Friday, June 17, 2011

Father's Day

This coming Sunday as we all know is Father's Day - a big holiday, at least in this country. Not quite as high on the scale -or so the media says -as Mother's Day -but a big one, at least for many people none the less.

It's also a holiday I never had the opportunity to celebrate with my Dad and a day that was often a bit empty for my kids too.

Why? Well, for openers -for me -it was because I never knew my Dad. He died of cancer 17 days after I was born and had seen me one time -when I was 10 days old. For my kids, it was because their Dad and I divorced when our children were ages 12, 6 and 3 and he moved around a lot after that -eventually settling out in Nevada -which is a mere 2,000 plus miles away so visiting him, developing a strong relationship with their Dad when they were growing up was a very difficult thing for them to do.

The fact that until my younger daughter was a senior in high school he was still drinking -very heavily -figured a lot into that relationship building thing too.

It's pretty hard to find common, pleasant ground for conversations on the telephone, to get to know and be able to respect and really care for someone, who isn't exactly lucid during those times and whose telephone calls to the kids back then were few and far in between them too!

Thankfully though, he did finally get sober and since then, he does try now and again to have a bit more contact with the kids. We do joke about the phone calls to and from him though because he's not one who is prone to making a lot of calls and when he does talk to the kids, they time the conversation. Any phone call to or from Dad that lasts over seven minutes is considered to be something unique -a bit of a record breaker the one time that he talked for a little over ten minutes to Mandy!

But at least they talk to each other and that's the important thing, isn't it? Regardless of whether it's a really short call or the "normal" length of seven minutes or a record breaking ten minutes of chit-chat, it's the reaching out and touching thing -that's what it's all about.

At least, they know a lot more about him, who he really is, what he likes, what he thinks about and what he's done, what he's doing too with his life today.

They know too a lot about his little quirks from these calls as well as from stories I have told them over the years too about what their Dad is like -or was like, when we first got married, or when each of the kids came along or well, lots of other things about him, as well as his siblings and his parents too.

I wanted my kids to know their Dad in a way that would help them to understand more about themselves -who each of them is and a bit about why they are how they are today.

Things I never knew when I was growing nor did I know these things throughout my adult life either until about 10 years or so ago.

As a child, my Mom and I lived with her parents and though I knew most of my Dad's family -or at least some of them (the ones who lived fairly near to us anyway), I knew my Mom's family much, much better. For that matter, to this day I still know my Mom's family much better than I do my Dad's. But that's pretty understandable that I would have that connection to them that is stronger than the one with my Dad's family.

As a child -even a fairly young child of six or seven -I began having these feelings that there was some part of me that was incomplete -missing, ya know. Well, yes sure there was and I knew what it was too -it was my Dad. But what the heck was I ever going to be able to do about that anyway? Nothing, absolutely nothing -or so it seemed to me.

I remember often asking my Mom questions about him -what was he like, what did he like and the regular things I suppose all kids tend to ask about a parent who is absent. But maybe I didn't know how to word my questions to her in a way that would have prompted her to give me the information I needed because all she ever really said about him was to tell me what he looked like -his build, his physique, eye color, hair color -a physical description that was nice to know, sure, but I wanted to know who he was, deep inside, the things he thought about, the things he liked or disliked, the things he would enjoy doing. I wanted to know the inner workings of this man who provided half of my genetic structure so I could know then if I was like him in any way at all -on the inside, that is.

I knew he was -at 5'8" -the tallest of his family -of the nine children his parents had brought into this world. I always kind of felt like a giant around my Dad's brothers and sisters because I was taller than they were. I think the tallest of my uncles was around 5'4" and my aunts -oh my -all three of them were very, very petite! My oldest aunt was 4'9" and my youngest aunt, was 5'1 with the other aunt, about 5 foot even! I towered over them at 5'6" and my body structure was more like my Mom's family -kind of bigger boned, sturdy Scandinavian stereotypical but a brunette, not a blonde.

I was often told as a child that I had my Dad's eyes -or the Hill's blue eyes -and that always made me feel a bit better but more than that, the fact that I knew from the few photos I had seen of my Dad that I had also inherited what was a really good thing and that was the Hill nose! (The noses on many relatives on my Mom's side of the family was often something that was joked about -as well as the ears too -as both of those things often had a tendency to be a bit large, not as nicely shaped as was the nose on my Dad's side of the family!)

But knowing those things still wasn't enough to satisfy me, to give me the sense of self that I know now that it was I was looking to find when I asked these questions about my Dad.

As an adult, I kind of gave up on trying to "find myself" by knowing more about my Dad and his family -or at least, I gave up on asking questions that might give me that knowledge from my Mom. So I then turned to my Dad's youngest sister and began -after Mom died and the urge to learn more about myself became strong once more within me -to see if she could or would shed more light on my Dad for me.

However, she couldn't seem to grasp the concept of the things I wanted to know about him either and as a result, she generally told me the same things or very similar bits and pieces about him that Mom had always told me. She did however always add one more thing to the mix and that was "Your Dad was a wonderful man!"

Well, I am very happy to have learned that, certainly -and it is sort of helpful -but well, close but no cigar there too, if you know what I mean.

Then I began trying to learn more about my ancestry by researching family trees on both sides of my family -eventually I even started researching four trees -two on my Mom's side and two on my Dad's side. That move, which really fascinated me, did just the opposite though when my youngest aunt on his side found out I was doing this.

