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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Remembering Dad


I just received The Call from my sister yesterday.  Dad is dead; my sister was pretty upset, but she’s been keeping the vigil there.  I've been expecting this call for months, but it doesn't make the reality any different.  For whatever it means, I am suddenly the oldest person in my immediate family. 

How to you interpret news like that?  It's not like I'm the patrirach or anything.  Sister is the executrix of dad's estate but mostly because she was nearest to him in his last year at the assisted living home, and she has some experience at this stuff.  According to family traditions, there will be a cremation.  I suppose as eldest, I might get his ashes.  Well, I have Mom's, they might as well be together.  Each of us kids have our own lives.  I mourn of course, but it wasn't unexpected.  I even expected it earlier.  Dad was physically incapable, in diapers, and demented.  I think he no longer knew who he was.  I consider his dying a relief from the struggle to continue living.  He didn’t want to keep surviving, himself.  It was kidney failure at the end.  He was 92.

But beyond that, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do, if anything. We don't have a family tradition of funerals.  Dad will be cremated, and since I have Mom's ashes, I will probably receive Dad's.

I wrote the obituary.  Its hard to pack a life into a short space.  So that’s why I’m writing now.  He deserves more than an inch on newspaper column space…

Where to start?  Well, when I was a child, Dad was the most perfect person (next to Mom, of course).  He was the fixer of things, the person who built things, the person who just taught me how to DO stuff.  He knew EVERYTHING, until I was about 16.

Fast-forward some years...  Dad wasn't the genius when I was 30 that I thought he was when I was 10.  Well, who is?  I had my own thoughts at 30, and they weren't Dad's.  Some guys have the same political views as their Dad.  I didn't.  Mom and Dad were at my house when Barrack Obama was elected in 2006.  I cheered while Dad declared Obama "the most dangerous man on Earth".

I won't discuss our different political views other than to say Dad said "sink or swim" (and he meant it) and I said "I won't watch someone drown".

For all my adult life, I have had imaginary arguments with Dad in the privacy of my own home.  I always won those arguments of course.  But there will be no more even imaginary arguments now.  He's gone.  It is hard to imagine that.

He had great strengths and talents.  I feel stupid trying to even list them, and I can't do him proper justice.  He was an engineer and could build about damn near anything he wanted to build.  My early life was enriched by things Dad built.  30 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the house we lived in in the 1950s.  The stone wall he built was still standing solid and proud (and I’m sure that, at 8 years old “I helped”).  There was no one home, and I decided not to trespass.  I wish someone had been there to talk to.  But I did look at the yard through Google Earth and some of the 1950’s work is still there.  My friends joke about me that I "over-enginneer" everything I build.  Well, I have a tradition to maintain.

Dad built ships during WWII and started college when he was 20 and met Mom at the Univ of NH when she was a freshman (freshwoman?).  She said she didn't date men who didn't play golf.  So he learned to play golf.  And with his usual determination, he was a 0 handicap golfer in a few years.  Damn he could hit a golf ball perfectly.  It would start off low and then rise as it went straight down the fairway as if drawn on the golf map with a ruler. 

He succeeded in almost everything he turned his attention to but he failed at some.  He was a terrible gardener , for example – Never paid much attention to the soil because there was FERTILIZER!  I learned my organic habits from Grampa.  Dad was bad at most cards, too.  You could practically see his tail wag when he had a good poker hand.  His Mom was a demon card-player; Dad didn't get those genes (so neither did I).  But he was a killer at any game that involved logic.  You could not beat him at Clue, for example.  He had a SYSTEM for showing cards (took me a year ta figure it out).  And we both got so competitive at stadium checkers together that we could call every marble drop for a full 360 degree ring rotation. Ruthless at cribbage, but I finally got about even with him by the time I left for college.  

Logic isn't strategy though.  Mom taught me chess and when she couldn't beat me at it anymore at age 10, she turned me over to Dad, who, when he couldn't beat me by age 12, decided it was a stupid game and never played me at it again.  Yeah, some Father/Son dynamics there.  Dad never had any sense of board strategy.  Hey, he was a engineer.  He wanted RULES to figure out, and strategy isn't about "rules".

But I owe him so much.  I know guys who can't drill a hole in a board because their dads didn't know how or never showed them.  But I do.  Yet he was better at it at 30 than I am now at 64.  Engineers study “perfection”.  I was a Political Science major and “What Works” was good enough. 

He hated the way I played golf.  He was methodical and I "went for it".  Golf course cards show straight lines to where par shots should go.  He lived by those lines.  I didn’t.  Sometimes MY ball went into the deep woods, but sometimes I could slice a 5 iron 200 yards and it landed on the sweet spot of the green while he did his usual methodical single-digit handicap round.   Drove him crazy...  But in 1988, I had the hot round of my life in the rain, and we won his Club's Member/Guest tournament.  Proud moment for us both.  Literally, “different strokes for different folks”, LOL!  Also the last time we ever played golf together.  He couldn't stop trying to "improve" my game (make it like his) and I was done letting him try.

I'll never be an engineer like Dad.  But he taught me enough that there is darn near nothing I'm afraid to try.  There's a fence surrounding the whole back yard, a 2 layer deck, and a toolshed (among other stuff) to prove that.  And he taught me a basic rule.  "If you need a hole in the ground, you dig one".  Which means, do what needs to be done, and sometimes plain hard work is important and pays off.

