Through the years I have written several columns about my mother, recalling her nurturing nature when I was a child and a relationship that blossomed into a friendship in my later years. Mother was the affectionate one in our family; she was the heart of our home. But it was my dad who was the head, the one who made most of the decisions and paid all of the bills, freeing up my mother to raise four children and tend to household duties. In the 1950s and 1960s the majority of American families lived that way, with fewer luxuries, of course, but with a clearer definition of parental roles. Mother was there every day when I came home from school, usually in the kitchen cooking up something for supper or perhaps folding laundry that had hung on the clothesline all day. Dad would not come home until much later, and when he did, he had farm chores to attend to since he had worked in the local steel mill all day. Therefore, I never saw as much of my dad, but I saw the results of his labor and I recall the few times he actually gave me some strong advice.
I suppose when Dad came home he was too tired to talk much, and so he often watched television or listened to the radio as he read the newspaper. After he took an early retirement from the steel mill and going into the car business, I was delighted to see the different cars he drove home in the evenings. When I got my driver’s license, he let me drive some of those cars for a time, especially one Kentucky blue Volkswagen convertible that I begged to keep. But Dad was in the business to make money, so when someone came along who wanted that car, it was gone.
If you asked me the one thing my dad taught me, I would have to say it was responsibility. It all began when he gave me a young calf to raise after its mother had died. He took me to Southern States, bought all of the supplies, turned to me and said, “Now, she is your responsibility.” As an 11-year-old child, I took that message to heart as I became the “nurturer” for that little calf I named “Ruby.” And that was only the beginning. Dad often put a garden hoe in my hand and pointed to a row of corn, saying, “Get those weeds out by supper time.” Sometimes I would rub blisters on my hands, but it was worth it to hear my dad say, “Good job.” He did not always say that, however. Sometimes he did not say anything at all.
There was another time when I was a teenager that I made the mistake of pointing out to dad that the paint was chipping a bit on the side of our old clapboard farmhouse. “You’re right, it is,” he said as he looked at a project that ended up being my own. The next evening when he came home from work he handed me a few of gallons of white paint, a new brush and said, “Go to it.”
When I graduated from high school in the mid 1960s, I was one of the few girls in my class who decided to go on to college. Many of them married, and some joined the secretarial pool at the local offices of Ashland Oil, Inc. They were good-paying jobs, but they were not for me. Now Dad was a bit old-fashioned, questioning me when I said I desired a higher education before finally telling me that he would help. He made it clear, however, that I would have to work part-time jobs and pay many of my own expenses. That was fine with me, especially when one of my teachers recommended me for a summer job at the local bank, one that Dad was sure I would keep forever once I got a taste of bringing home some paychecks. Much to his surprise, I resigned my job in August and headed off to school where I found part-time work on campus, using my typing and shorthand skills in the School of Education. I was going to be a teacher, and they decided to help me get there.
I recall running out of money one time, being so reluctant to call home, but I was hungry. I never bought a meal ticket, just made coffee and toast in my room each morning for breakfast and had one inexpensive meal out at Jerry’s or some local dive with my friends in the evening. I can remember hearing Dad’s voice on the other end of the line when I asked for a little help. It was at the beginning of the spring semester, my textbooks had cost more than I had anticipated, and payday was two weeks off. “How much do you need?” He got right to the point without asking me why I was short of money. “I think about $10 should do it,” I responded. He deposited the money the next morning, at which time I got the university to cash my personal check so I could go to the grocery and stock up on peanut butter, joining another roommate who usually did the same thing all of the time since she was totally paying her own way through school. That peanut butter never tasted so good, and my dad never did a kinder deed than depositing that money without once questioning his daughter. I could have asked for $20, I suppose, and feasted on hamburgers, but I guess I had my pride even back then.
Now no one was more proud of me when I graduated from college than my father.
While he never made a big deal about it to my face, I heard about the comments he had made to others, friends and family members alike. And, one week later when I got married, he had just a few words of advice, the last ones he ever gave me when he said, “Remember, you are marrying off and not on.”
“That’s okay, Daddy,” I remember saying. “I have my education now, and that is all I need.” Fortunately, back in those days it was! When I moved to Frankfort, I was offered two jobs immediately, one with state government, but I had gone to college to become a teacher, and so when Robert Hoagland called me and said, “You have the job,” I jumped with joy.
Yes, Dad taught me responsibility, a lesson I wish all young people today could learn. While at times he seemed rather harsh, I realize now he did it because he loved me, knowing that if we make it too easy on people they may become too dependent. His conservative way of thinking had rubbed off on his daughter in a big way.
It was many years later, shortly before he passed away, that he called me one day, something he rarely did. It seems he had hurt my feelings about something the last time I had visited, and I had not made that trip to Ashland in a while. I could tell it was difficult for him to say – many times males are just like that, but he cleared his throat, stammered a bit, and finally said the words I had never heard him speak in my entire life.
He said, “I sure do love you.” I can remember holding the phone for a long time, crying a little bit just as he was doing on the other end. I knew how difficult it had been for him to say those words even though I had always known in my heart how he felt. It was just great after more than 35 years to finally hear them.
Dad died shortly after that, but every Father’s Day I think of him and remember the good lessons he taught me, realizing that it was his actions, much more than his words, that gave me the true meaning of the word “love.”