Let me join the thousands (millions?) of other bloggers out there who are saying something about their fathers, since Father’s Day is almost upon us. Fathers, in our current American culture, are often forgotten, often maligned , often misrepresented. If you watch a lot of TV (or even just the commercials), the dads seem to be almost universally cast as a bit stupid, never as sharp as their wives or their kids, and maniacally focused on their TVs, beer, sports, with maybe some sex thrown in. This is not at all faithful to those fathers whom I know personally, and certainly not to my dad.
John Philip Watson was the youngest of six children, born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. His oldest sister was a good fourteen years older than he; he had a niece who was only eight years younger than he was. His family loved to garden, and loved to take photographs – he inherited both traits, though his picture-taking grew less as he got older. The gardening stayed with him until long after all of us kids had moved out of the house, and his health really started declining.
Not just gardening, either – he did some farm work as a boy and teenager, and later went to college for horticulture. There was a world war in the middle there, and he spent a few years in the Army Air Force, but afterwards, using the GI Bill, he finished up his bachelor’s at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and went on for his master’s at Rutgers. After graduation from Rutgers, he got a job in New York State at an agricultural experimental station affiliated with Cornell University; he retired from that same job in 1987, after 37 years working as a pomologist.
Obviously, since he was my DAD, there was a family in there as well. He
married my mom in June 1949, and the babies started coming in 1950. Eight of us – four boys, four girls – with only thirteen years between the oldest and the youngest. I was Number Four in the line-up, the second girl. In 1953, the year before I was born, Mom and Dad bought a big house out in the country, where we all grew up. (In fact, the house was only just sold out of the family this past spring.) There were big lawns by the house for all kinds of running games, several acres of fields and woods on the property, and a few slopes just right for sledding in the winter: a child’s paradise. And of course, a garden and lots of flowering trees and shrubs.
Dad was a hard worker, often going in to work on weekends to make sure a field or orchard got watered, or to check the progress of an experiment, or whatever. He worked hard at home too, trying to fix up the house or fix up one of the family vehicles. But he could also play – I remember lots of crazy games of badminton in the front yard, and an occasional game of catch or baseball in the back yard.
He had his quirky side. His method of reading a book? Start in the middle, read to the end, and if it was good enough, THEN he went back and read the beginning. Once, when my older sister was in high school, and a straight-A student, she got a test or quiz grade in the 80’s – very unusual for her. My dad called her teacher, disguising his voice with a mock Italian accent, and really gave the poor guy a hard time about how he was not giving my sister good grades and all. And one of his favorite places to read the newspaper was lying on his back on one of the picnic tables out in the yard; he often, after a hard day’s work, fell asleep there too.
He was a liberal politically – and I am not, though somehow we managed to avoid any knock-down, drag-out fights over politics. He was a liberal in a cultural sense too, way ahead of the times in our small, all-white, backwater town; when one of my brothers married a woman of another race, my dad (and my mom) defended them vigorously against a lot of the small town prejudice that came their way. He never treated their kids any differently than any of the rest of the grandkids. I never heard him say any racial or ethnic slurs.
Was he the perfect father? Nope. He tended to be uncommunicative, at
least with us kids, and often had little patience with some of our shenanigans. (Well, that last was probably well-deserved; we did some silly things.) I could never have confided any of my girlish dreams and secrets to him. We generally stayed pretty close to home, not too many gambols around the countryside. We didn’t do the vacation thing either, except for the yearly pilgrimage to Massachusetts to see all the relatives, and an occasional trek every five years or so to Ohio to see one of Mom’s sisters. So I grew up with startlingly little personal knowledge of the towns and villages right around me, and none at all of other regions and states except Massachusetts.
But he was my dad, and I loved him. I didn’t always feel loved in return, but looking back, I think he truly did love each of us kids. A stolid New Englander, he was uncomfortable expressing such intimate emotions. He certainly loved his grandkids though, once they started coming along. He would get down and play with them, and take them with him to work on weekends (as he had done with us kids). I think they must’ve given him a new interest in life, which was becoming complicated with increasing health issues.
Sadly, my dad died twenty years ago this past February, from a combination of emphysema (he was a lifelong smoker) and pancreatic cancer. My older son was nine, so he had had some opportunity to get to know his granddad; my younger son was only seven months old at the time, so missed out on knowing him. Even after twenty years I still miss my dad a lot; I wish he had been around to see my boys grow up – he would have been so proud of both of them – and to see the next generation come along, with my grand-nephews, grand-nieces, and my own grandson (and another on the way!). There are so many things I wish I had asked him; so many gardening and farming projects I wish we could’ve consulted him about; so many lost opportunities to tell him that I loved him.
Funny – the saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I don’t have pictures for all the times I remember with my dad, and not even 1,000,000 words would suffice to say all that I remember and feel and love and miss about my dad. He was just an ordinary, hard-working man who supported his family to the best of his ability. We are surrounded by so many men just like that in our society, who get short shrift from the media and the culture as a whole. We can’t expect any of them to be perfect – but we can give them our love, our support, our attention. Bless and thank a father today, to his face – if your own is no longer around, then the one you’re married to; the one you sit next to at work; the one next door; the one you see on the bus or the train coming home from an exhausting week at work.
Fathers, I salute you. And Dad – you’re sorely missed.