Friday, April 09, 2010

It Just Worked, Somehow

My blog pal Crisitunity had just written the other day about changes in her fiancé’s work schedule. He’s putting in later nights these days, and spending time together is getting harder and harder because of it. It got me thinking about how normal that sort of thing has always been in my life. Yet, I sympathize.

My dad started his machine shop the same year I was born. At the time my parents had five children ranging from newborn to age 14. Eventually they put all those kids through college without taking a single student loan. When I graduated college, 22 years after Dad started the shop, I had no student loan debt at all. I was blessed and thankful. Still am.

But I know it wasn’t easy. Dad went to work well before I woke up; I can still remember the sound the old blue pick up truck made on cold mornings as it wheezed to life and he pulled it out of the driveway. He came home after I went to bed. He worked Saturdays. He loves his work, and borders on obsessed with it. He still works long days, at age 72. He’s tops at what he does. It never fails to amaze me when he glances at a blueprint and a piece of steel and knows exactly to make that piece of steel look like what’s in the drawing. I struggle with basic things like recipes and furniture assembly, but Dad makes big metal things from scratch—things like parts on the engine of an F-14, or parts of machines that paper companies use, or hinges on submarine missile silos.

When I was a kid, Mom fed us all dinner at home. Then she’d pack up a plate for Dad in a sauce pan. These were the days before she had a cabinet full of Tupperware, and she probably would not have spent the money on something like that anyway. She put a lid on the saucepan and put it into a paper grocery bag that she’d rolled shut. The bag was set on the floor of the passenger seat in the light blue Chevy Impala wagon, she piled all of us in there and didn’t take any crap from us when we argued about who got to sit in the front.

Dad ate his dinner at his workbench. Between bites he made adjustments to the machine nearby cutting or drilling away at some hunk of metal. He and Mom talked while he worked and ate, me and my sibs played. Sometimes we did the sweeping up, but mostly we played. There was an office on the other side of his space that Dad never used, preferring to use a desk in the corner of the shop floor rather than a far flung office on the other side of the building. The office was empty, but he’d stuck 2 desks in there that he’d probably picked up from somewhere. The desks were also empty and they didn’t have chairs. We eventually stocked the drawers with things like paper, markers, crayons, and small toys. But mostly we climbed on top of them and slid across their slick surfaces on our bellies.

In the office there were two glass brick windows on the east wall. There were deep ledges under those windows. Of course we climbed onto the ledges and marked up with walls with our dirty sneakers on the way up and down. It was a big deal when I was finally big enough to climb that wall to the ledge. I felt like I’d graduated to the big kids club. My brother Kaz could jump up there and land perfectly seated without having to use his hands. (I would love to see how high that ledge is now.  In my mind's eye it's somewhere up in the stratosphere.)  When I wasn’t trying to climb up to the ledge, my sister and I made a Barbie house in the gigantic safe in the corner opposite the ledge. On nice days we roamed the neighborhood, or walked to the pharmacy where I had once shoplifted a candy bar.

Then Mom piled us all into the wagon again and got us home on time for bed. Dad stayed at work and came home at some point after I’d already fallen asleep. Just to do it all over before I ever woke up in the morning. Dad didn’t work that way because he didn’t love his family. It was quite the opposite. He worked that way because he loved us all so very much and wanted something better for us. Sure, he worked a lot of hours, but he was still very present in my life as I was growing up. He went to the band concerts; he went to the basketball games. He went to the really big track meets on Saturdays, but had to miss the week day ones. I don’t think he ever saw me play field hockey, because those games were always in the afternoon. With Dad there were no excuses for bad grades, and he sat up late with my sister and her algebra homework, and the tutoring session didn’t stop until her answers were perfect. (And for that reason I avoided him when it came to homework. I liked to get my sleep.)

My mom was exceedingly patient with the way Dad worked. She always had her eye on the future. That future was all about sending her kids to college because she and Dad hadn’t gone. It was all about buying us things like musical instruments because she’d never learned to play anything. Mom crunched the numbers and she made it happen. After Mom died, when I was 27, Dad and I were sitting up late in a hotel room in Poland. With tears in his eyes he said, “She knew what needed to be done and she never complained.” And it was true, and it’s what I admired the most about her. She took the team mentality of a marriage to a whole other level that I cannot even comprehend.

And it’s that quality from my mom that I try to bring to my own marriage. My husband works hard, and is often home late. I don’t complain because I also have my eye on the future. He works hard, but he makes sure that we take plenty of time to play. He doesn’t work Saturdays like Dad did (and still does). But if I had half of my mom’s energy, then I know that the future we’re working for is going to be great.

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