My sister and I refer to traits from our father as our “tendencies.” Fortunately, many of his were exceptional: dad was funnier than hell; he was well-educated and smart as a whip; he was highly comfortable in social settings, with public speaking and on the phone; he could craft a beautiful, heartfelt letter or a scathing one (and often did); he wasn’t afraid to “git ‘er done”; his work ethic was unsurpassed; and he loved our mother with a passion I wouldn’t begin to understand until later in life. Early on, Dad was a newspaper writer, reporter, and photographer. While he later managed the Chamber of Commerce and earned a Real Estate license, I believe he was a writer at heart.
Dad also possessed other tendencies. On occasion he lashed out, but I’m going to “focus on the good times and try to move past the bad,” as dad once said. Got it. On the lighter side: If dad thought you screwed up, he was the first one to let you know. If you arrived five minutes past the hour you were “late” (and he told you all about it). Our boyfriends? Well…..meeting them hardly mattered. If he didn’t like any one of them for any reason, they were toast. Burned toast. Just try showing up again. Ever. When I left for college he said, “Don’t fall in love with the first guy who puts his hands on you.” Dad! I was horrified, but I got it, and later recalled that pearl when I needed it because it was crass. A method to his madness? You bet. With dad, it took a bit of exploring, a search beneath that exterior–it required setting aside any hurt feelings–to find the point of his message. There was always a message.
Dad was fluent in sarcasm. We both recall hearing “That’s what makes you smart” when we got hurt. Sympathy? Not usually overt, unless, of course, he saw blood or you were about to leave the country. He NEVER told us how to spell a word; instead, we heard, “What does the dictionary say?” Dad was savvy about the working world. “Have you told her to go to hell yet?” he once asked me of a former boss. He could see things. This was his less-than-subtle hint for me to get out. Dad’s gruff exterior sheltered the softer, caring side (and only fooled me for the first half of my life….OK, maybe a little longer).
There was definitely a soft side. I recall one occasion when I was ten. I needed 25 stitches from a bike accident. When dad saw the quarter-sized puncture in my calf, he could not drive to the ER fast enough. Holding both my hands, he distracted and talked with me until the last stitch was sewn. He looked a little green the day I flew to Brazil. I was 17 and had never been on a plane. That my route took us over the Bermuda Triangle was not lost on dad. The soft side was there…albeit covertly.
Dad’s military training shaped his entire being. He was clean cut, well-groomed, orderly, and organized. He paid attention to details. He learned how to watch his back. Growing up in the Depression meant survival: waste nothing, clean your plate, and take care of your belongings. There was no throw it away when it breaks thinking. Whatever broke was repaired and reused, again and again. Things were not thrown away; something might be needed again, someday. They kept everything. Dad’s Navy uniforms from the 50s were found perfectly intact–not a hole, wear mark, or bug in sight, not a hint of mold. Those cotton whites and wool blues had been carefully rolled, wrapped, and stored inside his Navy-issue, canvas gunny sack, for 63 years.
Dad was forever the journalist, taking copious notes for each and every story. I found notebook after notebook after notebook throughout the house. He documented phone calls: the time, the date, with whom and the content, for everything he researched. Long before Internet help, dad compiled his memoir. Photos and stories were organized, arranged, and affixed to heavy paper and protected with plastic covers; each caption had been typed, cut and added individually. The result is a complete documentation of dad’s life–now in several three inch binders. The hours and effort put into this give me pause. That’s how he rolled.
There was spunk and grit, charm and wisdom, yet, he knew how to keep us in line. Dad gave “networking” a whole new meaning. His friendship with our grade school principal was bittersweet: it seemed special knowing he and dad were friends, but it was clear any pranks would not go unpunished (that dad had so informed said principal was not lost on us). Not to mention every single teacher, dad also knew the middle school and high school principals as well as the superintendent. In fact, dad helped hire said Super. This is what happens when your father is on the school board–for several years. We didn’t stand a chance.
Dad had a master’s in Zing, i.e. verbal hardball. He knew how to play, and he usually made his mark before you knew you’d been hit (that would be right between the eyes). He wanted us to think. It’s how he got our attention. We may have had issues with his methods–OK, we did–but they were highly effective. He used other, equally frightening skills to direct our thinking. Dad could multi-task. It started with a very specific look. You didn’t look away. You knew not to. In hindsight, I don’t think it was possible. Once his eyes locked on yours, he had you, and you knew without a doubt dad meant business. Nary a word spoken, via the power of silence, it was time to listen.
Over the years this became known as “The Geier Glare,” and it had a power all its own. It could stop you in your tracks and bring you to your knees. (Look at those eyes up there! Replace the smile with a little growl. Uh, huh.) Also referred to as a family tendency, the glare was perfected, by default, really, by my sister and I. Did we use it on our own children? Damn straight. I mean, yes, we did. All five will confirm. Dad was the type people paid attention to; he had that way about him. He knew how to work the system. Heck, he* created the system–at least at our house.
He knew because that’s what happened back in the day, back when you were raised by your fiercely opinionated, German-speaking grandmother who did not believe in “spoiling the child.” Dad was three when his parents divorced, and that’s when his grandma stepped in. Orah Myrtle Butterfield was dad’s nemesis, his goddess of vengeance. “Iron Maiden” is the term my sister used–and we’re being kind. Dad was frightened of Orah and with good reason, even though a mutual appreciation developed between them over time. Since Orah had significantly more influence on dad’s upbringing than previously realized, I’ll get to Orah in Part Two.
Merle was actually dad’s middle name and the one he used up until his early 20s. It would be horribly remiss of me not to acknowledge him, the huge part he played in my life, his influence on my thinking. I started this web log with the intention of writing simply to write, just for me, but I could never get very far without thoughts of dad. I learned quite a bit from this man, someone who knew a thing or two.
Through example, Dad taught me how to think, to trust my instincts. He taught me about worth, that I am worth it. He showed me how to stand up for what is right, the importance of standing up for myself. He taught me to believe in myself, that I am enough. Dad gets credit for this most important of lessons: when you know in your gut you are right–when you feel it in your bones and to the depth of your deepest cell–never, ever compromise. When you know with absolute certainty, there will be no regrets. Dad wasn’t wrong.
The process of piecing it all together, the learning of what it is that makes you you…for me, that is what I call Finding Merle.
Dad isn’t with us anymore, but he is never far from my thoughts. Many of my “lessons” are associated with dad. I hear his voice. I hear his words. And dang it, every time I smack my finger or bump into something, I hear “That’s what makes you smart.” And I smile.
*I haven’t forgotten mom; she most certainly had her ways. I’m writing a post about her, too.
Reflection: Who left an indelible imprint on your life? Who has made you think? Who is your Merle?
NEXT: Who was Orah Myrtle? The truth, 75 years later. What dad endured but never revealed.
Scheduled April 24, 2015: “That’s What Makes You Smart,” A Tribute to Dad, Part Two.