10. Gift-Aversion: Some things in life are easy to do – gush over babies, write blogs, cure cancer. Some are harder – get a bikini-wax, reform the tax structure, buy my father a present. With ten kids, he got a LOT of birthday/Christmas/Father’s Day presents. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate what we gave him. “This (wallet/tie/shirt/belt) is just what I needed,” he would thank us. Then he’d repackage the wallet/tie/shirt/belt and put it away to marinate in his drawer for a few years. [Full disclosure: there may have been a few occasions when we re-wrapped the wallet/tie/shirt/belt offerings and re-gifted them. Luckily, each time they were just what he needed.]
9. 40 Years of College Tuition: I’ve heard people ask, “How did your parents get all ten children to go to college?” The answer was simple: we all thought the only choice we had in the matter was whether to just go to college or to go to Notre Dame. For several generations, so many in my father’s family went to Notre Dame that I was an adult before I realized there are some births, weddings, or funerals where they don’t play the Notre Dame Fight Song.
8. Doing-It-Yourself: My father was the ultimate home handyman. Of course this was before This Old House told us to use the right tool for every job. Maybe because he didn’t have This Old Toolshed the size of Milwaukee, my father fixed everything that ever went wrong in our house with a hammer, a wrench, or a needle-nosed pliers. For really tough jobs—he holds the world’s record for diapers extracted from toilet guts—he also used a coat hanger.
7. Applied Engineering: Perhaps it was his engineering training which allowed my father to see how simple solutions (or coat hangers) can be adapted to any situation. My mother claimed it explained her gray hair when she told about looking up to the roof of their 2 ½ story house to see my father hanging upside down from the gutters with a can of paint swinging gaily from a coat hanger beside him. Actually, he survived this method better than the one he used when he decided to touch-up the second floor siding while the rest of the family packed for a family trip. Perhaps feeling that scaffolding was only for people without enough life insurance, he stacked his ladder on top of the picnic table. Most people who fall 2 ½ stories go to an emergency room. Our family went to Sacramento. His nose, he insisted, always had that big lump in the middle. The two black eyes were a nice touch too—it was like touring with a giant panda, only they have smaller snouts.
6. Brake Conservation: Every couple of years, my father would load us into the Vomit-Comet**, and head back east to visit relatives. [**So named because he didn’t believe in “wearing out” the brakes by using them on twisting mountain roads, and also – following that time my brother took a nose dive from the car as it conserved brakes on the road above Lake Tahoe – windows were firmly shut at all times. Despite his cigar.] One year, he decided to save on motel rooms by towing a little pop-up camper. Neighboring campers were so impressed when kids boiled from our arriving car and raced to set up the camper and tent. What those strangers didn’t know was that nobody got to go to the bathroom until it was done. Alas, because of another of his little economies (car radios were an expensive ‘option’ for rich people) we missed the report of the upcoming tornado. The car was dragged across several lanes of freeway by the pop-up camper, which finally flipped over and smashed. When the highway patrol arrived, they were stopped in their tracks by the scale of the carnage—sleeping bags, toys, and children’s clothing mixed with unidentifiable bloody globs of what looked like hamburger. Luckily, it WAS hamburger: fifty pounds that was meant to get us across the country. Abandoning the trailer, my father grimly loaded all of us back into the Vomit Comet, stacked what clothing he could salvage into the cracks, and set off across the desert. We’d been driving for hours without passing a car in either direction when we saw a young couple whose little VW had broken down in the middle of the desert. My father stopped and offered a lift. Looking at the station wagon packed to the roof with children surrounded by bloody clothing, they decided to wait another day—maybe two—until another car came by. I’m guessing they remained childless.
5. No Kissing: I don’t come from a physically affectionate family. When our church added the Kiss of Peace, I thought my father would start his own church, but he contented himself with locking his arms across his chest and glaring indignantly at approaching members of the congregation. So to his children, visiting relatives meant one thing—enforced embraces to be avoided at all costs. To distract ourselves from his driving, we older kids would spend cross-country trips laying out a military campaign which involved sending in a suicide-squad of the younger kids to brave the first wave of relatives’ affection while we attempted kiss-evasive flanking maneuvers. It took 2,000 miles of coaching and almost got us all put up for adoption, but our greatest triumph was the year we taught the baby to respond to kisses with, “Well. I have never in my whole life been so em-BARE-assed.”
4. Dinner-Table Etiquette: With eight daughters, my outnumbered father listened to dinner discussions between those of us whose developing physical endowments split us into the Haves and Have-Nots. He insisted that we refer to bras as ‘articles’, but I don’t think that helped much. Sister #1: “Did you hear about the girls up at Berkeley who are burning their articles?” Sister #2: “Without their miracle-articles, won’t they jiggle?” Sister #3: I’d love to have enough to jiggle. I could replace my articles with band-aids and nobody could tell the difference.” Sister #4: “You’re lucky. At least you won’t get all saggy when you get old, like thirty.” Sister #5: “And have you seen the articles you have to wear when you get pregnant? They could hold basketballs…” Father: “I’ll be eating dinner in the garage until the baby goes to college…”
3. Scary Weddings: Ten children. Eight of them daughters. As we grew, my father frequently mentioned his willingness to supply ladders to any sisters who would consider eloping. But I’d seen his ladders, usually balanced on top of the picnic table. So I was the first sister to commit an actual wedding. Before the wedding I made a list of each person’s tasks in the 3 ½ weeks before the event.
- ME: 1. Choose wedding dress for mother to veto. 2. Be on time for the ceremony.
- HUSBAND2BE: 1. Finish dissertation so he’ll have a job. 2. Be on time for the ceremony. 3. Borrow a tie from my father. Wear it.
- MY MOTHER: 1. Type his dissertation so he’ll have a job. 2. Bake wedding cake, grow flowers, cook all the food, send out the invitations, find the minister, arrange the ceremony, decorate the house and yard, reserve hotel rooms for his family, plan and host reception. 3. Veto the wedding dress I got at that perfectly nice thrift shop, take my younger sister out to try on dresses, buy another dress, make a veil.
- MY FATHER: 1. Fix the car even if it’s not broken. 2. Worry. 3. Cry at ceremony.
My father pretended to be fixing the car until a few days before the wedding. He had to come out from under the car to pick up my uncle, an Air Force chaplain and the only one who would agree to marry us on such short notice. They returned to find the entire household proof-reading the dissertation. Uncle: “Let’s discuss the sanctity of holy matrimony. Shouldn’t that comma on page 74 be a period?” Husband2Be: “If this dissertation isn’t finished, I’m not getting married.” Me: “Sob!” Father: “If anyone needs me, I’ll be under the car.” My uncle’s sermon at the ceremony the next day was, “Marriage is like a dissertation.” My father cried. (Probably at the thought of my six younger, as-yet-unmarried sisters…)
2. Baby Terrorizing: One of my father’s favorite ways of demonstrating his love and devotion to his grandchildren was to sneak up on them and yell “BOO!” Sadly, none of his grandchildren was ever enamored of this form of attention, although I have noticed that all grew up to fearlessly navigate the California freeway system.
And the number one reason not to be my father?
1. I never told him that he was the greatest father ever.