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Where’s Dad When You Need Him?

Happy Independence Day 2020!

I’ve thought about my ancestors a lot lately, as this holiday approached, but especially my father. I wish I could discuss what’s going on in the world with him now, and get his perspective and counsel. Where’s Dad when you need him? Even more so because of the worldwide pandemic and so much civil unrest here in the States.

My grandparents immigrated from Lebanon. My Irish mother was nursing at a hospital in England when she met my father. Dad served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was stationed there. Mom immigrated from Ireland to be married, and became a naturalized citizen three years after her arrival in the States.

My father was born in this country in 1910. He lived 88 years, and throughout his entire life, he considered it a privilege to be an American. He taught us that “Uncle Sam” had been good to us, and that the United States was the true “land of opportunity.”

My father worked long hours on our ranch to take advantage of those opportunities and succeed in life: 7 am – 7 pm, six days a week. For years. My eight brothers worked alongside him. We three girls helped our mother–cleaning, cooking, baking, gardening, and doing mountains of dishes and kettles every single night. Take-out food wasn’t invented yet. Sundays we had off, and on that day we all piled into the station wagon for church. After church, Dad made a huge breakfast for us all, bacon, sausage, eggs, toast—the works. Sometimes we’d take a Sunday drive to Mt. St. Helens, or some other beautiful Pacific Northwest spot. In inclement weather, we stayed home and played pinochle or rummy. I recall many wonderful Sundays.

My parents made huge sacrifices in order to college educate all eleven of their children, an education that neither of them enjoyed, and yet, as we all grew up, this became their big goal in life. A dream they, and we, fulfilled. They wanted to broaden our world, and give us more choices than they had in our life vocations.

Somebody asked me recently what they did with all their kids when they went on vacation. I said they didn’t take vacations. They went to an annual New Year’s Eve party at my Uncle George and Aunt Maxine’s house, and went out to dinner alone one night every year: the day they sold their herd of cattle, and deposited their once-a-year paycheck. Those were their two vacation days, and they never felt put upon for not having more. They chose their life, and enjoyed it.

I think my upbringing was similar to many hardworking families across the nation. In my small town, businesses were built from the ground up by resourceful citizens, farms were worked, fishing and logging operations were big employers. I thought our local women could do anything. These phenomenally talented gals were everywhere, hosting smorgasbords, working logging shows, directing plays, acting in melodramas, putting on festivals, and entering their awesome wares in the county fair.

Our community, and communities across the land, all shared a common goal: to be the best they could be. These were places where people helped one another, and volunteering and being civic-minded was a given, a hometown duty. From oldest to youngest, we all participated in the life of our city. These experiences enriched us all.

Our household, crazy and busy as it was, did not lack in love or discipline. But the one thing Dad did not tolerate was whining. He would start by saying, “If you don’t like it, do something constructive about it. Make it better.” If we persisted in our complaint, he would blow off our grumbling with: “Cry me a river,” or, “Go get a crying towel.” We grew in maturity every time we heard him say those phrases, even if they weren’t directed at us. Nobody in our family wanted to be the weak link.

If we were justified in our grievance, he might sympathize for a minute or two, then say, “Life is hard. No doubt about it. But you’re far better off in this country, the land of the free, then anywhere else in the world. Here, at least you have the chance to make something of yourself.”

Once, I was dragging my feet on accepting a leadership role at school, and he said, “If you don’t step up and do it, who will?” Dad was a master in instilling responsibility in us for our life and actions, and was adamantly opposed to any of us trying to escape those responsibilities. Living under one roof, if we didn’t each do our part, our home and ranch would soon have been in chaos.

