I have been working on this for a couple of weeks and though it is far from finished, just decided that I would publish it in installments, for brevity's sake. Here is Part One:
He was the seventh child born to John and Vivian, and from the start, there was trouble. He was born with one perfect arm. The left arm ended just below the elbow. His parents were poor, and not yet done having children. There were two more boys to follow.
Jack grew up quickly. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work, to help with the family finances and because it was understood that with his deformity, there was no real future for him anyway. As World War II began, his friends and brothers went off to war and he stayed home. He was probably more physically capable than most of the US Military, because he'd had to try so much harder to attain what most took for granted, but he didn't have the option of enlisting. He was unacceptable. He probably would have had a whole different life, given an opportunity to see the world. As it was, he stayed in his hometown in South Dakota and struggled to maintain his pride despite the obstacles he faced.
He was twenty-five when he met Jean, and for her, he became a Catholic. They married soon after, and ten months after the wedding, had their first of seven children. Jack did what he had to in order to support his family, and the bigger the family grew, the harder he worked. Jean was pregnant most of the time, until their family was complete after nine years. She worked full time and he worked overtime, and they did the best they could to provide for their children.
Jack wasn't the world's best father. He had a temper on him to which any of his sons could attest, and at times when he was pushed to his limit, he was a force to be reckoned with. From all outward appearances,he was a fearsome man, despite what some, or most, called a handicap or disability.
But with me, his second daughter, he was different. It was common knowledge that I was Daddy's girl, and that anything I desired would be mine if he had anything to say about it. I didn't ask for much, but there has never been another person in my life whose love I didn't question. With Daddy, I always knew I was the most precious thing in the world. He took me everywhere with him. He took me to work with him when he could, and on the rare occasions when he had free time, we spent it hunting asparagus near the cemetery or along the river or working in his garden. How many hours did we spent together when I was a child? He taught me to fish and taught me how to find the tender white asparagus spears which grew underground and never saw daylight till I pulled them loose from beneath the dirt and proudly ran to show him my prize. He taught me how to recognize trees by the shape of their leaves, and birds by their song. He taught me the vocabulary of crossword puzzle clues, and how to escape into a book when life got too confusing or hard.
In the evening, he read Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour in his recliner under the lamp, and often fell asleep there. His children would continue with their television or card games or in my case, usually a book until bedtime, trying per our mother's wishes to be quiet enough to let him rest, all of us knowing he worked far too hard for one man and somehow taking it for granted that he enjoyed it all the same.
When we took vacations to the BlackHills, he always proclaimed it his favorite place and he took the time to enjoy it. We never had the money to do all the tourist-y things there were to do, but Daddy and Mom made sure we did everything once. We went to the Hills every year, at least once but usually for a vacation as well as a long weekend. Mom would sometimes stay at "home" with her younger sister, whose family we stayed with while vacationing. But Daddy always took the kids out for daily jaunts, hikes, visits to the trout hatchery, and rock climbs. From early morning to supper time, we were on the go. More often and not, he would merely pull the car off on the side of the road somewhere, and let us go. And also more often than not, while the other kids scattered and conquered the wildernesses in their own way, it was he and I climbing together, discovering quiet, serene places where Daddy sought a little peace and quiet and taught me how to appreciate the same. Sometimes we would just find the perfect rock, or a fallen tree, and would sit wordlessly, contemplating the beauty around us, until the noise of the boys, (my four brothers as well as our three boy cousins) interrupted our placid world and we would rise and resign ourselves to the end of the tranquility and time to go home.
I think I was nine when I actually realized he was"different" from my friends' fathers. I knew he had only one arm but since there was nothing he couldn't do, I never thought of it as a defect, much less a disability. He was the one who taught me to tie my shoes, and though to this day people comment that I perform that task "oddly" the job gets done just as well if not better than anyone else can tie a shoe. I watched Daddy climb an extension ladder to the third floor of our house with a gallon of paint and a paintbrush, to paint under the eaves with just as much perfection as he expected me to do from the ground with both hands.
