In the few spare moments when I am not scolding my cat, “Symon Francis O’Toole” for gnawing on our couch or sticking his tongue in the toaster, I teach dance fitness for Jazzercise.
The past couple weeks I’ve opened my classes with a song called “Leader of the Band,” written by the artist (once again) known as Prince and his former love Sheila E. The song is a tribute to her father, percussionist Pete Escovedo.
It’s a fun, rousing number with lots of bongos and congas and, as it ends, Sheila E. laughs and lovingly says: “I learned that from my Daddy. I love you, Pops!”
My own father died five years ago tonight, lingering just an hour or so after his hospice nurse told me it was safe to go get some rest because “tomorrow may be a long day.”
He’d lifted his eyebrows at me in response to my: “I can be back here in 10 minutes if you need me Daddy-O.” That eyebrow waggle was the only movement he’d made in three days. I believe he was telling me to leave because this was the one journey I couldn’t take with him.
I’d taken lots though. I’d ridden with my father on his tractors and in his trucks and on the back of his little Suzuki 90 motorbike. My favorite ride was on his Bolen’s Husky snowmobile. He bought the machine on a whim with part of the $1,000 he won for an idea he’d placed in the “Suggestion Box” at the Oldsmobile plant where he worked.
My parents were always financially cautious people, so such a grand and impulsive decision was shocking. I stood beside my mother as he told us what he’d done, stopping after work to make the purchase before he’d even come home. His eyes were joyful.
I’m not sure what she wanted to say, but eventually Mom just nodded and smiled and said: “I told you your suggestion was a good idea.”
Stunned, I went to call a friend to tell her the fabulous news thinking that if this could happen in life it was entirely possible that anything could.
While my Dad mostly read our hometown newspaper or his Knights of Columbus or Lion’s Club magazines, my Mom was enamored of the Spencer Gifts catalog, always threatening to buy some trinket or other. The only thing she ever purchased was for Dad: a nose-hair trimmer.
The trimmer was a small silver cylinder with a blade inside. The idea was to insert the little device in your nostril, turn the end and . . . viola, your disgusting, unsightly nose hairs would disappear down the tube.
I was in the living room watching our new Quasar TV when the screaming began and Dad rushed down the hall in our three bedroom ranch yelling: “Dammit Millie! How the hell are you supposed to use this thing?”
He’d gotten the “insert in nostril” part right, but must have twisted the tube too vigorously. Instead of getting a nice, clean trim the hair became entangled in the blades and the device was dangling, painfully, from his nose.
Despite what he always said when he shared that story, I know Mom would have been happy to help him if she could have stopped laughing.
My father was a natural athlete so he must have felt odd having a child who had not one ounce of competitive spirit. Still, he hung an ancient basketball hoop on the door of our granary and the two of us would sometimes play games of P.I.G. on summer nights.
Once he also created a makeshift chin-up bar from a piece of old pipe and hung it in the gap between the granary and the barn.
The impetus for the bar was the annual “Presidential Physical Fitness Test,” otherwise known to every chubby, gawky and uncoordinated kid in America as “Hell Week.”
Back in the ‘70s girls didn’t need to do actual chin-ups. Instead we simply had to hold ourselves above the bar without dropping for several seconds. For me, it may as well have been an hour.
My long-suffering gym teacher would hoist us until our chins were above the bar then back quickly away. Some girls essentially hung there looking bored waiting until the necessary time had passed then dropping elegantly to the gym floor. Others quivered and shook, slowly losing control and sinking down. Since I had no muscle to engage, there was no discernible difference from my trip up and down, it was one clean move without even a hitch at the top. Some years my teacher tried twice, but she never tried three times.
So Dad built the bar and worked with me a little each day and I eventually was able to stay on top for just a few seconds . . . which would be a great story and a wonderful ending, except only the first part is true. Dad did work with me but I was never able to master the skill. And the only part of any of this that is important is: “Dad built the bar.”
He probably guessed I would not be successful, because he could tell I really didn’t care and wouldn’t put forth the effort. But, as in all other aspects of his life, if there was anything that could be done to help someone, the outcome was hardly the point. It was the effort that mattered.
One of the things I admired most about this man I loved so dearly was his singing voice. It was clear and melodious and true. On car trips he would sing “The Old Grey Mare” “Oh Johnny” and, my favorite “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”
His voice was impressive to everyone who heard it, even more so because he had endured a speech impediment following a case of Scarlett Fever when he was a child. He spoke with a significant stutter for most of his adult life, which, ironically, all but disappeared as he aged, developed Parkinson’s Disease and the rest of his body became shaky.
The other day I was teaching “Leader of the Band” and I missed a cue to my students because I was thinking about all the things I could say I learned from my father. Besides his lifelong lessons in kindness, generosity and selflessness, I narrowed it down to this . . .
Every so often it is just fine to make a grand gesture. Take pride in what you have accomplished and understand it is OK to be just as kind to yourself as you are to others.
It’s absolutely fine to spend time on things that may not be successful at the time. Weak little girls may one day remember your lessons and learn to take pride in their strength, even if it never wins presidential approval.
None of us is perfect. You may as well sing.
And finally, for goodness sake, if you need your nose hair trimmed, visit a professional.
Love you Pops.