I can’t say I was always so patient with my own kids. My son, about twelve at the time, was moaning about his performance after a baseball game that he played in and lost. I said, “How hard can it be? Just step up to the plate and hit the damn ball.” He’s 30 now and still reminds me that I said that, and for an adolescent, perhaps it was harsh, but he got the point. There are very few excuses to be made for ourselves, and none for bad behavior. To succeed in life, you have to work hard, steadily, and with some driving goal or purpose, a vision for your life. That was the consistent message that my parents imparted and lived. Like everybody else, they had their ups and downs, and with such a large family, some struggles as well. Teen years, anybody?

My dad had a lesson for my son, too. We were all outside in his driveway one summer day. I was hanging a flower basket for Mom, while Dad was watching my little boy as he crouched down observing some ants. One started to crawl on him, and he shook it off and raised his hand to crush it, until Dad intervened, poking him with his cane. “Leave it alone! Why do you want to destroy that ant? What did he do to you?” “Nothing,” my son replied, and stood up. “Don’t disturb him them,” Dad said. “He was just going about his business. Now you go about yours.” Dad could be a little gruff in his older years, and intimidating to a young child, but my son responded to his rebuke with an apology. “I’m sorry, Grandpa.” Even a five-year-old can distinguish right from wrong.

People just want to live in freedom and peace, without destruction of property and businesses that they spent long hours and years of labor earning and building. Maybe this 4th of July, we can resolve to do better—to remember, consider, respect, and honor the efforts of the people who came before us, our current families, and those who will come after us.

Happy 4th, and God Bless America!

Until next time,

Helen

THE TWIG

My brother Paul and I were close in age, just fifteen months apart. Although he was a bit older, we were placed in the same grade level in school, and there, had each other’s backs completely.

At home though, we bickered over many things that seemed of paramount importance at the time—especially baseball card trades and Monopoly deals—but still, we maintained a great and loving friendship—just not always. One summer day, after our constant squabbling nearly drove our mother mad, she finally broke, and told us to go out to the lilac bush and cut switches, which she intended to use on our backsides. She never actually did use corporal punishment on us, but the threat was real, at least it sounded like it this time.

Paul and I went out to the large purple lilac bush at the corner of our front yard, where Paul proceeded to cut a huge, heavy branch off the shrub. Obviously one of us demonstrated a little remorse for our misbehavior. I, on the other hand, cut a twig, maybe five inches, probably more like three.

Paul shook his head at me and warned, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Mom’s pretty mad at us, and rightfully so.”

“But it’s funny,” I responded, “and Mom has a sense of humor.” I laughed, and he did too.

“All right, Helen, it’s your butt.”

We walked back into the house and found our mother in the family room, folding clothes with her back to us. Paul and I stood there, side by side, he with his towering branch of flagellation, still loaded with lilacs, which practically shielded him from view of our mother’s wrath, and me with my twig, fully exposed as the unrepentant sinner that I was.  She turned around and looked at us.

I wish I could capture in print the many phases of facial expressions that crossed Mom’s lovely face: shock, anger, disbelief, and finally, amusement. Fortunately for me, once she expressed the last of her emotions, Mom burst out laughing so hard that she had to sit down at the table. She covered her forehead with her hand, glanced up again briefly, then another gale of laughter began. I glanced at Paul and he smiled. Then we started to giggle, too.

“Put those outside,” Mom said, gesturing to our branches, or at least to Paul’s branch and my stick.

I turned to Paul and said, “On guard,” I challenged him with my twig, and took the stance with my pathetic little weapon, as if to engage him in a sword fight. He just laughed and his looming branch scraped the floor.

“Now, missy,” Mom said to me. Clearly, her humor had passed, and I respected the moment.

“Okay, Mom!” I shouted as I ran out the door, while Paul picked up his branch and followed.

We did get along a little better after that, at least for the rest of the day.

CORPS DRIPPINGS

Dad and Mom left the house for a rare night out, and all of us children remained at home. The phone rang, and no one budged. My older brothers and sisters sat transfixed by the television, a relatively new acquisition in those mid-1960s days. After the phone continued to ring several times, I couldn’t stand it. I pulled up a chair to stand on in order to reach the wall phone, and answered it. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven-years-old.

