My dad passed away last month and I am just starting to process my grief. I decided to write down some of his stories, his quirks that made him unique, and the gifts he gave us while they were still fresh in my mind.
Throughout the good and bad times, my dad laughed. He was funny and loved to tell stories. People were drawn to him. Of course he wasn’t always laughing and, as with everyone, some times are harder than others but I remember the jokes and laughter.
He always loved an adventure and took every opportunity to travel the world throughout his life. He followed the wheat harvest west from Kentucky one summer in college. Another college summer he headed out to Montana to work on a relatives ranch but ended up in Alaska working odd jobs for a construction company. He took a year off in college to make extra money by teaching at a one room schoolhouse in Montana. He would say you have never experienced cold like a winter in a one room schoolhouse in Montana.
After college he went into the Navy and travelled around the world as a Naval Officer. He doesn’t talk much about his Navy days but, like every aspect of his life, he looked at it as an adventure.
He told me once that the officers had to rotate who ordered food for the mess hall. When his time came, instead of ordering practical food items, he ordered scallops in bulk. He said it sounded like a good idea at the time, as he loved scallops, but he ordered so much that the crew had to eat scallops every day until they got to the next port to get more supplies, which was a month later. By the end, everyone on board his ship hated scallops (and he thought maybe him too).
After he was in the Navy, he went to work at IBM as a typewriter salesperson in rural Kentucky. He told me that the tobacco farmers would make him chew tobacco with them before they would talk to him about his typewriters. They would purposely give him the strongest tobacco they had to see if he could take it. Since he grew up on a tobacco farm, he would chew it without making a face or gagging and would usually win their business. He laughed as he told the story of looking at the shocked faces of these tough old tobacco farmers as he sat in his suit and tie and calmly chewed their tobacco that made other people cry.
As much as he loved to laugh, he loved his family even more. His parents died when we were young but he consistently kept up with his siblings and their kids, supported his kids through good times and bad, thought my mom hung the moon, and absolutely adored all of his 13 grandchildren. Always seeing the best in his grandkids, if one of them was acting out, he would say that he/she had spunk.
The first of several times my dad retired, I was in college. Like clockwork, every day in the early afternoon my dorm room phone would ring. Somehow I always seemed to be there (this was before cell phones). Maybe I had a break between classes, was studying for an exam, or, if I’m being really honest, possibly taking a power nap or watching a soap opera. One of my friends would say, “I bet it’s your dad” and it usually was.
The daily conversation went something like this, “Hi, Julie, it’s your dad. How are you?”. “Good. How are you?” “Good.” “Anything new happening today?” “No, just studying”. “Ok” he’d say, “Great talking to you. Love you” and he’d hang up. My siblings said they got similar calls then too. I never knew for sure but I was pretty convinced that he had his five children’s names written down on a piece of paper and he’d put a tick mark next to each one every day as he made it through the list making his daily calls.
At the time my friends and I laughed at these hilarious calls where nothing was said but I look back now and appreciate that he just wanted some connection with his kids every day. When he went back to work after that first time he retired, everyone was grateful (I’m sure my mother most of all) but I sort of missed my daily calls.
I knew that whatever I did, even if I screwed up, my dad would always have my back (my mom too). That is an amazing gift to give your children. Even as a grown up, if I needed advice on anything or had a big meeting or project at work, I would call them. They would both be on the phone at the same time and give me their full attention. My dad was super smart and I always asked him to proofread my paper/presentation/book or whatever I was working on. I have had the gift of living my life knowing that my parents always believed in and supported me. I hope I can pass that same gift to my kids.
