October 18, 2011

Dad

My birth certificate says Janet, and I use that as my legal name. If you've known me for more than a minute though, you know I prefer to be called Jan. My father was the only one who could get away with calling me Janet, because he refused to call me anything else. In his hospital room I told my brother I expected to break down in tears the first time anyone called me Janet, once Dad was gone. Shortly after, I overheard my mother in conversation with a sister, calling me Janet. She always calls me Jan to my face, but apparently I'm Janet in conversation. I'm ok with that, because hearing her call me Janet made it ok. Now I can tell people only my Mother is allowed to call me Janet.
Deciding what to say about my Dad was difficult. What exactly is it that defines a man, anyway? Is it his hobbies, his likes and dislikes? I could talk to you for hours about my father’s passion for trains, music, sports, photography, his love of books and of information in general. You can tell by the number of degrees we’ve all accumulated that his children inherited that quest for knowledge.
Do you define a man by the people he surrounds himself with? John Ehrlinger was among other things a husband, a boss, and a friend. He was also a father. Our father. That’s how I knew him, and it’s through that prism I speak about him today.
My father liked to tell stories. The actual truth of the stories didn’t matter so much, as long he had an audience laughing along with him. Dad once told me brown eggs, those were rooster eggs. I believed him well into high school before I thought to say wait a minute… He could make the most mundane event funny. It was all in the delivery. He liked to say he came by it honestly, that his own father had the same tendency of stretching the truth to fit the tale.
He was heavily influenced by his father, or rather by his father’s absence. My Dad’s father left when he was 10. That 10 year old’s pain translated into mine and my siblings’ good fortune. Dad refused to even contemplate divorce while we were growing up, which by the way my mother used to her advantage. When she was really mad at him, she’d say “I want a divorce!” End of argument. 
Because of the hole his father left, my Dad worked hard to be a good father himself. Being a good father meant family trips. Dad would come home early on a Friday to announce we were going camping. I’m pretty sure every trip was a surprise, at least to me. We would scurry off to fill pillow cases with a few changes of clothes, pack the trailer with camping gear, and wait anxiously by the car for what seemed like hours before Mom and Dad finally came out and locked up the house. Dad would make us run up and down and up and down the driveway 6 times to get all our excited energy out, before loading the dog into the tailgate and backing the Pontiac station wagon plus trailer out of the drive.
We drove through mountains. We passed fields full of dragon droppings. We played the license plate game, finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on the license plates of other cars on the road. Our car had the coveted and hard to find Q, so at some point we would have a Chinese fire drill. Dad would pull in to a rest area, everyone would hop out of the car and run around the back yelling Q! Q! Q!, hop in the other side and we were off again. We had campfires and cobbler and ran wild through whatever campground we’d lit upon, before piling it all back into the trailer and station wagon, loading the dog up, and heading home. 
Being a good father meant putting up with a menagerie of pets. We had cats and hamsters and fish and snakes. In the middle of it all, there was always a family dog. His dog. Some of Dad’s favorite stories revolved around the family dog. There was Duke, who was so much a one man dog he dragged me halfway across a campground when my Dad called. It was a long time before I heard the end of that story! Bruce thought he was a 50lb lap dog. Medic knew not to eat food off the table, but there was that one day Dad left his piece of cheese hanging off the edge. He came back to find only half a piece of cheese for his sandwich. Dad would call Mom frequently with stories of HER dog Bronte. He finished phone calls with “we love you.” The we wasn’t he and Mom. It was he and Bronte.
Being a good father meant giving each of his six children individual attention. I remember quiet moments sitting with him on the front porch, sucking one of the Hershey’s chocolate squares he doled out so sparingly, watching the summer storms roll in. 
Being a good father meant teaching us what he knew. Dad was Mr. Fix-it, and from him I learned not to fear any project. He didn’t like heights, but climbed 2 story ladders to paint the house. We all helped with the painting, after he showed us how. First you dip the brush in the can of paint... not too deep now! Scrape it against the side of the can to get the excess off. Then dab, dab, dab into the corners...
Dad remodeled the interior of the house, with our help. In addition to painting, he taught us to lay tile and hang wallpaper. We learned how to use a table saw, and other power tools. Over the past year he taught me to hang and patch drywall, fix ceilings, sand and stain hardwood. He gave me the courage to gut and completely retile my own bathroom. 
I got to know Dad better than I ever had, over this past year. I showed up to work on the house three days a week, usually starting with lunch and a chat. Some days he told me stories about fathering six children, or about his career in computers. Some days we talked about the house and the projects he had planned. Working on the house was like the games of chess he used to play with Mr. Shibly on the front porch… he was always trying to think a few steps ahead.
Dad did not have much of a father figure to draw from, yet he managed to produce 6 children who are strong, independent, successful, and most importantly content. We all rushed to his bedside to show him the love we have for him.
He did not have a model to mirror a lasting relationship on, yet he managed to stay married for almost 50 years. Somehow he figured out not only how to make it work, but how to make it so he and my mother were downright adorable in their love for each other. 
My father knew how to love. He had his faults, as we all do. I don’t know most of the demons that drove him. What I do know is he did the best he could with what he had. I think he did pretty damn good. As his mother would say, good enough.
In the spirit of my Dad’s tall tales, I’d like to share a quote with you. It stretches the truth a bit, but then again so did he.

"Life's journey is not about arriving at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, scotch sour in the other, body used up, totally worn out, saying whoo what a ride!"
video
I love you Dad.

Jan[et]

1 comment:

Brandi @ The Vitamin Bee said...

This was a really beautiful way to honor your father