When I was a child, I thought my father was God. Or at least a god. He wasn’t a big man, but of course to a child he was a giant.
He was very strong and I loved to have him lift me way up over his head and then toss me into the air. I remember shrieking with giggles so hard the air left my lungs. When I was older, he tossed me out of a boat into the chilly waters of Chateaugay Lake to teach me to swim where my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I wasn’t afraid because I knew he would save me if I got into trouble.
Dad had a great laugh and a great sense of humor. He didn’t tell jokes, but he could regale a group with stories of his poor childhood during the Depression. His nickname “Bud” was bestowed on him by the pastor’s wife who lived next door to his family in Tupper Lake. At her first look at the infant Lloyd, with his shock of red hair, she pronounced him “as pretty as a rosebud!” And the name stuck. Dad told “G-rated” stories about his many dating conquests, including the one about cajoling “Betty Sue Somebody” to let him into her house after a date so he could steal a few more kisses. He only stole a few because her father returned early and Dad had to dive under the dining room table to wait for him to have his dinner, then drink a cup of tea while he read the paper. Dad cowered there for what seemed like hours before the old man went up to bed. The only benefit of it, Dad said, was his up close and personal look at Betty Sue’s great legs.
His stories about my mother were sometimes funny but always laced through with his deep and abiding love for her. She was attending secretarial school; working at the lunch counter at F. W. Woolworth’s when he first got sight of her. He was the Produce Manager at the Malone A & P Market and he was furious with the pretty brunette with the outstanding legs (Dad was a “leg man”) who picked through his bananas every morning, pulling one from this “hand” (bunches of bananas are called “hands,” he would inform us every time he told the story) and two from another. Then she moved on to the tomatoes he had so carefully arranged into a pyramid. Mom would pick one from here and one from there, so that the pyramid teetered off-balance, until Dad rearranged it. But he quickly forgot how much she annoyed him when he saw her sitting alone one Saturday evening at a local dance hall. She was “dressed to the nines,” but her “date” had left her alone while he hung out at the bar, drinking beer. Seeing his opportunity to score with the attractive bane of his existence, Dad asked her to dance. My mother had a bit of a temper herself, so she gladly accepted the invitation from the skinny auburn-haired man, just to annoy her date. They danced and, much to the chagrin of her hapless date, Mom let Dad drive her home in his 1939 Packard and they were together for the next 55 years. I loved that story the best.
I was awe-struck, though, at his ability to fix anything. My father was a general contractor. But, that encompassed more than his building skills. He had been an airplane mechanic and instructor during WW II, so he was comfortable tinkering with most machines, whether it was a car engine or a troublesome vacuum cleaner. He had owned an appliance and bottled gas business with his brother after the war and there were very few washing machines, furnaces or water heaters that he could not install or repair. Dad was frequently called out late at night or in the pre-dawn hours in our frigid Northern New York climate to get someone’s furnace or boiler started or repair the water heater. He was often in our basement, cajoling one more year out of our fussy furnace or piecing together the haphazard maze of pipes that criss-crossed the ceiling of the laundry room. Rolls of gray duck tape or black electrician’s tape could be found throughout our house, piled next to needle-nose pliers and crescent wrenches, easily retrieved by whatever child was “helping” Dad that day. (That task usually fell to my brothers as my father had very old-fashioned notions about what was “men’s work” and that did not include vacuuming, dusting, making beds or doing dishes). Sometimes, he would share his secrets with me. My favorite tidbit was that when you need to solder a water pipe, after your turn the water line off and disconnect the pipe, you wipe it dry. Then you stuff the pipe with a slice Wonder Bread. The bread will soak up any stray drops off water so as to keep the area where you were soldering bone-dry (“The solder won’t hold if there is any moisture.”). Once the repair is complete and the water is turned back on, it will easily dissolve the slice of bread (“You have to use Wonder Bread, not homemade bread, it’s too dense.”) and wash it down the pipe. I have never personally had the chance to use that trade secret.
