Something to be proud of

It’s quite possible that the thoughts I’m about to share are largely due to hormones, seeing as how I’m 8 months pregnant. Nonetheless…

Several months ago I found a picture of my late grandparents, Robert (Bob) and Inga Blair. I found a rustic frame to put the picture in and created a place for it on the bookshelf in my home office. It’s a simple picture—just the two of them standing in their dining room. Grandpa was wearing his good cowboy hat and Grandma was wearing earrings, so they must have been on their way to town. Grandpa’s arm was around Grandma, and she was holding his hand. They both wore their big smiles that had created deep lines in their faces over the years. Smiles that, if you knew them, reminded you of their wonderful senses of humor that had endeared the entire rural community to them.

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandpa was a small Irish man who was as tough as he was kind-hearted. He had a funny saying for every situation, and he never met a child or animal he didn’t love. He left home after the 8th grade with no possessions, started his family during the Great Depression, and accumulated more than 10,000 acres of land over the course of his lifetime. He left a legacy behind him, rich with not only possessions, but family and people who loved him. He was the bank when his friends couldn’t get a loan. He was the voice of reason when someone was being rash. And he was a scrapper when he was defending the code he lived by. At his funeral, friends shared memories of him that filled the room with laughter. I shared something I’d written about him called The Greatest Man I Know that filled the room with tears.

My grandmother was equally unique and wonderful. Her love for her family knew no bounds. She was a Norwegian woman with a personality big enough to handle my grandpa’s and a spirit light enough to appreciate his shenanigans. She was always trying to put meat on people’s bones. When we were young, she’d disappear into the other room and reappear with a measuring cup full of skittles for each of the grandkids that came to visit. We never did find her hiding place for those skittles. Grandma was a woman of few words, but when she spoke, you listened. She was the perfect complement to my grandpa, like a team of horses. They just worked better as a pair.

Without going into a lot more detail, suffice it to say that I loved my grandparents fiercely. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the special role my grandpa played in my life is one that not everyone has had the pleasure of experiencing. Not everyone has had a rock—a role model—like my grandpa. For some reason, my brothers and I just wanted to make my grandpa proud. Sometimes that meant getting out the lawnmower and mowing his lawn without being asked. It would have been enough to hear him say thank you, or to receive that “good job” slap on the back from him that almost hurt… but he would also reward us with a crisp $5 or $10 bill. My brothers and I worked hard and played hard with Grandpa, and loved every minute of it. Some of my favorite memories of my childhood involve having an ice cream cone with Grandpa after a job well done, or taking a ride on the bench-seated 3-wheeler that Grandpa would pull out before the sun went down on a summer night. They were simple pleasures but they meant the world to us.

To this day, the opinion of my grandpa matters to me. It’s one of the reasons my hair has been long all my life. Grandpa liked it that way. He’s also big part of the reason I’m frugal with money. He didn’t buy what he didn’t need. He taught my dad to be that way, and from watching both of them make financial decisions for the ranch over the years, I’ve learned to be careful with money too.

Now, since finding that picture of my grandparents, at least a couple times per week I’ll look up from my work and glance at it. It always causes me to pause for a minute and remember them. It always causes me to shift my focus and see my life in simpler terms—the terms Grandpa lived by. I find myself wondering what Grandpa would say about my life if he were alive today. I wonder what questions he would have for my husband and what adventures he would have taken Mylo on out at the ranch. I wonder what new stories he would tell about his life as a young cowboy that he’d recall when spending a day with us now. (No matter how many stories he told, there were always new ones we’d never heard.)

Today I sat in my office chair, feeling my unborn son moving and kicking inside me, and I glanced up at that picture. Suddenly tears were streaming down my face, partly because I miss them, but mostly because my husband and I have decided to make our son’s middle name Robert. I think my husband agreed to it because he knows it means a lot to me, but he will never know how much it means. He’ll never know how sad I am that my grandpa never got to meet my husband… never got to look in my husband’s eyes and grip his hand firmly with a handshake that both greeted him warmly and evaluated him as a man. He’ll never know how much I wish my grandfather could have seen what a hard worker he is and how well he takes care of me and his sons. As I thought about this I was reminded of the Montgomery Gentry song, Something To Be Proud Of. You see, I know my grandpa would have been proud of the family I have and the life we’ve built. I know he would have liked my husband and I know the smile my sons would have brought to his face. So my tears as I thought about all of this come from sadness at the missed opportunity to see pride in my grandpa’s face. But they also come from the joy I have about my husband, my boys, and my opportunity to let my grandpa’s name live on in my son.

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He Was Our World

All parents have bedtime rituals they go through with their kids, and all kids learn to expect the routine. When I was little, my favorite part of the ritual was when Dad would come in to say goodnight, and we would beg him to “bounce us”. He would pick us up and tell us to stiffen up, like a board. We’d lie flat across his arms, and he would toss us up in the air and flip us over, from our stomach to our back and vice versa. We never knew how many times he was going to catch us before he finally let us drop to bounce on the bed. Then he tucked us in and said goodnight. Anyone who has had any experience with kids knows that this is exactly what you should not do right before bed, because he wound us up and left us laughing in the dark, far from being ready to fall asleep. And Mom would just shake her head and say nothing. It was Dad’s ritual and we loved it, so she let it be.

