. He's a little songbird in so many ways, and his Grandpa would be mighty proud.

Happy Birthday, Herman.

I miss you and I love you. So much.

Madly, Skidaddly, Badly.

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