I grew from childhood to adolescence and became a mouthy, rebellious teen-ager. My battles were often fought with my more conservative mother. She was in charge of disciplining the girls while my father meted out punishment to the boys, who could get out of almost anything by helping Dad in his “shop” on Saturday. But my father connected with me when I entered several public speaking competitions. Dad had excelled in public-speaking in high school and was often called upon to speak at Kiwanis or the Holy Name Society. I competed for American Legion Oratorical scholarship money and delivered the Gettysburg Address during our town’s Memorial Day celebration. My father coached me, drove me to out of town events and was almost always in the audience. It was the only one of his talents that I inherited: I can’t sing, I’m not a great dancer and I can accomplish only simple mechanical tasks.
Through college, he continued to support me as best he could. Dad had regretfully informed me when I was 12 that higher education would be on me; with five children there was no way he and my mother could pay for any of us to attend college. But, he drove me back and forth for those first two years before he bought me a used 1969 Volkswagen Beetle for $600. And there were frequent notes in the mail; a few sentences signed “Love, Dad” and a five-dollar bill for gas or to “buy some beer for the girls.” While he and my mother thought I should be a history teacher, once I enrolled in law school, his support and the notes and visits continued.
Sadly, a year or two after my marriage, Dad and I had a falling out over, as was so often the case in our family, money. In order to buy our first house, we had written to my father to ask if he could remove our names from a loan note we had co-signed for him. My father hurled some harsh words at me and at my husband in the letter he sent back, closing with the damning “You are no longer my daughter and your bedroom will now be known as the big upstairs room and not your room.” I felt as if he had died. I mourned my loss as if he had.
A few months later, he called to apologize, asking me not to ignore my mother on Mother’s Day. I accepted his apology, but the father I had known was dead to me. We resumed a relationship of sorts, for my mother’s sake and for the sake of my two children when they were born. I wanted them to experience the fun and wisdom of my father, at least the father I remembered from my youth. And they grew to love Pop, as they called him. But, I never did again.
Having battled depression since the war and having to stop working in 1990 due to complications from a car accident, Dad became bitter and self-involved before he died at 76. And we had not made peace. He said to me once during those final years, “I wish we were as close as we once were.” I responded with a nonchalant “well, we don’t always get what we wish for.” That was that. But, I was with him through his final hospital stay and I held his hand as he died. I wrote his eulogy, but couldn’t read it at the funeral; my big brother delivered it beautifully.
It took me some time but several years later, after a visit to his childhood home in Tupper Lake and some soul-searching of my own, I finally made peace with him. I chose to focus on my happy early memories of him and forget about the bitter, broken man he had become. But, even so, I rarely gave him much thought.
Until last week. We were in the midst of a bitter cold spell. Temperatures at night were way below zero. I knew what to do to keep my pipes from freezing: open the doors of the under-sink cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms and keep a trickle of cold water running in those sinks. But one night, I forgot to run the water in the upstairs bathroom sinks. At 6:00 a.m., I was faced with no water in the upstairs toilets or cold water in those sinks and no water in the showers. Through the day, I used heating pads and blow dryers to try to warm the pipes I could reach. Still no water. That night, I left the hot water faucet dripping, hoping the heat would radiate to the cold water pipes. At 4:00 a.m., before heading downstairs to use the bathroom, I checked and found the situation had not improved. As I climbed back into bed, I sent a prayer heavenward, at first to my dead husband, to ask for help. Remembering his ineptitude with tools and home repair, I amended my plea. For the first time since his death in 1995, I prayed to my father. “Dad, I’ve done everything I can, everything you taught me. I really don’t have the money for a plumber right now. Can you please talk to the Patron Saint for Plumbers to get my pipes thawed and my water running? Thank you and I love you.”
There was still no progress the next morning. I left the house to run an errand, resolved to start looking for a plumber when I returned. At 11:00 a.m., when my daughter and I went upstairs, she popped into her bathroom. “There’s water in my toilet…there’s water in my shower! Thank you Daddy!” There was water in my bathroom, too. “No,” I corrected her, “thank you to Pop.”
“Thanks, Pop! Love you!”
I whispered to myself: “Thank you, Dad. You’ve still got the touch. I love you.”