Memories of my father

The Farmer’s Almanac

My father was a calm and gentle man. He was an intelligent and successful attorney, as well as a good husband and father. I hardly ever saw my father get REALLY mad. My mother was a yeller, and we often argued, but my father was slow to anger. I remember once he chased me brandishing a hairbrush, a memory that has carved itself on my mind as the angriest I ever saw him get. What I did to deserve his wrath has been completely forgotten! (By the time he caught me, however, he had calmed down enough not to use the hairbrush!)

As I said, my mother and I often argued. Both of us are possessed of a opinionated and passionate nature and a fiery temper, so we argued about anything that we felt strongly about. My father didn’t understand the need for these frequent arguments, since his temperament was the opposite of ours, and when we started in on one of our shouting matches, he would first try to mediate and get us to stop. Usually that didn’t work, however, since we were both so into our argument that nothing could stop it from accelerating. Exasperated, he would give up and leave the room. Upon returning, he would shake his head uncomprehendingly as he witnessed us, near tears, hugging each other, apologizing, or having a calm and pleasant conversation.

It didn’t always end that way, however. Often, my mother and I would simply go our separate ways. After one particularly loud argument about politics or some point about world affairs, (this being the cause of a great many of our arguments once I became more aware of such things during high school), my dad once again was forced to leave the room. These arguments really distressed him and he could not stand to see us fighting, the harmony of our household so disrupted.

When he returned still holding a section of the newspaper – no doubt he had gone upstairs to read it, and once the noise had died down decided to return to his more comfortable chair – he found me sitting alone in the living room, quiet but still agitated and irritable. I thought he was going to say something about the argument, tell me not to fight with my mother or to control my temper or something like that, which he sometimes did. Instead, after a few minutes silence, he said, “Have you ever read the Farmer’s Almanac?”

I looked up at him. He was standing in front of a small bookcase on which were stored an odd assortment of reference-type books – the National Geographic world atlas, U.S. road atlases, a dictionary and a thesaurus, Field Guides to birds and other animals, booklets about the lakes and fishing of northern Wisconsin, and a Farmer’s Almanac.

“No, not really,” I replied.

“It’s really quite interesting,” he said, taking it off the shelf. He got a new Farmer’s Almanac every year, or every time a new one was issued. He brought it over and sat down next to me.

My dad enjoyed facts and statistics – sometimes he would quiz us by asking if we knew what the largest lake in the world was, the longest river, the largest city, etc. The Farmer’s Almanac had this type of information, and a lot more. We started looking through it together, and I found myself quite engrossed. There were a lot of weather statistics – temperature, climate fluctuations, tornado data; and many population statistics and short articles about hog farming, wheat futures, etc. Eventually, while I was examining a table of statistics that were especially interesting to me, my father got up and left. I stayed there reading the Farmer’s Almanac for quite a while, and found that it had a calming effect on me. I forgot my anger, my political passions, and my mother’s old-fashioned opinions as I thumbed through the atlas and stopped to read more closely whatever caught my interest.

Later I reflected on what had happened and realized that perhaps my father had done this on purpose, although it had seemed quite spontaneous. Perhaps he had been looking for something on that bookshelf that would calm me down, or perhaps he was looking for a statistic he had become curious about while reading the newspaper. He found something that he thought might distract me and cool my temper, and it worked! After that, I often looked for the Farmer’s Almanac when I visited my parents’ home. There was always something interesting to read, some fact to learn, when I had a few moments and nothing in particular to do.

My father enjoyed playing with his five children, and had no preference in terms of gender. He had four daughters and one son, and enjoyed us all equally.

What I remember most about my dad was playing games with him. He loved to play board games, games that were competitive but also stimulated the mind. We had a lot of board games and often played Parcheesi, checkers, Scrabble, Anagrams, The Flag Game (put out by the United Nations, it had all the flags of the member nations), Game of the States, and others. Because of these games, I increased my vocabulary, learned a lot of countries’ flags and where they were located in the world, and all the state capitals – when I took a test on this in elementary school, I got all 50 correct!

Dad thought the competition and good sportsmanship promoted by these games was important, but it was also important to have fun and be fair. Because I was the youngest, my siblings often had an unfair advantage over me, especially in word games. When we played Anagrams, I had a hard time guessing other people’s scrambled words, but they could always guess mine. Once I got really mad about this, and asked my dad if I could find a word in the dictionary. He thought about this and decided it would be fair, since my vocabulary was not as advanced as the others’.