 There is something incredibly special about the relationship between a father and his children. Obviously that’s true of a mother-child relationship too, but I’ll save that for another discussion. Lately, I’ve been thinking about dads.

 I had a conversation recently with a friend who lost his father just before the holidays a couple years ago. I don’t know this friend’s history very well, and I didn’t know his dad at all, but the subtle change in my friend’s voice as he told me about his father was unmistakable. What I took from the conversation was this… his dad, Jim, was larger than life. Jim was a big man, standing at a towering 6’5” over his pretty little wife. But it wasn’t his size that made him a giant. It was his character. Jim was married at 22 while still in college. He joined the family furniture business and ran it for more than 20 years. During that time he and his wife had three kids who were raised to live by the Golden Rule and let their faith guide them. My friend told me once that he just wanted to be seen as a good person, like his dad was.

 The loss of his father was sudden. Jim went for a walk one day and didn’t make it home. In fact, he didn’t make it to the end of the block. It was just his time. He was one of the longest living double transplant recipients, having received a new kidney and pancreas to battle his diabetes 18 years earlier. He had gone on to make the most out of life, and counseled others going through the same procedure. The Organ Transplant Society publications bear Jim’s quote, “No one should have to go through this alone.” Jim showed his children what it meant to be a good man, and they would discover that he would be their example of what a parent should be as well. To his wife, he was a good husband. To his community, he was an honest business man and good Samaritan. But my friend said something that left me thinking for days about the importance of fathers. When talking about how he and his sisters leaned on each other every year on their late father’s birthday, my friend was quiet for a minute before saying…

 “He was our world.”

 The love of a mother is one that is soft, patient, nurturing, protective. Metaphorically speaking, moms are like a warm hug when you need it most. But the love of a father is different. I remember Theo, my little brother, saying that our dad was the strongest man in the world. As a toddler, he could easily be coerced into eating his food if you told him that “5 more bites” would make him big and strong like Daddy. Children put their fathers on a pedestal and strive to make them proud. Dads are more likely to let their children climb out on a limb and sometimes fall. They’ll be there to pick their kids up, but unlike a protective mother, a dad wants to see his kids push themselves… face failure and learn from it. Scratch up their knees from bike crashes and do it better next time. Research has shown that it’s our dads who teach us to believe in ourselves.

 Studies have also shown that the influence of a father in a girl’s life is predictive of emotional health as an adolescent. Girls who grow up with an involved father are more confident and less likely to wind up in an abusive relationship. It’s our dads who teach us the way we should expect to be treated by men and to stand up for ourselves. I don’t mean to imply that these things can’t be learned from our moms, or that every dad is a good dad. That’s simply not the case. But having a great father figure is undoubtedly a “one up” and a true blessing in a child’s life.

 Hearing my friend talk about his father so reverently dug up some memories for me. I was about 10 years old the first time I received flowers for Valentine’s Day. Three roses and some baby’s breath… from my dad. I felt so special, as if I’d graduated into a new chapter, because I thought only women received Valentine’s Day flowers. The little card said “A rose for my Rose.” (My middle name is Rose.) My dad was the only person who ever called me by that name… or Rosie. He also sang Yellow Rose of Texas to me all the time, until I had every word of the song memorized. To this day, I still have that little Valentine’s Day card.

The summer before my 8th grade year, my dad was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. He had been sick for a while, and we finally knew why. He was hospitalized for a short time, and when they released him, we were told that he shouldn’t be alone until he was used to regulating his blood sugar levels with insulin. So I volunteered to move back to the ranch, go back to the little one-room schoolhouse I had attended when I was younger, and live with Dad. (We had two homes at the time… one in Spearfish, where Mom went to college, and one at the ranch where Dad’s livelihood was.) So Dad and I became very close that year. He would let me drive the old ranch pickup the 10 miles to school, as practice before I got my license. He didn’t bat an eye when I backed into my grandpa’s pickup, damaging both vehicles. It was a learning experience, he said. Dad and I sang to country music on our trips into town. We had our favorite shows. We walked a hundred miles, scouting for deer before hunting season. We truly became friends. And to this day, my dad is one of my closest friends. He taught me to be independent, but is always there to pick me up when I fall. And as much of a rock as he is for me, he is a marshmallow on the inside. If Dad ever sees me cry, his eyes water along with mine. It’s a bond that I cherish.