Immediately, my older siblings jumped up with instructions to me about taking a message, writing down names, etc. I could barely hear the man on the other end of the line. Confusion ensued. By the time I hung up and climbed down the chair, my scribbled message carried the name Corps Drippings, spelled like that, and no telephone number. The verbal teasing and laughter I heard from my kin in response to my note alternately made me laugh and devastated me.

When Dad and Mom returned some time later, they heard the story of the phone call. I told Dad all I knew. Instead of berating me, Dad inquired of my older brothers, “Why the hell didn’t one of you answer the phone, instead of waiting for a child to do it? You know we were expecting an important business call.”

My brothers, in turn, mad at being bawled out, told me not to answer the phone again until I could take a decent message. They also poked fun at the ridiculous name I had taken down. My third oldest brother, Jim, said, “Ah Dad, it was probably a prank. Corpse Drippings!” and everybody laughed again.

I couldn’t take anymore, and ran from the family room in tears. Scrunched down low, hiding in the closet I shared with my sister, I could hear my dad calling me. Still whimpering, I didn’t respond. Finally, he found me. He pulled the clothes back and I saw a tender smile cross his face as he looked at me. He offered me his hand and said gently, “Come on out, honey. If it’s important, he’ll call back.”

I never felt more loved than in that moment when my dear dad drew me out and hugged me, and I knew all was well again…and my family had a story had entertained them for years.

WOOLY BULLY

Our two, elite cousins from Missouri came to visit. The two girls, classically trained vocalists, seemed a little out of sorts to be in rural Washington State farm country. The oldest, Cathy, had peers in my first five brothers, all teenagers at that time. My uncle, the girls’ dad, could easily be described as a heavy hitter. He was an engineer, and during World War II, he invented a vehicle feature which solved a problem with the tanks. This feature was soon to be duplicated, and eventually found in every vehicle. For this invention, my uncle was amply rewarded by the military, and later, Chrysler. He was the longtime mayor of Frontenac, an upscale neighborhood in St. Louis. His wife, a southern belle, ensured that their girls were being properly brought up as debutants. At first, the family seemed reluctant to mingle with us, but my mother finally issued an ultimatum to her brother, so they eventually came.

My brothers, although polite and respectful, did not stand on ceremony with anyone, especially not with their slightly uptight and bewildered cousins, whom they had just met. So, to lighten them up a bit, my oldest brother, John, decided they should all dance. He closed the living room door to the other part of the house where the adults conversed, put on some 45s, a stack of small records that fell down, one by one, from the record player attachment, and filled the room with song.

The first song, Wooly Bully, was a hit originally recorded by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in 1965. The epitome of rock and roll at the time, the boys came to life, one of them cranking up the stereo, and all of them dancing. John immediately swooped the oldest girl, Cathy, up into his arms, and began to dance with her. Blown away initially, she began to dance a little, then soon got caught up in the enthusiasm and attentions of her attractive male cousins, and let loose. By the time the first song ended, she was smiling and laughing and having a ball. Her father, somewhere towards the end of that first song, heard Wooly Bully playing. He opened the slider to the other room, and looked in. His sister, our mother, viewed the spectacle too. She chuckled softly and glanced at her brother. Appalled at first with the song and what he witnessed, he then smiled hesitantly, and shook his head. Mom closed the slider and led her shocked brother back to the others. The teens danced for an hour.

Later that same day, Cathy and her younger sister, Linda, both entertained the families by singing songs of their own, classical pieces both beautiful and elegant, and we all appreciated the girls’ talents. Still, we sensed that a barrier had been broken. Blood is thicker than social class, power or prestige, and each family had a glimpse into the dramatic strengths of the other. Reservations disappeared that day, at least for the younger set, and this family came again at a later date to enjoy the unreserved warmth of the Doumits.