02 January 2010

After apple picking – Memories of my father

As I write, my mother is lying in a bed back in my home town in Massachusetts, patiently waiting to die. She has soldiered on for seven and a half years after our father's death, physically debilitated as a result of a sad accident some years before Dad died, when he had a stroke while attempting to park their car but instead ploughed into Mom where she stood waiting to unload groceries from the boot. She spent many years after that caring for him as Parkinson's disease ravaged his body and mind. All this time, she was gradually losing her vision to macular degeneration. She had asthma, heart problems and all manner of other difficulties. But she keeps going – even spending a year with us here in Australia, while I tried (unsuccessfully) to get her a resident visa that would allow her to live with us permanently. These last two years she's lived in a nursing home back in the USA, and there she is fighting her last battle, clinging stubbornly to life, even though she's told my brother and sister who share her care that she can't wait to join our father in the next world. I will write more about my mother when the time seems right, but in today's Weekend Australian you can read a small piece about her, 'This (sewing) life'. (I've included the same piece in this blog, with some additional notes.) But in this first part of what is, I suppose, an homage to my parents, I would like to share some memories of our father. Dad died in July 2002, just 12 hours before I was due to fly out from Laos, where I'd just begun a two-year assignment, on the first of four flights that would take me 'home' to see him one last time. So there was no chance to say goodbye, and the long trip took me instead to his funeral. I wrote this on that trip, and placed a copy with his ashes – a goodbye of sorts.

My earliest memories of Dad are of me and one or both of my sisters muffled up in snowsuits and tucked in securely between Dad’s legs as we all race down a hill – Harrington St hill, Columbia St hill, or maybe a hill in a nearby field.

It is always night-time in these memories, which added to the fun and excitement for us kids. Dad would look out the window after supper and decide that the quality of the snow or the moonlight, or some other thing difficult to name (maybe memories of his own childhood) was just too much to pass up. And off we’d troupe: through the dark and quiet snowplowed street, Dad pulling the sled and one, two or three of us kids riding on it if the packed snow allowed. (In my memories, my brother is always old enough to pull his own sled.)

I think Dad enjoyed these nights as much as we did, and though there must have been a bit of danger involved – especially in fields where snow-covered rocks might be lying just under the surface – I never felt that anything could harm us as long as Dad was steering, yelling and whooping along with us on a good run, rarely tipping us over, and only calling a halt to the night’s fun long after the time he’d promised Mum we’d be home.

When I was not much older came ice-skating sessions with Dad – us kids on double-runners to begin with, and later on real skates. He preferred to skate on a pond no one else was using – McKinstry’s Pond was a favourite. Often the session would begin with Dad skating around pushing a snow shovel, clearing first a path and then a larger area for us to go round and round until we could no longer feel our toes.

In milder weather, he’d take us for walks. Long before it became politically correct for fathers to push prams (or ‘carriages’, as we called them), Dad was a regular pram-pusher, especially on Sunday mornings after church. Mum would be home getting the roast lunch ready (we called that meal ‘dinner’) and probably enjoying a bit of peace. We’d already be all dolled up in our Sunday best, so off we’d go – Dad pushing the carriage with one child in it (probably Nancy, at the time I’m remembering) and two other kids (probably Paul and me) walking either side of Dad, holding on to the carriage handles. Mum has told me that Dad walked us all in that carriage: Paul, me, Nancy and finally Doreen. He was a great walker, too – long, fine strides in big solid shoes bought from Dentini’s. And he loved to stop along the way, chatting animatedly to friends and acquaintances as we passed their houses, and in later years maybe inspecting someone’s tomato plants when he became interested in the art of growing the perfect tomato.

We kids might get impatient, standing alongside the carriage while Dad and some guy chatted. Sometimes it didn’t seem to us like much was being said in these conversations, which were usually in English but could also include French or a bit of both languages. Still, these things had to be allowed to work themselves out and Dad expected us to be patient. At other times, Dad would use us as an excuse to move on. Maybe the person he was talking to was going on about something Dad didn’t approve of talking about in front of kids. Or maybe the other guy had had a bit too much beer early in the day and wasn’t worth listening to in that condition.

I’m sure Paul has other memories, many of them probably involving baseball. But I think all four of us would remember the time in our lives when we each learned to ride a bike. Most new bikes had trailer wheels in those days – a pair of detachable wheels at the back that prevented a novice rider from tipping sideways. But we never needed trailer wheels when we learned to ride. Instead, Dad would run alongside, one hand lightly touching the back of the seat and the other hand ready to grab the handlebars if we started to tip. He must have spent hours running alongside one or another of us like that, always patient, urging us on with advice and enthusiasm, helping us turn and ready to catch us if we started to fall. Bruises and scratches were par for the course in learning to ride – that’s what he taught us, and it’s a lesson that’s probably stood us all in good measure over the years.

