Who the Other Me Would Be

I used to dread anniversaries such as this, the anniversary of that stormy, frantic, gray day that dad died. Each anniversary reminded me of everything I lost when he left. A piece of me went with him, and it’s one I would never get back. That day, my ten-year-old life was forever changed, my childhood cut short by this tragedy and it transformed me as a girl, and continues to affect me as an adult. I know that, without my dad’s influence, and had I not experienced that loss, I am not even the same person that I would have been if my dad had lived into my adulthood.

I try not to get lost wondering who that other me would be.

I notice that when I talk to people who’ve also lost a parent as a young age, many describe it as a hole in your heart that will never completely heal. As a daughter losing her father, I also lost the one person who could provide unconditional love, or at least it felt that way.

Robert Frost said “You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.” If this quote had been written by a woman, I think it would have said the exact opposite. Daughters don’t have to deserve their fathers’ love, but they do have to deserve their mothers’. Fathers dote on their daughters and love them unconditionally, whereas mothers are often tougher on their daughters. Frost also said “The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” If Frost had written that same quote about daughters, I think it too would have been reversed.

My father, like many fathers of daughters, was the one who would build me up. If I scribbled a doodle on a piece of paper, he would tell me I could be a famous artist or cartoonist…. (after mom told me I should have colored within the lines.) When I read him a poem I wrote at school, he would tell me to keep it for the book I’d write one day when I’m a famous author. (Mom was sure to point out the words I misspelled.)  When I swam the length of the pool for the first time without touching the bottom, he was waiting there with open arms and a dry towel, and would take me for ice cream afterwards to celebrate the beginning of my Olympic swimming career. (While mom was sure to remind me that I wasn’t the first one to reach the wall and therefore needed to practice harder and swim faster next time.) As a couple, mom and dad were probably as close as could be to the perfect balance, a yin and yang of parenting. After Dad died, however, there was a lot of “down” and not a lot of “up”.

Every anniversary, (and on just about every other day of the year) I used to think about all the ways my life may have been different if my dad had lived longer. I would have had more self-confidence. I would have accomplished more with him there to encourage me that I could be anyone or do anything. I’d have someone there to lift me up, to protect me, to guide me through situations that no one else could. He could have kept my boyfriends in line. He might have even bought me a pony!  I may have gone to Harvard and been a doctor!  Who knows all the wonderful things that could have happened had he not been taken so soon, in the rain, with a gasp, in 1982. The possibilities are endless! …which is exactly why I had to stop thinking about them.

It wasn’t until many many years later that I was able to realize it, but focusing on what could have been was paralyzing me, and keeping me from finding out what could be with what I did have. Sure, my life was different because my dad died, and would have been a lot better in many ways if he had lived. But my life also would have been different if I’d had childhood cancer, or if I was born into poverty, or if I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. Not all my circumstances were bad; I was still very fortunate in many ways.

“When we can no longer change our circumstances, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl

On anniversaries such as today, I now try to think about what I gained by having my dad, even if it was just for a short time. I even started thinking “for” him, and not “of” him. “What would Dad tell me to do in this situation?” He would tell me to GO FOR IT. So I did!  And a lot of exciting things started to happen when I finally was able to think this way.

It’s not easy. And it’s not fun losing a parent. But it is just another (very bad) circumstance to work around and overcome. If I hadn’t lost my father, I wouldn’t be who I am today. A few years ago I thought that was a bad thing. Who would that other me be, if my dad had lived?  I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s okay. But I do know she wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I am, and she may not even be any happier or better off than me. Who knows, she may even be in a worse place than me. If everything was given to her too easily, perhaps she would never have been able to be truly happy. Not having experienced real loss early in life, and surviving it, maybe she wouldn’t really appreciate the good, simple things in her life.

Whether you are dealing with the loss of one parent, or both parents, or some other tough situation, you can grow above it if you can stop asking yourself “What if?” and start asking yourself “What now!?

“If nothing ever changed…there’d be no butterflies.”Unknown

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A Very Difficult Answer for a Simple Question

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“How did your mom die?”

It’s a simple question…. If only I had a simple answer.

What I wish I could say: “Well, first she stopped breathing I guess, then her heart stopped, then she was dead.”

But I know that’s not the type of information people are seeking, when they ask how my mom died. They are inquiring about the cause of death, which is a natural curiosity I suppose. But the question still makes me a bit uneasy.

