Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my father.
I’ve been thinking all day — I’ve been thinking all year, on and off — about what I could say. He died in 1996 and I still haven’t really written a song for him yet. While he was alive, the differences between us were sometimes painfully obvious. The older I get, though, the more similarities I see. And I’m not even as old as he was when I was born, yet, so I really don’t know, in a way.
My dad, I’m guessing in the 1930s.
He liked fishing, as well as bowling and reading. He seemed happy when he was tinkering with things, although maybe he tinkered because he could rarely buy anything new and so had to repair tools and cars and such, whether he wanted to or not. He did work 43 years in the same factory — “There’s Gotta Be A Road” is no lie — and when he was forced to retire he took on a part-time job with an old colleague of his doing the same thing he had been doing before for another five years.
He almost made 86, and this was underperforming because his father lived to 90 and his great-grandfather made it to 99 1/2. In the last decade or so of his life he had to deal with emphysema and then more advanced cardiopulmonary disease, the results of smoking for sixty years or so. It’s sad that I remember that stage of his life so well. But I remind myself that he was also a sixty-something father of small kids he could play catch with and take to amusement parks or even take his turn on the big-kids slide.
Summer 1973, fishing probably on Harsen Island.
Sometime between 1990 and 1993.
He’s also the seventy-year-old who had to drive me up to college and back, once a year each way (I got rides the other times), a trip whose difficulty I didn’t grasp when I was 18 or 19 because I was too busy living my dreams of getting a degree and living in the north woods at the same time. It was hard financially, but harder on him as he was the only driver and I think he was already past his point of wanting to go on road trips. But I never heard about that part. He seemed to always want to please, as long as he got a little time for himself too.
Dad didn’t drink. He did collect bottles, though. Photo from between 1970 and 1974.
At times, I’m sure I failed him utterly. This doesn’t even count the whole “no wife, no kids” thing. I like to think he was proud, or happy at least, that I went to college and got a nice professional job and, eventually, not only learned to drive but then went off and saw New York City and the Rockies and such. Even if the last bit concerned him mightily. That, I would hear about. But we didn’t really talk much about things that mattered. I doubt he ever got the music thing. That was what I lamented most in the week before he died, though it might’ve been just the metaphor for all the connections with him I was going to lose.
Summer 1967 on the Bob-Lo Boat.
And yet, I remember how much he cared, how hard he worked, how much he did for everyone even if it was kinda crazy, like taking us driving in the middle of winter to go bird-watching on Belle Isle. The older I get, the more I remember the good times. Going through these photos tonight reinforced that a little more.
Summer 1966. I learned how to slide from my dad. Really.
Michael Smith‘s song “I Brought My Father With Me” (from his album Time) came into my awareness around 1995, but it became “my” song about my father in the summer of 1996. Not everything fits, but a lot does, and certainly the “plot” does. For instance, my dad “sounded just like Bing,” too. (Didn’t all men of that time emulate Bing Crosby? How could one not?) But it’s the last verse that means everything to me.
There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye
Niagara Falls, Summer 1969.
Niagara Falls, Summer 1969. That’s my sister being no help at all in keeping the rock off the path.