When I’m talking to friends about our families, how we grew up, where we were from, about our siblings and our education, many of my friends refer to their parents in “formal” ways. I hear them speak about their “Mother,” and their “Father,” as opposed to how I refer to my parents: Mom and Dad.
Dad was an old school guy. Educated to the eighth grade in country schools, he was a worker. He was strong and he loved to work. When I describe him now, I say that he spoke in a dialect that is common to the northeastern part of the State of Wisconsin. When I travel to Door County now – a pilgrimage I like to take every year or so – I hear other folks who speak in the same dialect, even in my generation.
Dad was a Steelworker, a proud union man, proud of his strength and his long seniority at A.O. Smith Corporation in Milwaukee. The site of A.O. Smith remains to this time, but the place has changed names. Last Christmas, I received a large black coffee mug from my sister in Hawaii; across the sides of the mug, in big white letters: “AO Smith.” Most days, I use it now to have my morning coffee.
Dad was an old school guy, and in that era – I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s – that meant that he went to work and Mom stayed home to take care of the house – the flat – to cook, to tend to the children. Dad loved us, and he loved my mother. When I think about that now, those facts form a certain framework around my child, which like most childhood’s, had its share of losses, of sadnesses, of things lacking, even with my parents. In my middle years I had to take those relationships – mother to me, father to me, siblings to me – apart in therapy, but I came away with the love intact. I’m grateful.
When Dad retired at the age of 65, he left behind forty years of hard work as an inspector in a steel factory. He had been grateful to return to work after he suffered a heart attack in his early 60’s, and he credited his doctor with giving him that gift; Dad loved his work, hard as it was. When he’d been retired for several years, he told me that he still dreamt about his work at A.O. Smith from time to time.
Dad was an old school, hard-working laborer, and he loved us. His love and his pride for his family shone in his eyes – one blue, one brown. He loved to laugh, to share something fun with us. For all I lacked in childhood, love was not among the lack. He loved to talk – an extravert in a home of introverts.
A few years after Dad retired, I was living on my own on the other side of Milwaukee. Mom was away for the day and evening, and Dad invited me to dinner. He talked and talked as he and I sat in the kitchen, waiting for the chicken he had baking in the oven. I saw how he’d set the table for the two of us, and for the only time I remember, I sensed a formality about this invitation, about this dinner. For him – as it was for me – this was a special time.
A few weeks ago, I preached at a retirement center just out of the Bay Area. When the worship service was over, a man in a wheelchair came up to me to say a few words, to introduce himself and to thank me for being there that day. He had some thoughtful comments to say about my sermon, and then he surprised me by saying: “You did a lot of research to preach that sermon. You must come from a family of researchers.” Surprised, I simply told him that I was the first in my family to receive an education. I felt proud.