I found an unusual letter – X – and looked for a good, long word. I found one – xanthochroid. No one knew this word or what it meant, but I did, and I remember it to this day! Xanthochroid = a person of fair hair and complexion. This in fact described several people in my family, including myself.

My dad loved the challenge and kinetic aspect of Charades. He was so funny to watch as he acted out various words or parts of words. Somewhat klutzy and not an improvisational actor by nature, he was however, quite a ham! Once he was acting out the word “Christmas” and no one could get it! He divided the word in two and for the first syllable, Christ, he walked slowly and pensively up and down and made a pulling motion under his chin with his fingers, coming together in a V – it was supposed to be Jesus’s beard! For “mas” he tried to imitate a Catholic mass, which he did by waving his arms – I think he was supposed to be the priest holding up his hands or the communion elements, or maybe swinging a cup of incense, I’m not sure! Anyway, no one could figure out what he was doing!

Bad jokes were another hallmark of my father’s personality, and we got used to the groaners he would often tell. We knew when Dad had a new joke to tell because he would get this big grin on his face – he couldn’t wait to tell us! After a particularly bad joke or one my mother considered bad taste, I remember the look on her face – a half-grimace as she tried to suppress a smile or chuckle.

After I married my second husband, also a punster (and far worse taste than my dad’s), his coworkers made a dollar bet that our marriage wouldn’t last for more than six months due to his bad jokes! After six months, they extended it to a year, then they gave up. They didn’t realize that I had grown up with a man who told bad jokes!

Map Folding
There were certain things in life that my dad considered necessary life skills. One of these was learning to swim. Another was driving. It fell primarily to my dad to take each of his kids practice driving. Mom couldn’t do it – she was too nervous. The cars we had to learn on were stick shift because, Dad reasoned, even if we had cars with automatic transmissions, you never knew when you would be in an emergency situation in which the only car available would be a stick shift. Dad had a pragmatic way of thinking.

I remember going to the high school parking lot to practice driving. He would make me practice parallel and lateral parking, every type of turn, parking on hills, and driving up and down hills using a stick shift. He found out how many four-letter words I knew during those sessions, but always remained calm and didn’t scold me for using them. He was very understanding in that way.

When it came time to go for my driving test, my dad’s car had a little problem: it would sometimes stall after slowing down or stopping, but my dad knew what to do – there was a loose connection and it was easily dealt with by opening the hood and wiggling a couple of wires. He showed me how to do this, which I learned to do with some trepidation. Well, of course, it happened during the driving test! I had been parked on a hill, and was pleased with myself because I had not only parked well, but had remembered to turn the wheels toward the curb before stopping. Coming out of the space, the car stalled. I told the examiner I knew what to do – it was just a matter of wiggling a couple of wires, but he wouldn’t let me get out of the car to do this. He told me I needed to take my test in a car that worked properly and flunked me!

Six months later, when I was home from school, I took the test again on a different car (my grandmother’s this time – automatic transmission!) and passed. Having been the passenger for the first 16 years of my life, I was already somewhat adept at being a navigator, reading maps and telling the driver – especially my mother – where to turn. When I was 18, I got full use of my grandmother’s car because she couldn’t drive anymore and I had a summer job that I had to drive to. In my car were an assortment of maps, and it was imperative that I learn another necessary life skill – the art of map folding.

Of course, I had been learning this already, having spent a few car trips with maps spread out on my lap. Dad took it upon himself to show each of us how to get the most use out of a map by folding it carefully, either to display the portion of the map that represented where we were currently traveling to, or to store it neatly in the glove compartment. There were efficient and inefficient ways to do this, and the better you were at it, the longer your map would last before completely falling apart, and the easier it would be to navigate without having to have the map completely open on your lap.

The maps in my father’s glove compartment certainly had had many years of extensive use, and had to be dealt with very carefully to avoid increasing the length of rips along the worn folds. Since his philosophy was, why buy a new one when the old one was still useful, the maps were generally a decade or so old. Even though highways were being expanded, the routes were still the same, and he would sometimes draw in corrections on the maps himself. However, his philosophy would be hard to follow today with new maps being issued every year to keep pace with suburban sprawl and completely new routes being created. Still, I have to say I did successfully pass my father’s course in map folding, even as I now periodically purge old maps from my glove compartment when they become so tightly packed that new ones can no longer fit.

My father died at age 71 when attempts to control his heart fibrillations failed – soon afterwards, new medications and treatments were discovered that allow people to live longer with congestive heart problems. That was in 1988, and I still miss him!

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