My dad went by many names. He was Paul to his friends and Dad to his kids (and he would have probably added that some people preferred to call him by some profanity) but in his later years, friends and family alike pretty much just called him Hat. He was named Hat by his oldest grandchild, Ian. When Ian was young and lived across the country, my sister, Karen, would show him pictures of his grandparents. Mom had decided to be called Mimi as a grandparent (which fits her perfectly) and Dad always said he wanted to be called some regal like Grand Pierre. At that point in his life (and forever after), Dad always wore a hat. Sometimes a cowboy hat, a British driving cap, a boater hat, or his favorite, which was his Australian Akubra hat. Little Ian looked at his grandfather in the picture wearing a hat and said, “Hat”. And with that, Dad had a new name. I have never met anyone else named Hat but it fit him perfectly and he was Hat for 25 years.
Dad had some quirks that were, mostly, endearing. One was that he was superstitious of black cats. One time I remember he was driving and a black cat ran across the road in front of him. Dad turned around and went another way.
He would say that he was afraid of ending up in debtor’s prison and warn us not to spend too much so we didn’t end up in debtor’s prison. I grew up thinking I might end up there if I shopped too much at the mall (because that is what we did for fun back then). I have no idea of the specifics of this imagined place other than it was terrible. I think that was a remnant of his growing up in the Depression and he was afraid he could lose everything overnight. The thought of it scared me to death for years and I still have a bit of fear of spending my golden years there (and I just learned that my siblings have the same irrational fear).
One of Hat’s funny (yet slightly irritating) quirks was waiting until someone else was in the kitchen as he was sitting down for a meal and saying, “Julie, since you are up can I please have something to drink/a fork/a napkin?” or whatever he was missing. My children have perfected it. “Mom, while you are up, could you please get me some water?”. We laugh (unless it’s the 10th time someone is asking) and say someone is “pulling a Hat”.
Another quirk of his was that he always lost his car keys and glasses. My mom got smart and put some hooks by the garage door so now all car keys go there and we haven’t had to look for car keys for years. But we still looked for Dad’s glasses. He always went into panic mode and screamed, “Stop what you are doing, I can’t find my glasses!”. My sister, Lisa, started saying, “Dad, put your arms out. Feel your head. Are they there? No, ok, move your arms around like airplane wings and see if you can find them.” 90% of the time he found them with that ingenious technique.
Dad showed his love to his family in lots of ways. When one of his kids would visit him or he would visit us, he would graciously take our car to the carwash and then fill it up with gas. When I was a young adult and still shocked at how expensive the real world was, this was a real gift. He also would be happy to pick up or drop off anyone at the airport and I didn’t have to take a taxi to and from the airport for many years.
Dad’s last year or so was spent mostly inside due to COVID and failing health. Not one to sit around and do nothing, with the help of my sister, Lisa, he wrote his memoir during that time. It was published six months before he died and he loved talking to people about it. I now realize what a gift he left us all as he was able to document his adventurous life.
I was able to spend a lot of time with him the last few months of his life. One memory I will always cherish is one night he had trouble sleeping because his leg was hurting so the caregiver got me up and asked if I could help. I have no medical training and had no idea of what to do so I asked if I could read his memoir to him to distract him from the pain. I had been reading for hours, had one more chapter left and he was starting to fall asleep. I was going to stop but he asked if I would finish it. I am so grateful now that I was able to read his own book to him cover to cover in one sitting and witness his pride in his work.
Dad was in Hospice at home during his last few months. It was hard but also some of it was beautiful. In his last few days, he saw all of his children in person and he was able to see or Facetime with each of his 13 grandkids. Two of the last things he said to us were, “Where is my hat?” (Hilarious!) and “Thank you, all” (So beautiful!).
We felt so much love at the end of his life with phone calls, emails, texts, food drop-offs, a daily prayer circle in the driveway, and neighbors who stood outside as a tribute to him as he left the house for the last time after 50 years. Mom was with him at the end, as she had been almost every day for 60 years.
My dad assumed everyone he met was a friend, always found the best in people and lifted them up, loved his family more than anything, was always up for a heated debate, and made us all laugh a lot.
As I continue to grieve, I will try to remember more of his stories and his quirks. I hope to teach my kids to surround themselves with family and supportive friends, think of life as an adventure, embrace their quirks, laugh a lot, and always remember Hat.
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