Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Project Concluded and a Letter From Dad

I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever get our latest project off the work table down in the shop. I've been nipping away at it the past couple weeks and finally got it wrapped up a few nights ago. We're very happy with the outcome. This was a design Tammy made for our cabinets above the kitchenette in the basement. It was a very labor-intensive project with lots of little pieces. We'll next begin working on some drawings for similar panels above our entertainment center in the basement. I've been kicking around the idea of a Frank Lloyd Wright style design with some art nouveau splashes thrown in to break it up a bit. I hope to begin doing some sketches this week. I always enjoy being down in the shop working on a project but this winter has found me out on my bike more than other winters with the warm weather we've been experiencing. On the one hand, I'm grateful for the warm days we've had to get out and ride but I'm also grateful for those forced days off when the weather won't allow me to get out and I find myself down in the shop.

I was going through some boxes of stuff today trying to find some long lost sketches and I came across a letter from my father written in October, '84. I was living in Huron, SD at the time with Noy and my stepsons, Dave and Joe. I'd apparently had a phone conversation with my dad where I expressed concern about his drinking and smoking. I'd also written him a letter and expressed some other concerns I had with respect to where I fit into the family. I would've been 27 at the time.

Within six months he would lose his job with Control Data to a company called VTC through a corporate buyout. It was a turning point in the direction of our family and forever upset whatever illusions of Cleaver innocence there may have been. My dad crawled inside a bottle and although he went through several treatment programs he was never able to overcome his addiction. At the time he lost his job my parents were in the process of drawing up plans for their dream home out in the country south of Minneapolis. The home they had in Farmington was nice and spacious on seven acres but they wanted to have one built to their specs. Anyway, those plans quickly fell by the wayside as their home went on the market and they made plans to move to the U.P. of Michigan.

My dad would live another ten years and eventually die from emphysema in September '95.

I remember what led up to the letter he wrote to me. I'd been questioning his and my mother's love for me. I don't know if this is a phase of sorts which many people in their mid-20s find themselves in. I cannot recall one time growing up where my father or mother ever told me that they loved me. I didn't have friends whose parents told them that least not in front of me. Maybe it was said when they were alone. I never got that and I'm not sure that I knew there was something missing. I think about who I am today and how I'm not shy to tell Rachel that I love her and how proud I am of her...she's my stepdaughter. If saying I love you is a learned expression I have no idea where I learned it.

In my dad's letter, he paints a picture of an awful childhood where there was little to no love and of parents who were both dead by the time he was nine. He entered his adult life with scars which never healed.

I was one of six kids somewhere in the middle. I can remember never being able to impress my dad with anything I did. I had brothers who were mechanically inclined and that always seemed to impress him. I had some artistic talents but I can't recall him ever noticing. I was an average student who never felt compelled to do any more than was necessary to keep the teachers from calling home. I had a younger brother who struggled in school and so I think most of the focus was put on him...I don't know. My parents never once inquired of me about school and how I was doing. I had friends whose parents were always on them about their homework. High school was such a waste of time for me...all I learned in three years at Thomas Jefferson was how to type. All the while though I knew that I actually enjoyed that time of my life because it was easy and I would soon be out of school and have a ton of responsibilities. I hadn't a clue as to what I was going to do next.

I'm rambling here as I recall some of my thoughts during that time of my life.

I remember approaching my parents out in the backyard when I was maybe 13 or 14 and asking if I could buy a ten-speed bike. All I'd ever had were the stingray varieties which weren't really meant for anything other than beating around the neighborhood. I wanted a bike I could go places on. My dad said no. I'd passed up a chance at an actual road bike a couple years earlier when my dad salvaged an old Schwinn from a junk pile and refurbished it for me. It was too big and none of the other kids rode a bike like that. I remember how upset he became with me when I told him in so many words that I didn't want it. He was applying the finishing touches to the project and threw his socket wrench down hard on the garage floor and said something foul. My dad didn't forget.

The only job around for a kid of my age then was a paper route but those were locked up by other kids. I remember offering the guy who had the route in my neighborhood $100 if he would sell it to me but he turned me down. That was a lot of money back then and no doubt it would have taken me a few months to pay it back but I was desperate to purchase a chance at independence. I didn't earn an allowance. My friend, Miles Harvey, used to get an allowance of $5 a week...unreal to me. Every now and then my dad would give me a couple dollars but it never amounted to much. Six kids.

Halfway through my senior year my dad's job took what was left of our family out east to Pottstown, Pa. I was given the option to move with them or stay behind and finish school. I stayed behind. It didn't take long for me to fail on my own. I was going nowhere and still had no plan or any sort of focus. My sister suggested that I enlist in the Navy. It was early December 1975 and before the month was over I would be in boot camp near Chicago. It was probably one of the best moves I've ever made. I was a kid not ready for college and lacking any sort of direction...say nothing of a lack of confidence.

I blossomed in the Navy. For lack of a better way to say it; I found myself. I knew what was expected of me and although I complained as we all did I still enjoyed my four-year enlistment. It wasn't something I wanted to make a career of but it was a place to take stock and find direction. Early on in my enlistment, I was approached by Chief Petty Officer (Doc) Johnson...the ship's Corpsman about becoming an officer. It would be a huge commitment should I choose to take the path he was showing me. It would mean a year of prep school then four years of college followed by a four-year obligation to the Navy as an officer. Should I fail or quit anywhere along the way I would have to go back and resume my enlistment where I'd left off. It wasn't even a sure thing but he told me that he could get me all the recommendations I would need to make it happen. In the end, I couldn't commit myself to the nine-year obligation...I was only 19 at the time. I sometimes wonder if I would have made the program and what would have become of my life had I taken Doc's advice. I appreciated his vote of confidence nonetheless.

At one point in my enlistment, I hadn't been home for 18 months—that's a long time to a 20-year-old. I remember thinking how great it would be to finally see my folks again. I arrived at the airport and caught a cab to a preset meeting place where I'd rendezvous with my folks. I remember asking the cab driver if it was okay if I first greeted my parents quickly and then come back and pay him. No problem. I distinctly remember feeling that I was more excited to see them than they were to see me. It didn't really matter as I was home for a month but the memory remains.

One thing that both Tammy and I do with Rachel is to sit down and get inside her head to find out what's up, to see if I can get her to tell me who her latest crush is or what plans may be in the works. I enjoy that. It's especially fun if we're doing something together and we stop somewhere to get a coffee. She's slowly becoming her mother with coffee in the morning and naps in the afternoon. Give her some coffee and she won't stop talking—it's too cute. Anyway, it was very rare that my dad or mom would ever sit down and pick my brain. I'd like to think that we had heart to heart talks when I'd come home on leave but I don't remember that ever happening. I just don't recall ever doing much of that with them. I suppose that's why I find it hard to relate to my mother in that way today. It should be a natural thing but it's so far from that. Our conversations are pretty generic without a whole lot of meaning with the exception of the falling out we experienced this past August. I won't go into that here; read further in the blog for that if you're interested.

Tammy's experience growing up was really no different and probably worse with an alcoholic father who was a full-blown drunk while she was growing up. At least my dad waited until the kids were out on their own before he self-destructed. If there is anything good which can come out of this it's that our pasts have made us more sensitive to Rachel's needs and we don't want to make the same mistakes our parents made. I want to be there for her as much as she'll let me without getting in her way. I want her to know that I'm interested in all that she does and that I'm there for her but most importantly I want her to know that she's loved.

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