I Love You Dad!
My Dad “Clem” died at Thanksgiving. So, instead of our ragtag family gathering to celebrate the blessings of life, we gathered to say good-bye to a loved one. His was not a quick and surprising departure, it was a slow, gut wrenching, painful and long death. There was no peaceful slipping off for the tired, old, weathered redneck. He had fancied himself like “John Wayne” most of his life but there would be no riding off in the sunset for him! But those surrounding him did love him and were there to do all we could to ease his suffering. He was at home, where he wanted to be, with all of us there by his side.
There are a lot of things that take new perspective at times like this. As my dad called out to me, “ Girl, go fetch me a towel, no, no, that green one!” I smiled, knowing he liked the green one, even though it was only a rag now. I paused, remembering the origins of this really ugly green terry scrap I held. We had bought that towel precisely because it was so ugly, so then he could wipe his greasy hands on it and it just wouldn’t even matter. I gazed at that inanimate object and started to think of the stories ingrained in those tattered terry fibers. How and when had it become so torn? How many times had my dad wiped the sweat and blood from his brow with this ugly thing? How many tears had it collected? I used it once to wipe my snoogers on after my Dad saved me from choking on a piece of beef jerky! I can remember seeing it once in his service truck, stiff and thick with who-knows-what. I rescued it by throwing it in the laundry. Do I even want to know what all those stains are? I wonder about the other adventures this “rag” has had living life with my Dad. It’s strange how this towel now seems to have had a “life” of it’s own. Some might ask, how is it that an inanimate object like a simple towel can take provoke such an emotional image and response?
Our family was poor. No, not the really bare bone, raggedly starving poor, but still, poor nonetheless we were always “surviving” between one job and the next. My dad was a mechanic, without any formal education beyond the 3rd or 4th grade. His idea of fine literature to his dying day would be a good comic book. Raised on a farm, life was pretty tough in North Dakota. A good strong back and a mechanical mind, he was needed at home to help run the farm. In this survivalist environment, an education was just a waste of good work time. He learned his trade by trial and error. But, his true “gift” was when it came to “fixin things”. He just loved the puzzle of it all, and he had a compulsion to find out how and why it did or didn’t work. Always an obsessive need to figure things out. We called it his “Thinking Hat”, most notably when he had his tongue working at the side if his mouth we knew he was going at it! (He and I had a special bond because we shared this strange trait). Nothing excites us more than an urgent need to “Mickey Rig” something to get us out of a jam. The whole T.V. series McGyver could have been conceived just based on my Dad! The farm taught him that hard work and perseverance was the measure of a good man, and he was a big, strong, steady man. He left the farm to join the service, then after leaving the service, his family life soon settled him in a small rural community in Southern California.
His line of work has a lot of feast and famine aspects and he struggled constantly to fill the voids. Because he had an enormous heart and a deep loyalty to his family he would never turn down any work. Often working for favors, receiving minimal pay or “trades” most other times. Generous to a fault, he died with his riches; only of the soul. He had nothing left because he gave it all away while he lived. If you needed it and he had it, it was yours! His life was full of hardships and he worked doggedly through some really rough times, right up to the very end. He worked even when he had to lie on a scooter and push himself around. Although he was only a shell of himself when he passed, he will always be a “Giant” of a man to us!
Our family of seven (plus strays), was a real rag-tag mixture of “his, mine, ours and some of theirs” and we lived on a bare piece of land in the mountains. It was filled with every redneck cliche’ ever dreamed of; out houses, fetching water, kerosene lamps, farm animals in the house, plywood patched floors and a yard full of auto carcasses. Just about anything Jeff Fox worthy ever said about us was true in one way or another. Hell, that’s what makes him so damn funny! It was not an easy life, just a lot of plain, hard work with a good dose of “down home” realities. Things that were important to us may seem a little obscure to others. We most definitely learned an appreciation for some things that ordinary people may take for granted. Such as electricity, indoor plumbing and good clean towels!
If you’ve never had to haul huge buckets of water to fill a tub that you will inevitably share with several other people, you may not be a redneck! This is the real reason why rednecks only bathe once a week and or if you really just need to! Bucket after bucket from the well to the wood stove and then to the tub. One reluctant sibling after another would bring in their buckets of hot water, add it to the bath and climb in. Now, this is where one of those real life lessons occurred. What it really means to be a “middle” child. The older kids got first dibs, one by one, until they reach me. You see, I was not old enough to warrant a bath alone, having not reached that (puberty) line between “young’n” and “ girl” as yet. So my job was to bathe the babies. This was just how life was.
At least for a couple of years until me and my Dad finally got the pipe line in to run the water from the pump to the house! It had to be put down into a trench that we dug by hand. Okay I admit, I was only about 9 but I did my best. I certainly helped him more than anyone else over the course of a year and more, just a few hundred feet actually, but a long, long way with a pick, shovel and a wheel barrow!
