In the Suburbs / "Reflecting on early life as dad turns 90"
Nearly 66 years ago in August of 1944, my 22-year-old father became a dad for the first time. No one presented him with a Father's Day toolbox telling him how to navigate the rough waters of parenthood. No one warned him that within a year after I was born, he would be in the Navy, fortunately serving in Mississippi and not risking his life on some destroyer off Normandy, the South China Sea or some other location where he would be in harm's way.
Now, nearly 66 years later, I'm trying to wrap my arms around the reality that dad turns 90 in October. I used to think only grandfathers turn 90 and I guess, because dad hardly looks the part, I don't think of him as a grandfather. He's my dad and he'll always be the energetic guy I've always known.
I knew little of what was happening in my infant and toddler world while dad was in the service, but when he returned, we became one of those all-American, post-war families living across from my grandparents in a big old house about a half block from Lake Michigan. Dad was in my life and that was all I needed to know. And you know what? Not much has changed. Selfishly, I don't want him to be old or 90.
Over the 21 years when I was growing up and living at home, my dad was our family cornerstone. He was always a quiet, deliberate man who arrived home, gave mom a big hug and went to the living room to read his newspaper. Maybe that was his way of decompressing after a long day with my grandfather, Al.
My father and my grandfather worked together, first in the woodworking machinery business, later in more sophisticated engineering ventures and eventually in creating Gaynes Testing Laboratories, a very successful package-testing business.
My grandfather, who was a genius, invented more things and businesses than I can remember and was the creative force behind the package-testing equipment that forged their laboratories in the mid-'50s. He never stopped being creative, even after he retired, and remained active until his death at 92.
Every morning during the early years I was growing up, Grandpa backed the car (we shared two cars among two families then) down the driveway, drove up in front of our house, got out and dad continued the drive down to what we affectionately called "the place."
My favorite times were school vacations when dad brought me to "the place" and I helped my dad and later my mom with filing, organizing catalog sheets and some limited typing. I liked being at "the place" and it was nice to be where dad was. I never really articulated that to him, but in his own way, he created the model, the work ethic and the example I tried to follow.
I like to joke with my family that I was the kid who was in dad's drive-only period. When dad took me on business trips to exciting places like Rockford, Ill.; Columbus, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Ind., and later to a slightly more exotic place -- Minneapolis -- we drove. The car wasn't air-conditioned, the days were generally hot and sticky, there were numerous two-lane roads and there wasn't much scenery except the Burma Shave signs along the highway. Anyone remember those?
But I so appreciated that my dad wanted to take me along on a business trip. When dad wasn't too tired from driving, we'd generally take in a funny movie and his raucous laughter definitely made the evening memorable. I guess you could say that he "cackled."
When I was in high school, we took a trip to Minneapolis and I talked him into tickets for The Guthrie Theater. Dad tried to be a good sport, but Henry IV in Minneapolis or anywhere just wasn't his cup of tea. I was studying Shakespeare in high school and really wanted to see a play. When I glanced over at dad, I wasn't sure whether he was grimacing in pain or polite agony. Thanks for being a good sport, dad.
My biggest regret was that I just wasn't the athlete I thought my father wanted me to be. He had been a star basketball center at Marshall High School in Chicago and I aspired to be something, but I couldn't cut it.
He never complained, but I knew those seemingly endless Sunday afternoons playing catch with a softball or football (I did better with that ball) were somehow a way to work out his frustrations. He coached me as best he could, but there was something missing -- my athletic ability.
I never really got any better. The saddest thing for me was trying out for the neighborhood football team. I had already become a little porker -- nearly 200 pounds at 13. Mom had taken me shopping for the uniform, shoulder pads, helmet and other football gear. And they both beamed when I put the uniform on and waddled off to try out. Again, dad never criticized me when I didn't make the team, but somehow I believed he was disappointed. A child simply doesn't forget those moments.
Ironically, both my brothers enjoyed sports much more than I did but they never went on to become great athletes either. That was some consolation but not much.
One of my father's greatest gifts has been that he never pushed me into his business. He wanted me to choose what I wanted to do and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that always worked with his dad. A lot of people, many of my relatives included, would have said that my father was throwing away his business by not having us come into it.
I honestly tried to enjoy making cold calls and standing in front of various testing machines, but that kind of work just wasn't for me. And I greatly appreciated that my father was all right with my becoming a teacher. Occasionally, he'd say quietly that he wondered how I was making a living, but he never tried to talk me out of teaching or public relations.
He has remained my rock and my cornerstone and has to this day. There are countless stories I could tell about the past 45 years, life with our children and the practical lessons dad taught me about being doing the best you can with the tools you're given.
He has cheered for my successes and buoyed me up when I've felt like a failure, especially in the past two years of this economic slump. But he has never stopped being there for me and I love him that much more for it.
As he approaches this very special milestone in his life, where we can all be together to celebrate, I know that my dad will do so with the same kind of quiet modesty and dignity he has always shown.
I can only hope that, if I reach this milestone, I can be half the man my father is and has always been. I love you dad. Here's to the most special Father's Day in your long, wonderful life.
Steven Gaynes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.