He worked as a school custodian, and though it was a meager living and a menial job, he took great pride in being the best custodian in the district. His floors were shinier, his blackboards the blackest. When it snowed, the sidewalks were shoveled before the sky cleared. "His" school was immaculate and everyone noticed. Perhaps they didn't fully appreciate it as much as he would have liked, but I know no one ever argued that point.
And on the Saturdays that he was not working, our house was torn apart from floor to floor, and it became as immaculate as the school. Mom made it a point to keep it clean during the week with the help of her daughters, but it was always Daddy who cleaned the vents and scrubbed down the staircase and took the can of paste wax from room to room, making sure every inch of the hardwood floors shone. Curtains came off the windows and were washed, and window shades were taken down and cleaned. Daddy climbed that ladder and took the storm windows off and cleaned them on the ground, then climbed back up to clean the outsides of the inside windows. That was not a weekly task but was done at least a few times every year.
It was his garden he took the most pride in, however.The growing season was short, but he made the most of it. He grew onions, carrots, tomatoes and bell peppers in the back yard with a single string strung around the perimeter. It wasn't much to keep out the neighborhood kids, but it worked, because they all dreaded my father's booming voice and his temper. At one end of the garden, he planted dahlias which grew tall and proud and every bit as beautiful as any flower I had ever seen. I can't tell you why he loved dahlias so much, but he took more pride in them than in anything else in his world, other than me. He was the most practical man you could ever hope to meet, and the dahlias served no purpose except to delight my father, but they never ceased to do so and at the end of his life when the Alzheimers had taken all reason from his vocabulary, his eyes still lit up at the mention of his dahlias.
Mom got sick when I was in the fourth grade. I don't know if she had been getting sick prior to it, but I had my first and only birthday party on January 11, and the next day, she was admitted to the hospital. She was given Last Rites then and many times after, but she always came home after a struggle with death left her more determined than ever. She never really got well again, though, and for a few years she spent more time in the hospital than out. While she was away, Daddy and I ran the household as my older sister, Jo was away at boarding school and only came home every other weekend.
I had two brothers older than me and two younger, but it fell on me to care for all of them; to do the laundry and dishes, to cook. Daddy still did the majority of the chores, or at least managed them by delegating them to my brothers, but between working and visiting Mom in thehospital, his time was at a premium so we would discuss the menu for dinner in the morning, and I would start the preparation when it was time. It was teamwork, and I never questioned or resented my responsibilities. Daddy never made me feel like it was too much.
Some things never changed, throughout my childhood and teenaged years. Daddy always got up very early in the morning, and just when he was ready to go to work, he would come into my bedroom, bend over and give me a good morning kiss, and I would get up and get ready for school, making sure to wake up my brothers in the order they needed to be awakened. The little ones were always crabby in the morning, but John, the oldest was the most difficult one. His bedroom was in the basement, and he never got up the first time he was called. It always took at least three trips down the two flights of stairs to the basement to rouse him. Once he did rise, he was usually gone within minutes because he was running late.
I would make breakfast for the younger boys and send them off to school, and then I would tidy up the kitchen and await the arrival of the friends I walked to school with. After school, I worked for two hours at a day care center down the street from my home, and then would come home just in time to make dinner.
This was a routine which began when I was ten and lasted for the rest of my childhood. There were days when it was more difficult, but it really never seemed so except the day that our dog, Shortstop stole one of the pork chops I had set out for dinner. There were six of us for dinner that night and only six pork chops, and I turned my back for just a moment but when I turned back around, he was running out of the kitchen and there were five pork chops.
It's hard to believe, looking back, that I weathered it all without ever wishing it different, and that one stolen pork chop made me want to give up. I wept. We didn't have anything else to cook and I was doing the best I could, and then God let the stupid dog steal the pork chop and my best was no longer good enough.
I was still crying when Daddy came home. When he asked me why, I tearfully told him about the pork chop shortage, and he just shrugged. "Oh, well," he grinned. "I'm not that hungry anyway." And then, after twelve hours on the job, he asked what he could do to help me, and the two of us put together his favorite dinner of pork chops with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. He ate two plates of the potatoes and sauerkraut. Little was said,but my father seemed genuinely appreciative of the food on his plate, and made no complaints about the lack of meat.
To be continued