Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Dad

Dad recovering from dual carpal tunnel surgery in 2007
Sitting still and doing nothing does not suit him.
For much of the first half of my life, my father wore suits.

It took quite a while for me to understand what it was he did when he was "at work," this mysterious place he went for quite a lot of the time. I knew that he got up very early, wore suits that were subtly different but substantively the same, wore a white shirt and a conservative tie - in my memory, it's always a muted red with little patterned rosettes (also muted). I also learned that there were ties that were inappropriate for the office, namely anything I would wear to a jazz band concert.

I know that I'd often be eating cereal and drinking juice when he'd depart in the morning, and that instead of having Honeycomb or Cheerios, he'd depart carrying a single banana. I'm still not sure whether that was breakfast or lunch.



Prompted by a discussion from grade school, I once asked my mother how much money my dad made. My mom replied that he made more than 100,000 dollars per year, but that that wasn't the sort of thing that I should tell anyone. She needn't have worried, since once I had that information, I didn't really know what to do with it. The number 100,000 seemed like a lot, but I didn't really know how much anyone *else* made, so whatever comparative ability I thought it would have was lost on me.

Ben and Sarah's wedding, 2011.
Bill Schwartz on far right.
I know that my father's job was time-consuming. Some of the time, Dad would return home from work and then move to his office for... more work. I know that it was a very rare and apocalyptic thing (in my eyes) when he was home sick. It provoked nervous apprehension and a fear that whatever it was that had temporarily felled my father from his normal routine, it would certainly be strong enough to kill him.

My father seems to know how to fix everything that goes wrong in the house. In both of the houses I grew up in, my dad had a giant workbench in the basement filled with tools, scraps of wood, different types of glue that were NEVER used in school, ladders of multiple lengths and materials, old cans of paint, a silver-grey multiplug attached to the front of a shelf and a switch that glows red, various lengths of wire, a few old toilets (my mom insists that the toilets are long gone, but I bet they're still buried back in the way-back), various oils for staining wood, various noxious chemicals in metal jugs, a pile of old rags made of worth-through t-shirts and underwear, enough screwdrivers to choke a horse, and a ratchet and socket set that came in a briefcase.

Dad prepping the videocassette for "It's a Wonderful Life"
December 23, 2007
My father has, to my knowledge, never used an automatic car wash. We've had the soap, brushes, chamois cloth, and garden hose spray handle since I can remember. It's just a thing that one does on a quiet weekend day, when the weather is warm -- if it's too cold, the water will freeze the doors shut. That always sounded awesome, but I never saw it happen because my father always knows what the weather is going to be. This tradition of washing cars never struck me as odd until visited other families where stopping at the car wash was just another errand.

My father makes my favorite hamburgers. And I don't understand why they are my favorite. I've watched the entire process from start to finish, yet I am no closer to being able to replicate it. It drives my scientific brain crazy! There's nothing to it: meat, cheese, bun. WHY??!

For a long time after my father retired, I still had his office number memorized. Because that's something that one needs to know! I know that whenever my father called home to say he was about on his way, my mother never liked having involved conversations with him if it he used the speakerphone - "that pickle barrel," she'd call it.

Dad, in the kind of meeting he prefers now: face to cat-face.
It's telling that after I started thinking about why I no longer remembered that office number, I did remember it almost instantly: 982-2543.

I remember being on one of the many camping trips my dad and I took through Boy Scouts. This one was in the late spring, a float trip on a rural Missouri river. There was a very intense storm one day, enough to cause us to abandon our tents and evacuate via van to a nearby lodge. It must have been tornado-capable, because I remember trees coming down and many people hurrying in many directions. At one point, the boys all got closed into a van while some of the dads ran back off into the storm to save tents or something. The rain lashed against the windows so fearfully that it was impossible to see out. And I had to be consoled by the rest of the campers because I had broken out in tears and sobs because I had become convinced that my dad was going to die out there in the storm.

I've never forgotten that feeling.

My father seems to be good at buying flowers. He always seems to buy flowers at appropriate times; never for an apology (or at least not one that we kids know about). In relationships, I've tried to ape that, but I just feel foolish and as though I'm doing something I once heard about on TV. I suppose confidence helps.

I envy his mechanical skills. He sent me back home with equipment necessary to change a light switch. I disconnected everything with my tools, matched screws with their return destinations, and tried to do the wiring. The first time, I blew the circuit breaker. The second attempt, I blew the breaker, but not before a flash, some alarming sizzling, and a not-minor amount of smoke. There was no third attempt.

I inherited my shoulders and hairline from Dad.
I recently attempted to fix my computer, but multiple attempts and back-tracking across manuals and schematics produced only a meager turning of one fan, briefly. Now, my father wouldn't be able to fix a computer either, but I'm still disappointed that I couldn't do it, because I have my father's idea that things should be easy to fix if you know what you're doing and have all the right pieces.

In the last year, my dad has moved into the smartphone era. I thought it would be more difficult for him, since he's missing two very-important fingertips on his right (dominant) hand as a result of a post-retirement chipper injury. But he's done impressively well with setting himself up with voice direction and dictation and the swiping keyboard. And now I get texts from him with pictures of cats.

"Good morning from Sophie and me."

My dad loves cats. My mom always says it surprised her, since Dad grew up on a farm that had disposable cats. The cats lived in the barn, but didn't have medical care or names. They were just additional farm workers whose pay was a meal cooked by my grandmother in the evenings. But my father loves the household cats we've had as I grew up. And he loves the neighbor's cat, who sometimes doesn't get the attention he deserves on bitterly cold nights. Alton (the neighbor cat) reciprocates by keeping a varied and in-depth conversation going with my father whenever there's cat food placed in the dish outside.

"I'd like to speak to Mister Schwartz, please!
It concerns some food."

As long as I can remember, Dad's had a car with leather seats. When he would drive me to school in Junior High, I can remember getting into the car and associating that smell with "Dad's car." It still comes to mind whenever I get into his car -- even though it's several cars on from the one in Junior High.

The radio in my dad's car is always on and tuned. That may not sound surprising, but I never knew my father to care very much about music. He whistles and "bum-de-bum's" his way through the house, but he never seemed very interested in it. And while having the radio on in the car isn't a great appeasement to the gods of music, it always surprised me whenever I got in. "Oh yeah, dad listens to music."

I and my two brothers made fun of my father for years, because his nose honked when he blew into a tissue. Now that happens to me, but it still makes me laugh when it happens to me or Dad (Dad's are still better!). We three brothers also made fun of his sneeze, which always comes out as a gigantic and partially-vocalized explosion. To this day, if I say, "Jiiiinnnn-schlaaaaaaaa!" to my brother Ben, he'll probably break out laughing and know exactly what's happening.

I've always appreciated that he yells louder and uses all his colorful language when coaching major league sports players through the television screen. My father has never once yelled out that I was a bum, but he has used it to describe most of the Cardinal's lineups in the past two decades on slow days.

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