As a stay-at-home mom for most of the years our children were growing up, I spent a good deal of time volunteering for their school system. When our last child graduated from high school in 2010, knowing that it was time to step aside, I was a bit out of sorts trying to figure out how I’d fill those volunteer hours.
As I considered my next volunteer gig, I chatted with my husband about various opportunities that I could pursue. While it’s great to help out the community as a whole, he said that I should consider making volunteering more personal and see if there was someone in our lives who could use my help.
My father-in-law, who had been widowed 11 years earlier, immediately came to mind. He lived in the house he had built with my mother-in-law a half century earlier where they raised their 12 children. Being a child of the Depression, Dad had a hard time letting go of things. The house hadn’t really been thoroughly gone through and decluttered in who knew how long. Consequently, there was more stuff packed into that two-story, five-plus bedroom home, than I could have imagined.
So, I made the offer to help Dad clear his house out. Being a bit of a hoarder, I wouldn’t say he jumped at the chance but was open to the concept. Enlisting the help of my mom, I made the commitment to go to Dad’s house every Tuesday morning from 8:00 until noon, for what I thought would be a couple of months, to work on the project.
And work, we did. The more we dug, the more we found. Sometimes it was easy, just going through stacks of paper but other times it was tough, both physically and psychologically. There was plenty of heavy lifting (thank goodness Dad was like the Energizer Bunny) but, from a psychological standpoint, it was difficult for Dad to let go of things. Part of this was the emotional attachment he had to various things but the bigger issue was the fact that every single thing in that house, in Dad’s mind, had value. While that may have been true, the value he placed on items didn’t always match up to what the marketplace would pay for them.
This project ended up taking a year to complete. We got to the point where we had gone through every square inch of the house and had given to the kids and grandkids, sold, recycled or thrown out just about anything that Dad had no use for anymore. The garage, which hadn’t had a car parked in it for 40 years, was another project that my husband, some of his work buddies and his siblings tackled a few years later.
While it was amazing to see the transformation of the house as we waded through piles of paper, clothing, housewares, toys, knickknacks, etc., the biggest transformation was actually in my relationship not only with Dad but with my own mom as well.
Most mornings when Mom and I got to Dad’s house, he’d be cooking up a kettle of his famous chocolate Cream of Wheat, which was a combo of plain Cream of Wheat, Nestle’s Quik, butter and milk. I don’t usually eat in the morning, but this was too yummy to pass up and eating with my mom and father-in-law was a nice way to start the day before the work commenced.
There’s nothing like spending hours next to a person, sorting through things, and conversing. While we had our share of light conversations, the deep ones crept in as well. I found out more about my father-in-law and my mom for that matter, than I ever could have imagined.
Dad shared how his mom had to sew his clothes when he was growing up on a farm in northeastern Wisconsin. She didn’t have a way to sew zippers into his pants and so he had buttoned-up flies. Being on the shorter and stockier side, he saw his share of bullying. One of the favorite misdeeds from the bullies was grabbing onto the fly of his pants and yanking so hard that all the buttons flew off.
He admitted that the bullying got so bad that he begged his mom to send him to another high school, and, surprisingly, since this was in the early ‘40s, his mom and step-dad actually allowed him to transfer schools.
Somehow, in his growing up years, Dad was led to believe that he wasn’t smart. I made it a point to tell him on a regular basis that he was one of the smartest men I’d ever met. He had such an ingenious mind; he could build or rig just about anything to solve any problem around his house or garage. On top of that, he had wonderful musical abilities as well.
According to Dad, someone in his life had, on more than one occasion, told him that he’d never amount to anything. For the rest of his life, Dad did everything in his power to prove that person wrong.
He did just that. On December 29, 2019, 21 years to the day after my mother-in-law died, Dad unexpectedly passed away as he was getting ready for Sunday morning Mass. In his 91 years, my father-in-law proved to be one of the most creative, industrious, energetic, passionate, faith-filled, and loving people I’ve ever met.
Miss you Dad. Glad I got to know you!