She just saw no usefulness whatsoever in, as she put it, "Looking for the names of a bunch of dead people!"

I, on the other hand, with each bit and piece I managed to cobble together about my Grammie Hill's side -the Nelson's -or my Grandfather's family way out west in Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and even up in Alberta, Canada -felt like a hole deep inside of me was suddenly being filled.

One day, a cousin I had "found" via an online ancestry search site shared a picture she had recently received of my Grammie's father -my Great-Grandfather, Alex Nelson from Scotland -and as I looked at that photo of this man -born in 1849 -died in 1919 -and saw what a very handsome man he'd been and could see in him a likeness my Dad had of him too -I sat staring at my computer screen with tears streaming down my cheeks!

Eventually, I learned a few other things about that great-grandfather too. That he was a coal miner I'd already known -but then again, so was most every other man of that era in this region -but I found out via a 2nd cousin of my Dad's that this ancestor played the fiddle and that my Grammie played piano and/or an old pump organ -and that the two of them often were asked to provide the music for dances held to raise a little money to be given to miners and their families during some of the strikes in the coal mines that put people in some terrible financial binds until things would finally be resolved. The cousin who told me about that said that Grandpa Nelson would fiddle away at these dances all for the payment of a bottle of whiskey to enjoy while entertaining the troops, as it were.

I learned both my Great-grandfathers on my Dad's side of the family were twice married and had a family with each wife and that each of them ended up having 12-14 children that way too!

I learned that my Great-Grandmother Hill had died in Illinois -in a place called East Morris in Grundy County -and she died as a result of having been hit by a train! Can you imagine that? A train? At the time of her death, she and my Great-grandfather had six children -the youngest being four years of age and the oldest -my grandfather -was 15 years old. Six months later, my Great-Grandfather married again -a widow, from the same area in Scotland as he and my great-grandmother had been born. Great-Grandpa Hill went on to have six more children by his second wife.

At the time when my Great-grandmother Nelson died, she and Grandpa Nelson had five young children. He, like my other great-grandfather, also apparently wrote back to someone in Scotland and by the sound of things, apparently had a lady from his hometown come here within the year after his wife's passing. They married and had nine children giving him the grand total of 14 offspring.

Yep! Those Scots were a bit of a prolific bunch now weren't they?

Through some good fortune of online research, I lucked out and found cousins also researching both of the branches of my Dad's family -one who had been researching the Hill family roots for over 13 years and had documentation up one side and down the other about family members I never would have been able to uncover on my own since that branch of the family -all except for my Grandfather Hill -lived out in Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, Canada and Arizona with more than a few now living in lots of other western states now too!

Getting the various bits and pieces about my ancestry gave me more and more information on what these people had been like and that, in turn, also gave me more knowledge about my Dad that way too.

Because of that emptiness I had often experienced throughout my life, it all didn't really finally come together for me until around 2000, I met -for the first time -one of my oldest uncle's daughters and in talking to her, she understood what it was that I wanted to know about my Dad -what he was like as a person, ya know -and she talked to me at our Aunt's home -the old homestead of my Dad and hers -about what she remembered about how my Dad was when he was around her and her 9 siblings! Telling me how he would often show up at their house when they were youngsters on Christmas Eve, helping her Mom and Dad get things ready for Christmas celebrating and also, insisting that the kids -she and her siblings at that time -be awakened and brought downstairs because the excitement inside him -my Dad -was so strong that he insisted the kids be allowed to be up and given gifts then and there!

It's nothing big and earth-shattering to hear this little story about him and his ways, but it still opened the information highway for me and gave me a little more insight into what he loved to do and that was to enjoy time with his nieces and nephews! That he loved to tease them -just as their own Dad liked to do too. Little things that he and her Dad had in common brought my Dad to life for me -finally!

And to think it took me almost sixty years but finally, I had a better sense of who he was and what gifts I'd been given by him in the way of family traits -beside my blue eyes and not too large a nose!

And now, when I have a chance, I find myself drawn more and more to my cousins on that side of my family tree because there are things about them, their actions, activities, likes, dislikes, and such, that are more like mine than are some things I've known all my life about family on my Mom's side.

And for me, it does make me feel a lot more like a completed person -finally!

I'll close this post now with a picture I received about a year ago from a cousin -one of the few Hill cousins I actually knew as I was growing up -and it is of my Dad, holding that cousin who was about six months old at the time. This was taken roughly six months before I was born, six months before my Dad died, and it is a picture that to me, as I look at the man in this old black and white photo, I feel like I can through the smile on his face, see the sparkle in his eyes and the happiness he experienced as he held this little niece of his and through that, I can know more maybe than words can ever tell me about my Dad.

I look at this snapshot and I also see so many ways that my son looks very much like his grandfather. And that too, is another source that makes me feel a little bit closer then to my Dad in the process.

All of this doesn't mend the fact that I never knew him the way I wish it would have been, but it does bring me just that much closer to knowing what he was about anyway.

And maybe, just maybe, it also explains a bit about why I am the sentimental slob that I am too!


terri said...

Though I've known for almost as long as I've been reading your blog that you never knew your dad, it never really occurred to me til now what a gaping hole that had left in your life. No wonder you are so invested in the family tree stuff. I'm so glad it has led you to family members and a better understanding of who your dad was!

Rick Gleason said...

You and I have our fathers in common as I also never knew mine. He died of kidney failure when I was two.

I really liked the photo of your dad in this entry and I'm sure it's a treasure for you.