So as I heard my friend talk about the loss of his father, my heart ached for him. I imagined all the calls I make to my dad, to share milestones, to ask for advice, to bounce ideas off of him… and I can only imagine the emptiness I will feel when the day comes that I can no longer call my dad. Actually, we had a scare a few years ago, so that day came a little too close for comfort. Dad was told he had Melanoma, and a misunderstanding between him and the doctor led our family to believe that he had Stage 4 Melanoma. Stage 4 means that the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, the blood, the organs, etc. The prognosis is terrible. I was driving when Dad told me the news, and I could barely stop shaking enough to pull my car over and have a grand scale break down. My brothers and I all flew home for Dad’s next appointment with the specialist. And you better believe some tears of joy flowed when we learned that it was actually Level 4 Melanoma… indicative of the cancer’s depth in the skin. It had not spread, and a simple surgical procedure would cure him. We had a second chance to make the most of our time with Dad. I dread the day that I have to face that terrible news again.

 When a child looks at their father, they don’t see how much money he makes or how powerful a position he holds. That’s not how a man rises up on a pedestal in his child’s eyes. Rather, it’s the time he spends playing with his kids that matter. It’s stories he tells them. It’s playing catch. It’s laughing together. It’s wrestling and tickle fights. It’s bedtime rituals and letting kids break Mom’s rules sometimes. And it’s even the tough love that he has to give as a disciplinarian. It’s a one-of-a-kind relationship. We should all count our blessings if we had an amazing father, and count them a second time if we still have him…. because we only get one dad.

 And he was our world.

 

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Tradition

It’s funny how a simple question from another person can resurrect memories that you hadn’t thought about since childhood. Someone recently asked me about my family’s Christmas traditions, and it made me reminiscent. I began thinking about all our traditions, and some things came to mind that I hadn’t thought about in ages.

My favorite childhood tradition was playing cards at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Almost every weekend we would drive over to their house after dinner one night to play Pitch. They would have the kitchen table pulled out away from the wall, and the playing cards would be sitting on the table next to a pen and paper to keep score. Grandma always had some kind of goodies to serve us, which Mom rationed so we wouldn’t have a sugar high before bedtime. Homemade popcorn was made, ice tea was served, and as soon as we’d drawn cards for partners, we sat down at the table and the game commenced. No matter how many times we heard Grandpa call someone a Ninnyhammer, our laughter was just as loud as the first time. The game was always fun. Grandma could be counted on to mistake a heart for a diamond and get flustered enough to cuss. Grandpa could be counted on to make a risky bet and take his partner down with him when it didn’t pan out. “I got what the little boy shot at” was Granddad’s way of saying that he got nothing…made zero points. And we would all laugh, him included.

Tradition is what keeps a culture alive. The wedding ceremony involving a bride in white being given away by her choked up father is one that has held on. But we really have very few that belong to the American culture. Thanksgiving might qualify, although I wonder if anyone pays attention to the reason for the holiday anymore…to give thanks. The Christmas celebration would qualify, but it’s become a commercialized event focused on gift-giving as opposed to a religious holiday. Nonetheless, they both bring families together and that’s reason enough.

What events held importance in your life? For me, the year progressed as follows: In the winter we built snow forts and looked forward to ‘snow days’ when we could stay home from school. Dad would tie sleds on the back of the snowmobile with ropes and pull us around (over frozen cow pies…funny what you remember). Mom would bake things that made the house smell good when we came in to thaw out from sledding. Spring was branding season. The neighbors helped us at our brandings and we helped them at theirs. They involved a lot of work followed by a lot of good food. Easter came, which meant a new Easter dress. In the summer was baseball, two games per week and practice with dad behind the shop. By “practice” I mean my dad would hit balls to my brother and me on an uneven field cut by a windrower. My brother and I fought over the number 34 jersey, Kirby Puckett’s number. We put up hay in the summer, every day that it didn’t rain. There was always at least one inner tubing trip down the Cheyenne River, followed by camping. The muddy water dried on you and cracked on your face when you opened your mouth wide. It was a race to the shower when we got home the next day.

We always took a family vacation in August: Disneyland, Yellowstone, Minneapolis for a Twins game and Valley Fair, and when we were older, a cruise in the Caribbean. (That was the first time I ever saw Mom drunk. Tequila Sunrises go down a little too easy.) In the fall, raking leaves and jumping in leaf piles sticks in my head. Halloween was thought about well in advance, because my mom would sew us some of the coolest, most elaborate (and most uncomfortable) costumes you’ve ever seen. Because we lived in such a remote area, trick-or-treating beyond Grandma’s house was out of the question, so the community threw a big party for the kids. There was candy, games, costume contests, bobbing for apples, and tag outside in the dark. November brought hunting season. Friends and family would come, bringing with them gifts, stories, laughter, and a great reason to make chili. Thanksgiving was our biggest holiday, and usually included dozens of family members and a houseful of chaos. But Christmas was my favorite because Mom and Dad would point out Rudolph’s nose in the sky on our way home from Christmas Eve mass (as a ploy to get us to bed in a hurry). Christmas day was a small gathering of just my family and my beloved grandparents, and it included plenty of free time to play with new toys.

I think about these things as I plan for the kids I don’t have yet. What traditions will I carry on for them? Undoubtedly, the things that hold importance to them will surprise me, just as the things I recount from my childhood surprise my parents. Just goes to show that you can’t plan the moments that will be sealed forever in time.