He taught me how to hunt.  I don't anymore for personal reasons, but I know how to.  Because of Dad, I can follow a trail of faint drips of blood every few yards through the woods.  If things went bad, I would not starve.  But there is more to the hunting story.  When I was 15, Dad decided that shooting deer with guns was “just too easy”.  So we (Dad, Me, and Matt) took up using bows.  I wasn’t really good with a bow (can’t recall about about Matt and I apologize for that). 

They say you practice something 10,000 times and you get good at it.  Dad did, I didn’t.  Hey, I was having more fun playing football with friends.  But he had an advantage.  In 1966, he was 44; I was 16.  He used a 60 LB bow with a 30” draw.  I could only use a 45 LB draw bow at 26”.  At 16, I was smaller and weaker than he was.  He was 5’10” and 170 pounds, I was 5’4” and 125.  Stronger bow and longer draw makes the arrow trajectory flatter and faster (meaning way easier to aim).  He could hit a 10” paper plate 80% of the time and didn’t miss the other 20% by much.  I was lucky to get 30%.  But I was game and decent in the woods (Matt was better in nature).  But it was also because he just practiced more.

Dad could always get a deer the first time we went out.  But I did have a talent and there were raised stands at some places we hunted.  I could stand silently for hours.  I did well on those.  One spot where I stood in the rain all morning, a single deer came by right under the stand.  I almost (REALLY) jumped on it from above holding a arrow to spear it.  I still regret I didn’t.  It would have been a family story for 2 generations.  But I shot straight down and it drove the deer to the ground.

And it got up and ran away and we never found it.  I was shocked, and so was Dad.  And while searching for it, I lifted a leg over a fallen tree and stabbed my self deeply on my very sharp 3 bladed hunting arrow head.  End of hunting for that year.

The next year, I was hunting with a friend of Dad’s, had a long shot at a doe, hit her right in the heart and she dropped like a rock.

But this is not about me.  I’m telling you that so I can tell you this about Dad.  When Dad decided we should start bow hunting, he went all the way.  Well, almost, we didn’t make our own bows.  But we made our bowstrings and arrows.  And Dad designed and built stuff to do that from scratch.  He made an adjustable bowstring maker with knobs to twist the bowstrings in 2 directions, a metal spool holder to twist heavy thread around the bowstring at the nocking point, a cutter template for making leather bowstring silencers, a gadget to attach feathers in a very slightly curved arc around the arrow, and even a heated metal wire to burn off excess feathers down to an aerodynamically perfect shape.  I came up with the idea of heating arrow nocks in hot water then squeezing them on a popsicle stick so that they barely held on to the bowstring but released easily. 

Yeah, there’s a “like father like son” thing going on too.  But the point is, he created ideas in his mind and then just casually went and BUILT them. I have to work HARD to do that, and I don't do it as well.

I recall Mom saying a few times that Dad endeared himself to her parents.  He would visit for a date and would spend an hour just “fixing things around the house “.  Bad light switch, radio antenna, leaky basement pipe, etc.  Drove her crazy at first, and apparently they arrived at movies and dances late sometimes.  And while impressing “the parents” is not the usual way to win a woman’s love, it WAS “some guy who was not her Dad or my brothers”, and seems to have worked.

And there was some religion involved.  Mom’s family was ferociously French Catholic.  As she used to say she was taught “If you were BAD, you went to Hell.  If you were worse, you became a Protestant"  But she didn’t like that idea very much and Dad was a Protestant (of no particular group – I think his Mom was a Quaker).

So in spite of the fact that her parents liked Dad a Whole Lot, they threw her out of the church for marrying a Protestant.  And amazingly, they were happy all their lives in spite of that.  And I mean, as close as I can tell as a child living at home, and as an adult afterwards, they were happier together than any 2 people I have ever met.  Things worked out VERY well...

One thing I can say for sure; I wouldn't be the person I am today without both of them...

So ends the story of Burdell Dodd Spencer and Doris Ursula Beaulieu, loving husband and wife for 61 years, both now gone from this world forever.  Unusual and special people both.  Their descendents remain to have our own stories, but we will never be them.
 

8 comments:

Millie said...

What a lovely tribute Mark. Thanks for sharing. It was cool to hear your parents met at UNH (my own alma mater) and that your Mom was a Catholic French-Canadian). So was my family.

Sending hugs across the miles.

Lynne
(Millie sends purrs)

Ramblingon said...

Absolute perfection Mark. They were honored by your writing here, and really, so are you because you wrote it. There is love there.

ANGEL ABBYGRACE said...

Those are really wonderful times you recalled and special to your heart and to who you've become. I still have both my parents so I cannot say I understand your feelings but I do know it's a big transition losing one generation. Your heart will feel this,in all of it's sadness and all of it's happiness. It does sound like your Dad will be very happy to be reunited with your Mother.

Prayers for you and your family.

Thumper said...

That was awesome :)

And I know that his passing was expected, but that doesn't make it feel any better. It still hurts. And for that I am so, so sorry.

Megan said...

A wonderful tribute to your dad, Mark. Thank you for sharing it.

Megan
Sydney, Australia

Megan said...

A wonderful tribute to your dad, Mark. Thank you for sharing it.

Megan
Sydney, Australia

Andrea and the Celestial Kitties said...

That's a really nice memorial, Mark. Sounds like he was quite a person. I know it was expected, but it's still not easy to lose a parent. You have my sympathy.

Katnip Lounge said...

A wonderful post, Mark, befitting your Dad perfectly, I think. And you know what? I see (read) a lot of your Dad in you, in your posts about life and building...he's still here.
My sympathies for your loss. Expected or not, losing a parent must be very hard.

Trish