Every June, around Father’s Day and the anniversary of my own father’s death eons ago, I am called back to my childhood home to remember:
To return to early days there when my dad — tall, handsome and youthful-looking despite being older than other dads — designed the best swing in the world. The ropes were suspended from a long pipe placed in the branches of two elm trees near enough to each other that their leaves touched during hot Iowa summers. And once it was finished, he pushed me so high that, as I grew, I could tap my toes on the rainspout of Mrs. Marquardt’s roof next door. Feeling his strong hands on my back, I soared, squealing with joy.
To recall the summer when he gave me my first tennis lessons on the new courts in the park of our small Midwestern town, wearing a pair of white shorts so foreign to him that, after only one session with me, he reverted to his usual linen trousers, claiming they kept him cool enough. He had played a lot of tennis over the years, always wearing his old-fashioned garb. But this time, showing up in the park with his teenage daughter made him reconsider. He didn’t want me to be embarrassed. The rest of the lessons went better once he was again comfortable in his clothes.
To summon up the year when my dad, the president of the local bank, helped me arrange my first real job during the May-to-August school vacation. Under the no-nonsense supervision of Millie, an icon at the bank, I worked my way up to being a sort of junior teller. And during those lucrative summer months there, I got the work-a-day smarts that have stayed with me ever since, though my ultimate profession was completely different from his.
To recollect how, when I was a college student, this lifelong Iowa Republican was eager to spend days one Christmas holiday talking with me about the paper I was trying to write on The Communist Manifesto. The discussion wouldn’t change his politics, as a son of immigrant parents rooted in the town they had helped to found, but he was interested. Having gone away to a business school in Minnesota, he found ideas and events of the larger world intriguing.
My dad, Herb, became ill with a virulent cancer when I was pregnant with my first child, and he died within weeks of her birth. I admit to being glad when my baby turned out to be a girl, saving me from having to consider the name “Herbert” for a modern-day child. Even without passing on his name, however, the legacy of my father is a strong influence for me and for my two daughters. I learned from him — and they from me — about stretching your toes to touch rooftops, being comfortable in your own clothes and your own skin, assessing life’s situations and playing your role to the best of your ability, and so much more.
When it’s June, I also remember that my dad was a gardener, a master with roses. In a favorite (but now missing) photo of him in his garden, where he spent many evenings of the summer, he is weeding his ivory-yellow Peace Roses in their well-defined, square beds. He sits in the dirt wearing his usual gardening clothes, a pair of well-worn gray wool pants that had become too shiny to be appropriate for work.
Dad shared his flowers and especially the roses with many friends and neighbors — to celebrate, to console or to speed the return of good health. And each evening on his way in from the garden, he put a fresh rose — bud or gorgeous flower — into the dark pottery vase he had bought for my mother early in their marriage. In addition to everything else he did, my father nurtured beauty.
Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.
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