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More Stories - The Way We Were
It's Not Too Late for Fathers' Day
I don't think I would have survived my childhood without my father. Neither Dad nor my mother knew what to make of me when I was small. Mother had expected a sweet, dainty Shirley Temple, the idol of that decade. I'm not sure what my father had hoped for; it certainly wasn't a scrawny, sickly small tomboy; loud, curious, opinionated, impulsive, combative, outspoken and hyperactive. While my mother often despaired of me, my father, although he rarely understood me, pretty much accepted me as I was.
Mother watched Dad's diet like a hawk, as he had suffered rheumatic fever as a child and his heart was damaged by it. Dad loved to eat, and took every opportunity to sneak in his favorite delicacies. Curiosity and admiration for my dad led me to follow in his footsteps regarding food at a very young age. He taught me to enjoy limburger cheese on crackers, bleu cheese with Delicious or Jonathan apple slices, sandwiches made of white bread, mayonnaise and thick slabs of white onion. We enjoyed tough, chewy beef jerky, big sour Kosher dill pickles, thin strips of dried smoked herring on bread and butter, liverwurst, hard salami with lots of peppercorns, Hormel "potted meat", pickled pigs feet, headcheese (if you don't know, don't ask!), pickled eggs and beets, radishes dipped in salt, sliced boiled tongue, hot sausage and loads of garlic in almost everything. It was a decadent diet for a small child. We loved leftover boiled potatoes for breakfast or a snack, sliced and lightly fried, garnished with lots of chopped green onion. He introduced me to many odd ethnic foods as well. When we went places alone, he'd usually sneak in a pit stop for coffee (he called it a Swedish blood transfusion), with doughnuts or Danish; I imitated his coffee habit by the time I was nine, drinking black coffee anytime I could get any, something that would have horrified my mother.
Dad loved to put together and eat "Dagwood Bumstead Sandwiches", making miniature versions for me. Thanks to my dad, I would have been voted hands-down as the child most likely not to be sat with in the cafeteria when I brown-bagged my lunch. On the other hand, I got to eat most of the other children's rejected vegetables, which was a good thing since I ate enough for two or three children and still stayed skinny and hungry.
At five years old, Dad discovered me playing marbles with the local gang of young boys-- and winning. I was made to give back the marbles-- there were some beautiful trophies I still regret losing-- and hauled home in disgrace. That was gambling and unladylike. By three or four years later, Dad gave up and was letting me play pick-up games of hardball, kickball, touch football, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Tarzan in the treetops, king of the mountain and other games with the neighborhood boys, although I'm sure he kept an eye on things.
My dad used to take me to the only grocery store in town and buy me a double-dip Rocky Road ice cream cone, my favorite flavor. He never complained when the ice cream dripped on my clean dress. I don't know what they put in it now, but it's just not the same.
When I was ten, a young fellow just home from World War II took his veterans' benefits and accumulated pay and built the first soda and sweet shoppe in our small town, Wyoming, New York. At the grand opening, my dad took me for my first-ever banana split. What a treat! Other older girls were there with loud, pimply teenage boys, but I was there with my Dad! I've had a tenderness for banana splits ever since (see Miami Sundae). He also introduced me to Cherry Coke-- fountain Coca Cola with a generous slug of cherry syrup, and Brown Cows-- root beer with vanilla ice cream.
I was sick a whole lot as a child. We didn't have antibiotics or television then, so I had nothing to do while confined to bed for days on end. To amuse myself, I read every novel I could lay my hands on, every series from the Bobbsey Twins to the Five Little Peppers to Little House on the Prairie to Nancy Drew, through Shakespeare's works, Vicar of Wakefield, The Human Comedy, Dante's Inferno and other unlikely choices. When bored silly because I had run out of novels, I discovered Dad's library on carpentry, mechanics, farming, electricity, drafting, machine shop and more (as well as Mother's cookbooks, Red Cross manuals and scandalous old issues of The National Geographic Magazine). At first, Dad used to lose patience-- and his temper-- with my constant questions whenever he was doing repairs, but eventually he accepted my interest as genuine, teaching me a great deal over the next few years. Girls didn't often do that sort of thing back then, but Dad didn't balk. He even supported my battle to take shop instead of home ec in Jr. High, something forbidden in that era.
