By Guest Essayist Helen Fern
The last few days I’ve been remembering dad’s death. I see him lying in the bed but gone. My heart begins to ache and I cry for my loss. I loved him so. But today, thanks to my friend Jenny and her keen ability to report her observations of the world around her, I am thinking about his life. He loved life.
He grew up in Cicero, Illinois during the 1930s. He spoke only Czech until he was about 12 years old and, from the stories he told, was a rather curious and bold child, setting a fire or two in the basement of their home. He met my mother while they were in high school and married shortly after he joined the army. He spent time in Korea and Japan during the Korean War. He didn’t speak much about the war. On a few occasions he talked about his “adventures” there, but rarely about the ugliness of war. His best friend stepped on a land mine right in front of him. It was not a memory he wanted to recall. My sister, his first child, was born while he was away.
I came along about five years after my sister and eight years after that my brother arrived. As a father, to me, he was the best. I wanted to do everything with him and he made me feel like I did. We danced, we hiked, we built plastic models, we cooked, camped and more. He sang to me when I was sad and he sang to me when we were happy. My heart was always joyful when he was around. Even after I grew up and moved away, I treasured my moments with my dad. And I still sing.
My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly when my dad was still a young man. Mom was a year younger than him and she was 51 when she passed. Their marriage was wrought with problems, but they fought to keep it going. I think dad was wrenched with mixed emotions – happy times and painful time – and all gone so suddenly. He grieved for months. But he still loved life.
Those were the days I did bar hopping with my dad. My sister and I moved in with him after mom died. My sister’s husband had been killed just one month before and it was a time we all needed each other. We cleaned and cooked during the day, taking care of my brother and my niece and nephew. During the evenings, dad took us out. We sang at piano bars. I’ll never forget his face the time I sang Captain and Tennille’s “Do that to me one more time”. First he said with pride, “That’s my daughter”; and as the words sunk in his face turned to that fatherly look and he replied, “HEY, that’s my daughter!” We went to German oompa bars and polkaed the night away. He even dated a bit until the lady that became obsessed with him and started to stalk him! That was the problem, my dad was a catch and they all wanted him!
He met Freide a couple of years after mom died and they moved in together shortly afterward. I have to laugh when I remember telling him I was going to move in with my now husband without being married. I thought he would be disappointed. He just smiled and said, “Freide and I have been living together for months”. I was shocked! My dad? Living in sin? But they married shortly after and stayed married for more than twenty years. Freide’s death took a toll on dad. He had out lived two wives.
He packed up and moved to a retirement town in California. He joined the Hemet Elks, Moose, Eagles and Veteran’s of foreign wars lodges. He made so many friends it seemed like everyone knew him. He partied, traveled and met a lady. He and Marge stayed “friends” until her death shortly after he moved in with my sister.
That move was hard. Dad was always independent and now he had to depend on someone else to take him out to do the things he loved. As his health declined he battled with this spirit. As Jenny calls it, his “embodiment” became his struggle. He was still vibrant, laughing and full of life on the inside; his body simply chose not to cooperate anymore. And finally, it gave out. I miss him. I miss his voice, his laugh, his total embodiment, and I cherish the life I was blessed to be a part of.
Hi Helen and Jenny, thank you so much for this. I can relate to your experience. February last year my dear Nan (grandmother) died aged 100 years. We had become very close over the last 20 years. As her health deteriorated and she became more dependent on others I was able to play a greater part in her life and she in mine. She had raised a family here in England during the war. Had to send her children off to the country to be evacuated (something I don’t think I could do, but they were different times) and then joined the ATS when she was bombed out and everything she owned destroyed. Her husband died when they were in their 50’s. She had been married since she was 18. She lost both her sons when she was in her old age – one of the downsides of living to a great age is you tend to outlive many friends and family. Yet despite this she like your dad still enjoyed living. It’s always intrigued me that some want to stop living through things like depression and others can still have a zest for living despite bad things happening in their life. She loved being around me and my children and was so encouraging to me as a parent especially when I would begin to doubt myself as to whether I was doing the right thing or not. So although her death was not a tragedy as she was 100 years I still miss our friendship. I have been thinking about her lately and your article touched me. Thank you again. Nicola
Nicola, what a beautiful remembrance you’ve offered in response to Helen’s essay. Your response adds another sweet layer to Helen’s memories….lovely! Thank you for sharing your experiences with your Grandmother, and her life-course experiences as well.