Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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In Praise of Middle-aged Sons

On Sundays, they escort their mothers to church and take them out to lunch afterward.

They pick up bread, milk, and the exact brand and size of mayonnaise their Mom wants and let her give them a coupon and the exact change.

Although they could finish a repair project more quickly without their father’s help, they try hard to smile when Dad supervises the work.

They sift through piles of Medicare statements and become wise in the ways of copays and explanations of benefits.

At their Mom’s house, they change light bulbs, program her cell phone, and write up a cheat sheet since she won’t remember how to use it.

They bring tins of homemade cookies, flowering plants, and companionable conversation.

After agreeing to be power of attorney, they spend countless hours balancing statements and paying bills.

As they sit at her bedside and spoon applesauce in their mother’s waiting mouth, they try not to dwell on the role reversal, because it just makes them sad.

They don’t talk much about the losses—they just shrug their broad responsible shoulders and go back to the office or go home. They don’t think their efforts are anything special–it’s just what they’re supposed to do.

God Bless Middle-aged Daughters

As I walk into the skilled nursing center where Mom is rehabilitating, I see other women like myself and think, “God bless middle-aged daughters.”

We’re the sensible, competent women who make it all happen.

On the street, we often go unnoticed, although we’re attractive. We dress well, but in age-appropriate clothes. No six-inch heels or short skirts. We may carry 10 to 20 extra pounds, but we’re fit, trim, and solid enough to carry the weight of the world.

On our lunch hour, after work, or during weekend visits, we go see our failing mothers and fathers. We bring them flowering plants small enough to fit on a bedside table/hard candy/clean sox/good cheer.

We comb their hair and smooth hand cream on their veiny hands and swollen feet. Once they could manage a demanding job or their family’s busy schedule, keep track of birthdays, recipes and grocery lists, but now they can’t remember what you told them five minutes ago, so we answer the same questions again and again. The times they emerge from the twilight, smile and say, “Oh honey, I wish you could always be here,” are heartbreaking treasure.

As we go back to the office, drive home, or head to the airport, we sigh at the slippage and blink back tears at the losses. Then we put on our game face because somebody else needs us. We keep moving—plan the marketing campaign, schedule the meeting, throw in a load of wash, or make a decent dinner.

We are careworn. Our lives are not glamorous (and never were—we didn’t aspire to that). We don’t expect much. We can be made happy with so little—a compliment when we don’t feel sexy or a hug from a kid who often seems oblivious.

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Sometimes we need to push back our realities for a little while, so we laugh ourselves silly over a stupid joke when we’re out with our girlfriends or sink into the sofa and pour a second glass of good wine.

Lessons from a Life

This week, guest blogger and WordSister Brenda van Dyck continues our meditation on fatherhood.

Finally it happened. Father’s Day came and went, and instead of feeling sad, I was grateful. Every June in the eight years since my father died, I have met Father’s Day with dread; the day was an annual reminder of what I no longer had. But this year, I found myself thinking more of my five-year-old daughter and what my dad can still teach her.

My daughter, Shelby, was born three years after my dad died. He was 41 when I was born; I was 41 when I gave birth to my daughter. I think that’s as far as the similarities go. For him, I was the fourth child to come in the four-and-a-half years since my oldest sister was born (yes, that’s right, four kids in four-and-a-half years). For me, the birth of my only child was a much sought-after and anticipated event.

Brenda and Shelby

Brenda and Shelby

In the months after Shelby was born, I mourned the fact that she wouldn’t grow up with my dad around. He was grandfather to nine others before her, and in many ways, he was a better grandfather than father; without the responsibility of having to provide for his grandchildren, he was more relaxed, more playful, and more able to enjoy them without worry. She wouldn’t experience his sense of humor, gentle teasing, or steady presence.

Despite his absence, he can still teach her things.

My father was stubbornly stoic—a man of few words and even fewer expressions of emotion. He wasn’t one to give advice. But he taught me a lifetime’s worth of values, not from what he said, but from how he lived.

Here is what I think he would say to her.

Work hard and you will overcome your struggles. There is always value in working hard. My father only had a primary school education; he grew up in a village in Yugoslavia where more schooling than the basic Catholic primary school was a luxury that few families could afford. When he was 14, my father moved to Munich during World War II to become a baker’s apprentice. In the long trajectory of his life, he would live through the war, immigrate to another country, learn how to fix mainframe computers, and retire from a steady career working for Control Data. He made the American Dream his own.

You are not a victim of your circumstances. Despite what you witness, despite what you live through, know that you will live through it. My father didn’t like to talk about growing up poor or living through the war. He didn’t say much about his father, who died when my dad was 16. There was certainly a lot of pain in his life. And while he was not given to emotion or affection, the hard times of his life shaped him into a man who was strong and quietly compassionate.

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Family is the glue that will keep you together. Family will help you keep perspective on what’s really important. My father’s immediate family, consisting of my dad’s parents, three brothers and two sisters, was broken up by poverty and war. After my father was about 12, the family never lived together again because of various circumstances. But when my father came to the United States, joining an aunt and uncle and their children in a small house in the east side of St. Paul, he finally experienced the family life he had longed for. It gave him the semblance of a normal life at last. He would go on to meet my mother and raise four children in a very conventional and blessedly uneventful way. And they created a solid footing for the next generation to come.

Don’t be a phony. If you are overly concerned with what people think of you rather than being a good person, you’ve got it wrong. My dad could always spot a phony, and he wasn’t shy about showing his disdain for those who spent more time trying to appear to be hot stuff rather than being authentic. He wasn’t impressed by wealth, and was even turned off by it, but he was more impressed with authenticity, kindness, and respect.

Parents love you the best way they know how and they aren’t perfect. They will disappoint you, hurt your feelings, and even fail you. Learn to forgive them for their shortcomings, because it will make you who you are. There are many things I wish my father had done differently. I wish he’d been more communicative and more nurturing for starters, but I know that he did the best he could. And what he did do in providing a stable home, was pretty darn good.

Be responsible and dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do and be the kind of person that people can count on. My father was reliably on time. If he said he would do something, he always followed through. I hope that I have inherited that quality from him.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, leave those around you better than when you found them. Through your love, your gifts, and your efforts, make this world better. Do right by your family and friends and the rewards will come back to you. This, in essence, was my dad’s life. It’s what he did for me, and it’s what he has enabled me to do for my daughter.

Brenda van Dyck is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis with her family. She writes memoir and essays, bolstered by her WordSisters since first joining the writing group ten years ago.

The Fire Chief’s Daughter

By Rosemary Davis

By Rosemary Davis

Has never pulled a man from a burning car after fishing on Lake Erie all day and then driven home and cleaned the perch.

Can’t think of the 1967 race riots in Toledo without being grateful that the chief wasn’t hurt, although his white fire coat made him a target.

Would hear his voice on the fire radio and picture him speeding away from No. 5’s fire station whenever there was a two-alarm fire.

Learned from the chief to quiet her voice in a crisis, because it helped her and the patients in ER calm down.

Wouldn’t let her teenage boys play with a potato gun fueled by hairspray, because she and the chief had both seen the burns that result when hairspray ignites.

Looks for exit signs in case of fire, never overloads electrical circuits, and is careful with the candles she burns at home.

Thinks of the years of volunteer work, the anonymous donations, and the scholarship he endowed.

Hopes to live up to his example.