Anyway, I would dutifully scrub each struggling child and hand it off (or chase them off) one by one until the water was dirty, cloudy and freezing. By then I would just rinse off right out of a bucket. It was cold by then, but at least it was still clear. The one redeeming moment was always that wonderfully blissful feeling of wrapping myself in a clean fresh towel. If all was going well at the moment, it was stiff, scratchy and smelled like soap and fresh air. If not, it could be anything from a funky smelling t-shirt to someone Else's "stolen" towel! , hopefully not a funky smelling t-shirt! Many a family feuds had begun in our house over the precious “clean towel” commodity.
We usually had a washing machine of some kind, for a long time a wringer washer, but never seemed to have any dryer that worked more than a couple of licks hit or miss. Most of the time laundry just hung perpetually from lines that straggled from all types of precarious perches. We struggled constantly to keep them off the ground. And I do wish that someone could explain just what it is about fresh laundry that attracts dirty animals? Dogs just love a good game of tug-o-war with a fresh, clean, stolen piece of clean laundry! Then the goats would always drag and chew whatever they could grab before we caught them. Cats climb, geese grab and the birds crap on them! Between the animals and everyone else running around like heathens, obstinate weather and just plain old nature, a fresh clean towel was a very precious thing. To help diminish the towel wars, we were all given our own personal towels to be responsible for. We took great care to choose different and unusual colors to keep track of what towel belonged to whom. Sometimes resorting to just huge permanent markers. If you didn’t have a clean towel, the alternatives were really hit or miss! Towels that live this harsh rugged kind of life do not usually last long, so a good, clean towel was always hard to come by!
The holidays always seem to pour on the stress and pose an extra challenge when the money is tight. It’s a given struggle to try to find the balance between things you need, things you want and things you can afford. Then the biggest challenge is then financing some of these little extras. Already under great strain just to make ends meet, my Dad worked day and night for the holidays, with dogged perseverance, for every dime he could. It really meant a lot to him to come up with that extra cash.
Now, most families have holiday traditions, those small things that play them selves out year after year with just minor adaptations to suit life. My father had just such a tradition. He would come in on Christmas Eve, covered from head to toe in grease and oil. He would peel off his filthy coveralls, wash up in the kitchen sink, run his thick fingers through his crew cut and eyeball all of us, just waiting in anticipation. With a grin that could only be described as “from ear to ear”, (with a great deal of drama and production), he would dig deep into his pocket, fish around and then haul out, flash, and fan a huge roll of bills. Then with a long exaggerated drawl, announce, “Weeellll, I might just run into town, think anyone wants to ride along?” You bet, we would beat each other down to all pile into that old beat up service truck and then freeze, huddled together for that long, bumpy ride into town.
The only store open in our small town on Christmas Eve was the Thrifty’s drug store. (In later years there was a K–mart that would then became the scene of our invasion. Till then, Thrifty’s was the biggest store in town.) As we swarmed into the store, this dirty, rowdy and raucous mob, my dad would holler to gather us around. He would grandiosely pull that wad out of his pocket and begin to peel them off and hand them out. He would sternly say, “Now, make sure you get something for everyone” and then “you can pick out one thing for yourself.” As we scattered and scurried away, he would add “and get yourself a new towel.” This ritual played out numerous ways and numerous times throughout our lives. For birthdays as well as other celebrations. Getting a new towel was always better than socks!
Needless to say, I am now an admitted towel hoarder. There are towels in my house that I have been dragging around for more than half my life. They ceaselessly follow from one domain to the next. I collect and adopt towels from everywhere. Old towels, new towels, it doesn’t matter. I have towels that have made their way over the years from beautiful fluffy showpieces to stringy little squares that I keep in a basket, ever ready with their last few strands of terry to meet the needs of life. Sacrificing themselves for spills, scrapes or dirty jobs that could very well be their last. These rags have many years of my life entwined in their shreds. As I look at one, I see the stain from helping my daughter learn to tie-dye, I think about some of the other memories in this basket of “rags.” There’s one that was torn and stained as I rescued an oil soaked and injured bird from the beach, here’s the one that I held to my shoulder for my grandchildren and there’s one I seem to favor when I’m sick. A lot of these and other memories are embedded into the ugly scraps left here.
As I sat with my Dad I pondered this strange ingrained ideal of the towel. I have to chuckle, because this “story” has been an on going “joke” in our family for years. I still try to buy towels for my family at Christmas. They will all laugh about it, but if I don’t get them the towels, then they will concertedly whine, “Where’s my towel?” My Dad would actually ask us, usually in a quiet way and with all sincerity, “Do you have enough towels?” More than one trip has been made to K-mart when a visit discloses that our house is lacking something, “need soap”? “Okay, might as well grab a couple of those towels on sale there while your at it.” This was to him a small but important measure of just how well (or not) things were going in your life. If you have plenty of towels, well then, you must be doing okay!
When my Dad passed away, I gathered up his things and washed his linens. Then when I returned home it was with a small scrap of a green towel tucked into my bags. I grab it now and then and use it. I try to make sure it is a gentle retirement. At least as long as I am still here to hold the memory close to me. As I fold up that piece of towel and put it away in my beat up old rag basket, I can’t help but feel a tug of love and fondness. It seems that every piece here, having had some memory or story of it’s own, speaks out to me. I know it is funny, and I silently chuckle, because I know the memories are really all in my heart and in my mind and that the basket is really just full of “Rags”!
Thank You For Reading My Story!