Over the past eight years, I’ve tried to answer that question diplomatically. It usually ends up sounding something like this:

“She had diabetes, and she didn’t take care of herself.The doctor said she had many ‘co-morbidities’ in addition to the diabetes, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and other various issues…she didn’t watch her diet, or blood sugar, or exercise… and finally her body just couldn’t function anymore.”

The above is true, but as my mother herself would have said, it is technically a “lie of omission”, not the whole truth.

And here I’ve continued, for eight years and counting, to tell various versions of the truth, in hopes of avoiding judgment, the awkwardness, and the humiliation of stating a simple fact, as basic as how my mother died.

How much am I required to tell about her manner of death, to be considered truthful? Is it really anyone else’s business, after all? Probably not. However, it’s almost more uncomfortable to try to avoid the question, than to just answer it. How long should I try to protect my mom’s legacy, when she wouldn’t even protect her own legacy, or even her own life?

I don’t blame people for asking how my mom died. I know, that when people ask, most are just trying to help, to empathize, relate, commiserate, even offer support. I know, because I ask the same question of others too, not meaning any harm or hurt by inquiring.

When people ask, they expect me to reply by naming a clear-cut, unavoidable condition that claimed my mom as its victim, after which the inquirer can sympathize, or empathize, and then relate a personal story about a loved one whose life was also tragically extinguished by cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, or, like my dad, a sudden heart attack. But Mom was not a victim of any of those things.

In revealing to others how my mom died, I’m also revealing how she lived — or existed — in her final years.

She, of course, is no longer here to feel the humiliation, the shame, or the guilt about her condition. She left us behind, to feel all of those things, on her behalf.

My mom did, in fact, die of an actual, clinical disease. It says so on her death certificate, and an M.D. signed off on it.

But it feels as though my mom died of bad habits and poor choices. Choices she made over her own spouse, her son, three daughters, and seven grandchildren, and countless friends and relatives.

I’m sure there are people who saw Mom in her final years, who figured out what was happening, even though no one discussed it openly.

For those who only saw our mom periodically, her problem may have initially been well hidden by her twinkling blue eyes, her broad, dimpled smile, her infectious, boisterous laugh, sparkling jewelry, and bright dresses.

Later, as the twinkle in her eyes gave way to a watery haze, her distinctive laugh became a gravelly grumble, and her brisk pace replaced by a wobbly stagger, people could surely see the truth with their own eyes.

A few weeks before Mom died, we were sitting in the neighborhood restaurant where she was a “regular”. She was trying to eat dinner, but really couldn’t stomach much food anymore. Her weight had plummeted. All the parts of her body that used to be plump and puffy, were now gaunt, bony, and sunken, except for her stomach. Her abdomen was greatly distended and bloated. Like some grotesque freak of nature, my once beautiful mother now resembled how one might imagine a very frail, elderly, pregnant woman would look, if there were such a person.

A family friend passed by our table on her way out the door of the restaurant, and gasped at the sight of Mom, as she was clearly very ill. The friend, “Joan”, didn’t try to hide her shock or curiosity. In her demonstrative, Southern way, she draped her arms dramatically around mom’s shoulders as she tried to make sense of mom’s appearance. Joan leaned over and put her face right up to mom’s and asked her: what “on Earth” is wrong?

Mom said “I’m sick….it’s not good. And I’m not getting better.”

Joan, the wife of a physician, said “Well, I mean, Sue, what is it? Is it cancer? Good heavens! Can’t the doctors do ANYTHING?”

“No, it’s not cancer…”, mom said. And I don’t really remember what Mom said after that. I think she said the doctors weren’t sure what it was. And then she changed the subject. Joan graciously went along with the new topic of conversation.

Sometimes, I too have tried to change the subject when asked how Mom died. But changing the subject can never change what is printed on her death certificate.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”  James A. Garfield

I will never forget the first time I saw those words, the cause of death, typed so matter-of-factly in seemingly huge bold letters. There was no more denying it. It was as if, from the grave, Mom was finally owning up to her illness, like a defiant child, caught red-handed, and forced to own up to her behavior. I could almost hear her angrily shouting the words out loud to me as my eyes scanned them on the paper:

“Cause of Death: ALCOHOLIC LIVER DISEASE.”

It hurt my eyes to read those words, and it hurt my heart to reflect on the past few months, and years. The very thing that my mom had tried desperately to conceal, was now emblazoned on an official and public government document for all posterity.

