Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day...My Hero, My Dad

The hardest thing about being so far away are days like today...holidays, days when you wish you were with your family. These days, however, remind me of all the things I should have said, all the things I should have done to let my family and friends know how much I do care, how much I do love them and how incredibly much they are missed.  I've never been good at letting the ones around me know how much I count on them and how much I need them.  Now that it's been over a year without them, I long for the simple holiday meals and token gifts and the act of just getting together.  When you have those traditions sometimes your loved ones just know.  When you can't participate in the traditions, the BBQs, the meals, the gift exchanges, you come to realize all the things you take for granted must be said.  They must be said because there is that possibility whether in your Africa or across the street that you might not get the chance, that fate might intervene leaving too many feelings and sentiments locked away forever in our heart of good intentions.

Today my dad will know how much he shaped the person I am.

My dad was born in the early 40's in a small town in Michigan (right in the curve of the base of the thumb, Michiganders know exactly where this is).  He was fourth in the birth order, two sisters, a brother, my dad and my Uncle Tom.  He is Polish, he was Catholic, now he's a Lutheran, a hotbed of family feuding for 30+ years.  No one in his family had gone to college and neither did he.  However, he did know he wanted to get out of Michigan.  Unlike his family, he believed there was a world beyond the car manufacturers, parts manufacturers and mills of Bay City.  So he joined the army and ended up in Korea.  As fate would have it, he landed smack dab between the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.

When he returned from his two year military stint, he met my mom, a you understand the conversion!  They married when they were 22 and had me, their firstborn at 24.  (Ok...I cannot imagine caring for a child at 44 much less 24!  That seems so young to me.)

My mom was a schoolteacher at the time, just shy of a college degree.  My dad could fix anything.  He had a friend in Chicago who got him a job at a forklift company repairing forklifts.  That is what he would end up doing his entire career.

My dad was the first and only child to move out of Michigan.  Chicago, a six hour drive might as well have been Africa.  No one ventured that far, ever.  My dad just wanted a different life.  

My dad made very little money when I was born, but believed it important to have a mom that stayed at home.  Maybe it was just the time, mid 1960's, before the working mother, but I am so grateful for my two parent, stay at home mom upbringing.  My dad and mom were very frugal and always lived below their means.  It is a trait I still carry personally to this day.  

The earliest story I remember my mom telling me and my brother about our dad was how he spent a day walking home from work in Chicago to our home in Harvey, a suburb, during the Greatest Snow Storm of 1967. No cars could travel and he hitched a ride with a Chicago policeman for a while, but spent most of the day on foot trudging through the snow to get home to his wife and six month old girl.

From as early as I can remember, my dad worked two jobs.  He was always finding ways to make extra money.  He would sell things, dumpster diving at factories for copper and other metals to resell.  He worked on everyone's car and never seemed to sit in one place more than a few minutes.  He still doesn't.  I remember him coming home from work around 5:00, having dinner, his favorite meal being pork chops and applesauce (will never eat a pork chop again in my lifetime!) and heading back out to Job #2.  He would get in late, after I was in bed and leave again before I was up.  During the week we did not see him much, but he was always there on the weekends.  My favorite weekend tradition, my dad reading the Sunday comics to me, while I sat on his lap.  

We had the BEST vacations growing up.  I never realized we didn't have a lot of money until much later in life.  My parents were always on the go.  Camping was FUN, I never knew that camping was a necessity on their small budget.  One year, my dad took his vacation over the entire summer.  He took my mom, brother and I to a campground in Indiana, where we were joined by our best friends and neighbors, the Rozemas.  He took off every Friday and Monday and drove to Indiana to join us.  This lasted most of the summer.  I must have been 9 or 10 and it was and still is one of the BEST summers I ever had.  

We also did the total Griswald vacations complete with the wood grained station wagon, pulling a pop up camper, with four bikes and a canoe on top, spending two weeks at a time traveling through the west and then traveling east.  When I would listen to my cousins in Michigan talk about going to their cabins and never any further I knew I was lucky.  Even without money I was seeing the world....or at least a lot of the US which for a nine year old was the world.

When I was 11 my dad came home and said he had a friend who could get him a job in Kansas.  We were moving to Kansas.  Kansas?  Are you kidding me?  I live in Chicago, the greatest city in the world and we're moving to Kansas?  Already into the preteen, know it all stage, I was not happy and I was a rebellious little spit!  My dad, he was smart.  He knew what was best for his family.  At the time I thought he was mean and evil, today it was the best move he could have made.  He knew that staying in Chicago, with the high cost of living was not the best for his family which now numbered three.  My brother Paul was nine and my sister Danielle was two.

My dad moved us to Overland Park, Kansas.  Overland Park was the largest city in the middle of Johnson County, the time, the third wealthiest county in America.  With all that wealth came excellent neighborhoods, safety and the public schools that could rival any private school in America.  My dad kept working two jobs.

As I grew up and tried to fit in as any teenager does, I suddenly realized, we really did not have much money.  I looked at all my friends with nicer homes and dads who didn't have grease under their finger nails and all of a sudden I was aware, in that teenage, ignorant, self conscious, self absorbed way that my dad was different.  Even as I write that sentence my eyes well up with tears at the thoughts I had years ago as a teenager.  

What is interesting about all of this is that my uneducated dad valued education which is why we moved to Kansas.  Today, my sister is a doctor.  My dad who never had a chance to see the world in his early years, has two daughters who have been to more countries on more continents then all of our childhood friends combined.  My dad even has a passport filled with stamps from European and Central American countries now.  My dad the forklift mechanic with grease under his nails....

I remember the turning point for me as a teenager.  I was on the track team in high school and in an important race I was anchoring the mile relay team.  I recall looking in the stands for my parents at one point, it was an early afternoon and at that time both of my parents were working.  I will never forget the sound of my dad's voice as I rounded the last corner in front of the home stands neck and neck with a girl from a rival school.  I could pick out his voice as if he was the only person in the stands.  My dad made it to my track meet, sitting in the stands in his greasy clothes among all the white collar, upper middle class moms.  I knew then how lucky I was.

My parents always told my brother, sister and I that we could do or be anything we ever wanted to be.  They taught us to be independent, feisty and strong.  They instilled a strong work ethic and a certain financial smarts to keep us from also living above our means.  My dad showed me personally through our family the value of hard work.  All his hard work has paid off.  

My dad still works like crazy, even though he doesn't have to.  He just does, he enjoys it and he enjoys helping people.  He always Christmas when my dad and I were leaving a mall in a suburb of Chicago we came upon a woman with kids standing next to her car.  Her tire was flat and my dad pulled up and stepped out to help her.  He changed her tire and when she went to give him some money for helping her he refused.  As we walked back to the car, she grabbed my hand and pressed the money into my hand and told me to give it to my dad and to tell him thank you and that he's a good guy.  Funny what memories stay with you....

So, Happy Father's Day, Dad....I am the luckiest #1 daughter in the world!  I love you and thanks for helping me become everything I am today.

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