"Today is dad's birthday," I told mom when I called Tuesday afternoon. "He would've been 94 years old."
"Is it the 21st?" mom asked. "I thought today was someone special's birthday. But, I couldn't think who. Huh. How old? 94?"
That was how we started our conversation. I hoped to talk mostly about him and her best memories of life with this well-liked man. Dad had Alzheimer's Disease and passed away in 2005.
Growing up, I thought he was a simple man. He took his responsibilities seriously, valued friendship and respected everyone. He worked in order to earn money needed to live and raise a family. He would've preferred to spend his time farming, but it didn't pay all of the bills. He loved his children. When we were young we would follow him around the farm all day long. He was clever with making stuff and playthings out of nothing. But, as we grew up, became teenagers, we had a harder time maintaining that same relationship. He knew less and less about what we were doing or how we felt.
Some of that had to do with mom. If something bad or upsetting happened, we had to go to mom. Her first words would be, "Don't tell your father." She wanted to keep him from worrying or "having a fit." It made sense and seemed to me like a natural instinct to protect the bread winner from more stress. Years later, when raising my own children, I realized how wrong that was and unfair to dad as he never got to grow up with us. I am sure mom thought this was the right way to handle her family.
Lately, she talks more about her family, her parents and growing up poor. She feels that she gave back to her parents by being a devoted daughter and taking care of them in their older years. I've already written about much of what she recalls. She's softened her feelings about stuff her parents did or didn't do when they were raising mom and her siblings, but that's how life works. We forgive, forget and try to be more understanding. No one is perfect, not even ourselves.
For dad's part, he grew up under the foot of a very harsh and abusive father. I think fatherhood was a mystery to him because of the way he was treated and because he never wanted his children to be mistreated. His reaction was a hands off approach. Don't get me wrong, he was loving and caring, but was never really involved with our lives as we got older.
Love at first sightI asked mom about the first time she saw dad. "It was at the skating rink," she replied. In her day and mine, roller skating was a huge part of a young girl's social life. She went on, "I loved going roller skating with my friends. Right away, I knew he was someone special.
"He was a good skater. He loved to perform, a big show-off. Isn't that funny? Leslie wasn't one of these people who always wanted attention and never really tried to stand out anywhere else, but at the rink.
"Good skaters would get in the middle of the rink to do tricks and perform. He would do jumps and different steps. He was so good. I wasn't a good skater and didn't dance (skate) with him. I just skated around and around."
They met at the Coliseum Skating Rink in Ceres near Little Genesee N.Y. "He was a great guy. We drove all over all over to skate in Wellsville and Olean and further away. We didn't drink or smoke. Well I drank Pepsi. He loved root beer, so that's probably what he always drank." She says it was the most fun she'd ever had, to be with him.
"He was well liked," mom reflected. "He was funny, told jokes, always pulling tricks on people and loved having friends."
Mom had a funny but embarrassing experience recently, that reminded us of something dad did when he was a kid. His family was at a park on a family picnic, The kids were all over the place playing ball and wading in a stream. Dad was getting hungry and decided to head back to the picnic table where his mother was setting up the food. On the way, he got a whiff of fried chicken and sat down to eat, with strangers. He had some chicken, then got up and left. He later claimed he didn't realize he'd mistakenly sat at the wrong table. But, the chicken was very good.
Mom told me she saw that a bunch of people were going into her church which is next door to her apartment complex. She gets confused and thought it was Sunday and time to go to church. So, off she went and when she got there, people were sitting down to long tables set for dining. She sat down and ate with them, then she found out it was a private dinner for some group. she was she was so embarrassed, but the meal was good.
I reminded her how at supper when I was a toddler, I would point and say, "Noot, Noot" when I wanted mashed potatoes, Well, dad loved that saying. He pointed his fork and squealed, "Noot, Noot," every time mashed potatoes were served. Probably did this for the rest of his life.
My daughter Stephanie remembers grandpa and his magic finger. If you had a loose tooth he would offer to help with his magic finger (by pulling it out). I don't know if he actually fooled anyone with that trick. She was told it was either that or the string tied to the tooth and a doorknob remedy. Stephanie kept her distance when she was shedding her baby teeth and preferred to let nature, or maybe an apple, take its course.
Mom says she enjoys my calls and finds herself thinking about old times after we talk. I told her I enjoy our talks, too, but for now it is time to make dinner. I promise to call in a few days and we said our goodbyes.
"I love you, mom."
"I love you too, dear."
Here is a photo taken by Sherman Clarke in 2010 and well after the Coliseums' hay day.