We had moved to Lincoln, Nebraska by that time, and I discovered the treasures in Lincoln's downtown library. I caught the bug: the "want to know" infection. I started reading my way through the stacks, from operatic librettos through exposes of government agencies to biographies such as Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, the complete works of Luther Burbank, the Microbe Hunters, and Mendel, Pasteur and da Vinci's theories and inventions. I had no idea there was so much out there to learn. I read history, archeology, anthropology, sociology and comparative religion. (I went through a lot of pure junk and paperbacks, too, still do.) I would often skip school just to sit in the library and read. It was a lot more fun (and possible more productive) than dealing with classes, assignments and cranky teachers, and as I was socially inept, it reduced the time I would have to deal with other kids.
I even read the Kinsey report, a scandalous book at the time that was kept behind the counter; the librarian nearly gakked when I requested it, but handed it over. She probably wasn't surprised since I had been kicked out of the library a couple of weeks before for cracking up-- loudly-- over a bawdy bit from The Canterbury Tales. My parents had no idea.
Eventually I got to The Origin of the Species.
My father, Rev. Paul N. Williamson, was a Baptist minister-- that should suffice to explain his beliefs. If not, note that we were forbidden to dance, go to the movies, read comic books except for animal cartoons, play cards or wear "boy's clothes", among many other restrictions. From time to time Daddy would check over the half-dozen or so books I was always carrying. I will never forget the look on his face when he discovered Darwin's volume. "Oh, oh!" I thought to myself. "I'm dead."
"Why are you reading that?" he asked, in a pained voice.
"Just to know," I answered. He turned the book over in his hands for a minute or so, then gently and sadly gave it back. He never, ever criticized my reading or tried to censor it, even when it went far beyond the relative innocence of Origin of the Species.
Dad forbid me to use power tools, probably as a result of a horrible accident when I was three, in which our farm hand, Ernie, lost an arm to a piece of farm machinery. This prohibition put a crimp in my carpentry. I secretly persuaded my Uncle Theo Tupper, a home builder who had stored a supply trailer in our yard, to teach me to use and care for them all. Uncle Theo had learned to operate farm equipment and power tools when he was twelve and saw nothing wrong with the request. When satisfied he had instructed me well, even how to sharpen saws and resurface drill bits, he gave me a key to the trailer. I immediately built a big tree house between four young oaks for my small brothers and sister. My dad could have hit the ceiling when he saw it, but he didn't. He just got that same sad look on his face. I assured him I remembered very well the Ernie's accident, was very squeamish about the sight of blood, and there was no way I was going to repeat the incident. He forbade the kids to get into the tree house again until he checked it out, as he was sure it couldn't possibly be safe, but he soon had to give it a "certificate of occupancy". Never again was a word said about the tree house or the power tools, despite his fears. (Note: some fifteen years later, the lot where the treehouse stood was sold. My uncle said they tried to take the treehouse and trees down with the back hoe they had on-site, and couldn't. They had to hire a bulldozer. Ha!)
I was certainly not at all the kind of daughter Daddy expected or wished for. But he tried not to criticize, supporting the things I wanted to do although I am sure that many of my actions and beliefs, from the marbles incident through to adulthood, have secretly embarrassed, disappointed and dismayed him. That kind of love and acceptance is the most and the best that any of us can hope to receive, and greatest gift we can bestow on others.
Time was dulling my Dad's intellect, age was gnawing away at his memory. While he was still mentally sharp enough a few years ago to preach two sermons every Sunday, I made copious notes for a week before Father's Day about all the things I appreciated when I was small and many of the incidents that had meant so much to me. For a Father's Day present, I told him-- at length and in detail-- and thanked him. I'm grateful I didn't put it off, now that he'd forgotten so much, and now of course, he's gone. I wish he could visit my Sneaky Kitchen; I'm sure he would enjoy and approve of it. Sadly, it's too late for that. Now that he's no longer with us, I won't have to berate myself that I had never told him how much he meant to me and how grateful I was that he was my father.