Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Treat a Girl

Grampa's Birthday, 1985

It was still dark when I heard someone outside jiggling the door. It was 1972, our trailer was over-stuffed with our growing family and the kids got the closet-sized bedrooms, so we slept on a hide-a-bed in our living room. I heard a car pull up about 4:30 am, then the creak of the wooden steps, and a muffled rustling under the window just a few inches away from my head.

When the doorknob moved quietly I thought my heart beat would scare the intruder away. A minute later the tires crunched the gravel and my jaw unclenched enough that I could wake Dee. He checked the kids first, and then opened the door. There on our tiny porch was a pound of butter and a pint of whipping cream.

Our secret benefactor was my father-in-law. He was a steel worker, on his way to an early morning shift, and he knew how much I disliked the ghastly, fake yellow lard that passed as butter in our house. We drank a horrible-smelling blend of powdered milk mixed with skim, and we added Dream Whip to that for a lumpy whipped topping. Real cream and real butter were some of the sacrifices we made to afford a college degree.

It has always touched me that Dee's dad found such sweet ways to support us. His wife had MS so he had taken over the kitchen. He canned fresh peaches and homemade jam of unique concoctions: cantaloupe/peach, or apricot/pineapple/walnut. A box of oranges, or a half-a-ham and a container of frothy layered jello often arrived just in time for dinner. Money was tight on both ends, and his contributions were made-to-order.

My father-in-law was bashful. It embarrassed him if I gave him a hug or acted at all affectionate. I think he liked to give in secret so he wouldn't have to endure uncomfortable scenes of appreciation and gratitude. There were no deep conversations, and we never told him our troubles. Rather, he sensed our needs: when we'd need his tools to unfreeze our pipes, when he ought to drive by with hangers to unlock our car doors. A few times he shyly gave us a $10, $20, or $50 bill at just the right time, or a tupperware filled with lamb stew. He observed our challenges, let us handle them together, but was there with support.

I learned a lot from him. He may have thought our judgment was naive or impractical but he never voiced that opinion. He never tried to steer us toward one career or another; he gave us the impression he thought we could make good choices. His support and encouragement were quiet and steady, and his criticism was non-existent.

Looking back, I realize how his trust and confidence gave us courage to dream big. I don't ever remember a time he had his feelings hurt that we weren't somewhere for something. He understood we were busy trying to establish our own family traditions and he allowed us to do it, and invite him occasionally to participate. I never worried that our new ways were offensive, smashing his meaningful, old family rituals in favor of our enthusiastic plans. He enjoyed whatever we were doing and cheered us on from the background.

He respected me as Dee's wife, and the kid's mom, and sustained our determination of lessons, sports, bedtimes, discipline, chores. I felt we were doing a reasonable job as parents, largely because he wasn't second guessing our decisions or watching to see the error of our ways, and comparing it to the wisdom of his. He stepped aside and let us have our turn at life. I love him for that.

It's his birthday today, and I hope he's celebrating in heaven with a special dinner of his own distinctive dishes. He was a dear man and raised a hard-working, loving son, and he sure did know how to treat a girl.


gab said...

This made me teary. What a sweet Grandpa he was, I always knew he was proud of me. His home-bottled pears were divine.

p.s. Thanks for sharing this picture. I just showed Luke where he got his middle name!

Michelle said...

ohhhhh, I have no words. Thanks Marty.

Christie said...

I love the butter story. And I totally wish he'd been around so I could have known him. Sounds like a good, good man.

moon said...

He sounds like such a special, lovely man. thanks for sharing this story with us. Very touching indeed.

Gini said...

Wow, what an incredible man...and very special. I love people like that and he is one that we can learn from and be like. Thank you for sharing this story Oma.

diane said...

Thanks for the new mother-in-law advice. I need it. I never dreamed it would be hard. I'm trying, really hard to back off and let them do things their own way without unwanted input from me. I'm not good at biting my tongue.

He sounds sweet. I never knew my father-in-law.