Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. If he were still alive, I’d bake him a chocolate cake or an apple pie, two of his favorite desserts. Or I’d serve him ice cream. For much of his life he was on a very strict diet due to high cholesterol, but on hot summer evenings he sometimes indulged in a bowl of “Ice milk.” I don’t know if the stores still sell it, but think ice cream without the fat. After he passed 93 and went into a nursing home, his inhibitions and self-control lessened. If we took him candy, he would eat one piece after another. And he devoured the cups of ice cream my mother bought for him at the nearby Dairy Queen.
These days Dad is never far from my mind. Sometimes people at our community gardens compliment me on keeping my plot weed free, but it pales by comparison to Dad’s, weed free and vibrant even when he he had to lie on the ground to do his weeding. And Dad always kept his wood farm buildings well maintained–our barn, garage, granary, woodshed, tool shed, and chicken house. In his later years he spent endless hours scratching paint and painting.
I recently had the opportunity to scratch paint on a friend’s deck, and realized it is a very meditative act. For one thing, it’s pleasant being outdoors, but this solitary activity also gave me time to explore memories and to listen for birds in the nearby trees. Plus, it was surprisingly satisfying to slide my putty knife under a loose flake of paint and send it flying through the air, like a game to see how much raw wood I could expose. In these moments I felt a strong connection to Dad, who has been gone now for eight years.
As a young man, Dad hunted and trapped, but he put that aside after returning home from World War II to focus on raising sheep, wheat, beans, and corn. He was so immersed in work that he seldom came to my school and church programs, but my mother explained he was making up for lost time (the over 4 years spent in the army).
That’s why I was stunned when at the age of 62 he developed a passion for coon hunting. He would go out every night the law permitted, and was always on the lookout for others to accompany him. My brother and cousins lacked the depth of his passion, so he strung together a diverse array of hunting companions, and collectively they managed to keep up with him.
To support his new hobby, Dad became a distributor for Star Dog Food, selling the 40 or 50 pound bags from our tools shed. I suppose he received a percentage of each bag he sold, but selling dog food also enriched his social life. You see, much to my mother’s chagrin, Dad didn’t like going places once he returned from the war. Trips to town for supplies were necessities, and he did coach a baseball team during the 1960s, but otherwise he preferred to stay put.
But Dad loved to tell stories, and for that, you need an audience. Dog food customers and other hunters found themselves spending hours at our chrome kitchen table hearing about epic hunts, military service, baseball games played in the 1930s, and much more. I realize now that Dad preserved his memories by telling the stories over and over again.
He also was an avid local newspaper reader, and in later years he enjoyed searching for the longest words he could find. Often, they were unfamiliar to him. On December 30, 2000, for instance, he found one with eighteen letters–telecommunications. (Picture–The hunter at 80 in his beloved bib overalls and flannel shirt.)
Dad’s retirement hobby was a source of great satisfaction in his final three decades. I don’t think he planned on being a hunter and gardener, but he embraced those identities. Like him, I retired early. In my mind, I envisioned myself as a writer and expected to turn out more books–especially ones without footnotes. For whatever reason, I don’t have the passion for it that I expected and I want more immediate results. Perhaps it’s time to embrace a completely different pastime–music. It’s not one I planned on, but it has reached out to me–first the French horn, and now the piano. Like hunting for my Dad, it is something one can do alone or with friends. And somehow, I bet it will be a source of many more stories.