Another memory I have is being allowed to follow Dad around the golf course – maybe getting in a few hits on the back holes, but mainly just tagging along: washing balls in those neat little wheel-shaped things full of brushes (you popped the ball in the top and turned a crank, and the clean ball would eventually spit out the bottom), looking for lost balls and thinking about the Trask’s ice cream we might have on the way home. (Dad’s choice: strawberry, of course!) Unfortunately, the golf bug didn’t stick with me as it did with Paul. But what did stick with all of us, I think, is the conviction that people should get out and do things, active things, physical things, as long and as often as they can. Maybe that’s not a surprising lesson for kids to learn from a father. But our father didn’t just preach at us to go out and play or get some exercise. As often as he could he did that with us. Many kinds of ball games, bide riding, skating, sledding, walking – he did all these things with all of us, all the while explaining, showing us what to look at by the side of the path, telling us a little about his own childhood activities (for example, how he, his father and brothers would cut firewood by the cord and stack it up, ready to haul home for the long winter).

Dad also provided me with two other lessons that I never forgot. He was the first man I ever saw wearing rubber gloves and an apron – a frilly apron, too, because BBQ aprons for men hadn’t been invented during our childhood (in fact, BBQs hadn’t been invented; you just had cookouts!) Dad would come home after work and read the paper before supper. But after the meal, he would usually roll up his shirtsleeves and don one of Mum’s aprons to do the dishes. He liked the water to be very hot, so when rubber gloves appeared on the scene, he would use those in really hot water. Or if he thought Mum had too much work – and especially when she was pregnant – Dad would forbid her to do any housework. After work every night, he would sweep and wash floors and do the dusting, as well as wash the dishes. Luckily, men then weren’t very good at telling whether housework had been done or not (come to think of it, what’s changed!) And that’s just as well, because Mum being Mum, she had usually already done much of the housework earlier in the day.

The second thing Dad modelled for me that shaped and influenced the course of my professional and personal life so much was a love of books and reading. Going to the library with Dad on a Saturday (usually on foot!) was another ritual I remember with love and affection. You could never say about Dad what Robert Frost’s character says of the Hired Man in the poem of that name: ‘He hated to see a boy the fool of books!’ Dad loved books, he loved to read, and to the end of his alert life, reading at least one newspaper (and often two) from beginning to end was an important part of his daily ritual. He was the most well-informed father of any I knew. Among the little odds and ends we found in his bedroom was a list of books he meant to read, in a little notebook with entries right up to the late 1990s. And the fact that he, a man who never graduated from high school, ended his working life as the highly regarded manager of a lab that turned raw glass into fibre optics, prisms and all manner of other devices that PhD scientists and engineers had dreamed up, is a credit to his amazing skill and a fine mind that he worked all of his life to develop. 

My father loved and valued learning as an intrinsically good thing. But he valued goodness itself and morality even more. He would be the first to say he owes a lot of those values to his own upbringing – including the example to which his sister Lucille contributed so much after their mother died. He would also give the credit for much of his goodness to his Catholic faith, which remained a pillar of strength throughout his life, and from which I doubt he ever once turned away. But Dad also found strength and support in family life, which he valued above all worldly things and which, I know, he never took for granted. He was deeply and touchingly devoted to our mother, and she in turn gave him more love and support than anyone really has a right to expect in one lifetime. In the busy years when they both worked so hard to raise their family together, Mum told me she would sometimes slip little messages of love and affection into the lunch bag she prepared for him every morning. And in the last months of their life together, Mum used all her strength to keep everyone from knowing how hard it had become to care for Dad, or that she needed help as much as he did. She had made a promise to care for him at home, and she kept that promise.

This good man left us, his children, with a tough legacy – to try always to do what is right and good, and not just what you feel like doing. But he also left us with what we need to live up to that challenge: strong values and a good role model.

As an old apple-picker himself, I think Dad would approve of the fact that I ended my soliloquoy with a poem by another New Englander, Robert Frost, which is all about the end of a season (or a life).

After Apple Picking
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Follow this link to read the rest of 'After Apple Picking' by Robert Frost.

    Photo Courtesy of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Dad and I walk through an apple orchard in Charlton MA after picking blueberries in an adjacent field. Dad had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Whenever he had something important to say, he would stop, say it, then walk on. This new habit seemed strange to me at the time. Later I realised he was just beginning to have only enough mental acuity to be able to focus on one thing at a time. He could walk, or he could talk. But he couldn't do both at the same time.

1 comment:

Hahnsmum said...

You were so lucky to have had such a lovely caring Dad.. Do envy you so..You write beautifully also which makes it so easy to read along & almost be in your life with you, whilst you were way back then with your family. Best Wishes,

New England.. NSW, OZ

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I started this blog in 2009 when I became a full-time caregiver. My husband had been diagnosed a few years earlier with primary progressive aphasia. Over the next four years until his death in 2013, we went on a journey of discovery about this rare condition. My blog is about what I learned, how we both coped and how the journey deepened our love and appreciation of each other. Allen’s journey is over, but mine goes on.