The anniversary of my dad’s death passed late last month, and I spent a fair part of the day, as I do every year, remembering moments as a boy with the big Bohemian farmer, still a constant in my life.
He died in 1968 at the age of 56. For some years after he died, I figured the memories would dim over time, that I might some August even forget that the anniversary of his death was approaching once again. It hasn’t happened so far, and at 77, I’m probably going to go to my grave with his spirit still around.
It’s a good thing, I think, to grow up on a farm, in a close family, in a caring rural neighborhood of hard-working men and women and children. It’s a grand thing, I know, to grow up spending great chunks of your days working with or near a dad and a mom. Not everyone can say that.
When I was a kid, I took that sort of thing for granted. The folks were there when I arrived, and that was just the way of my world. I’ve always had a big brother and a big sister, too. The little sister and little brother came along later, but even the youngest has been around for almost 70 years. That’s an awfully long time for a guy to still have all his siblings. Mom lasted until she was 84, so she was pretty close to a constant. Dad was gone way too soon, as many of our friends and neighbors said at his funeral.
The thing is, for a number of years, I took my dad’s death as a personal loss – my mom’s loss, and my brothers and sisters, but mostly my deeply personal loss. I still consider it my loss – and perhaps as deeply as ever, considering how impossible it is to forget or ignore the anniversary of his passing after more than 50 years. Since I married and have had three kids and some grandkids and great-grandkids, though, I take his death as their loss, too.
I was fortunate that Nancy’s dad turned out to be the closest thing to a second father a young man can have. He was super with our daughter and two sons when they were young, teasing them gently, doting on them with candy produced magically from his pockets, letting them hang around as he worked in his basement woodshop. He was the kind of grandpa every child should have.
My in-laws owned the A&W Family Restaurant at the interstate exit south of Chamberlain for many years. In the summer, the kids would go stay with the grandparents for several days at a time. They learned to make their own cones, clear tables, draw icy cold root beer into frosty mugs, all the things their grandpa did during a day at work. Before they came home, their grandma would cut checks for their work. That was nice, and it thrilled the kids. I don’t know, though, what value a person could place on the time and the experiences my kids had with their grandpa. If there is a number, it’s huge.
My kids never got that kind of experience with my dad. They never had the chance to ride with him in the old blue pickup, bouncing over the west pasture looking for newborn calves. They never got to go with him to the co-op in Reliance to eat peanuts and drink a pop while their grandpa searched for the right fan belt and jawed with the manager. They never got the chance to cling to the side of the truck box with him and watch wheat pour out of the combine hopper and into the truck.
While in high school, our younger son, Andy, had the chance to help a friend’s family work a big herd of cattle. The ranch was out past Hayes and up north at the edge of the Cheyenne River valley. I’m pretty sure the kid had never actually been around cattle in his life, much less gotten down into the corrals and up next to the chutes to muscle the big calves around and carry branding irons from a smoking wood fire.
Andy came home that night nearly too tired to eat. He was covered in mud, sweat and a layer of foul, unmentionable stuff. He had maybe the biggest grin I’ve ever seen.
It would have been twice as big if he’d done that work with my dad.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.