By refusing to say those three words, “alcoholic liver disease”, out loud to anyone else for all these years, I thought I could pretend they didn’t exist on that paper, and perhaps even spare myself some embarrassment. But keeping the secret doesn’t make it go away. In fact, I think I gave it more power. I’ve been weighed down, nearly paralyzed at times by its gravity.

With the truth, and hopefully acceptance, maybe I can start to breathe again.

Yesterday, a friend asked me how my mom died. Once again, I started into my standard spiel about co-morbidities, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. My friend looked at me, confused by my ramblings. So I took a deep breath, and then said,  “…the bottom line is, her death certificate says ‘alcoholic liver disease’.”

And with that, the conversation ended. Not surprisingly, my friend picks a new topic. Instead of confusion, my truthful answer prompts that awkwardness I’ve been trying to avoid, but it’s fleeting. And the brief moment of awkwardness was actually not as bad as it has felt to deceptively dance around the truth all these years.

I feel lighter.

One burden lifted, even as my heart still breaks. The denial is gone, but guilt remains. Now I’m just left to wonder: what could I have done differently? How could I have created a less ugly outcome to a beautiful life of an admittedly flawed, but very gifted and loved woman? If only somehow we could have helped her realize, and appreciate, that she had so many reasons not to die of ALD.

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Who My Father Was

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“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

 — Anne Sexton

I came across the above quote by a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and poet, and I beg to differ, with all due respect, if I may, as a non-Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

It does matter who my father was. I’ve spent many years wondering who he was. Since my dad didn’t live to see my 11th birthday, my memories of him are limited. I didn’t know who he was as a person, as most people typically get to know their parents from an adult perspective. Not many ten year old girls see their father as anything other than a superhero. I remember my dad as cheerleader, back-scratcher, breakfast cooker, bug squisher. He was bedtime story-reading, tune-whistling, bow-tie wearing, cartoon-watching dad. He was surprise-puppy-hiding, firefly-catching, funny-voice-talking goofy dad. Riddle-telling, cartoon-watching, church-going, Hungarian-speaking, clock-collecting, silly song-singing dad.

That’s about the extent of my memories of my Dad. And for many years I was content to remember him that way, through the eyes of a very young girl. But as I grew older, I longed to know more about him as a person, especially because so many people have told me over the years what a good man he was. Usually described as the “life of the party”, his sense of humor is often recalled as people talk about him, as well as his genuine kindness and caring for other people, and his steadfast Catholic faith. Older family members often tell me about his love for me, that I was the apple of his eye, the youngest of his four kids.

I don’t know how true the things are that people have told me over the years about my father. But I hope that they are mostly the truth, because it is comforting to hear that the man I naturally idolized and viewed as one of the greatest people in the world, was also special to other people in his life, such as friends, colleagues, and fellow parishioners.

Hopefully people haven’t just said nice things to me about my dad out of pity or sympathy. I’d like to think that their sentiments are sincere, and their memories are real. Unfortunately, because he’s been gone for so long, it’s not very often I’m around people who knew my dad at all. But, occasionally when I run into an old neighbor, or someone from our church, they’ll share a memory about my dad and how he touched their lives in some way. And I can’t even describe in words how much I appreciate it. Not because it’s a compliment, but because it’s a glimpse into an important part of me that was abruptly taken away and has been missing for almost 30 years.

If you lose a parent when you are still a child, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about not only who your parent was, but also who you are and where you came from. When people can help fill in some of those blank spaces, it really helps you to feel closer to your parent even if many years have passed.

So I would have to add one more caveat to Ms. Sexton’s statement, that especially applies to those of us who lost a parent when we were children:

“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was…and who others remember he was.” — A.S.

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A Lifetime of Lessons in Ten Years

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‘Death Benefits’ – When Tears of Grief Give Way to Sighs of Relief

“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”

But you didn’t hear that from me.

Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of “Death Benefits,” arrives at this unexpected conclusion in her autobiographical book about becoming an adult orphan at age 57.

I became an adult orphan at 32. Had I read Safer’s findings more than eight years ago, before I was “orphaned,” myself I’d have probably thought her sentiment to be preposterous, unimaginable, and even cold. But today, having been an adult orphan for more than eight years, not only am I unfazed by her sentiment, I can relate to it.

Do I miss my parents? I do…so much, it hurts at times.

Do I wish they were still alive? Absolutely.

Has my life improved in some ways since I became parent-less? In some ways, yes.

“Death benefits” happened to me.

Many of the thoughts and feelings I experienced after losing my last surviving parent were overwhelmingly confusing. Some of the feelings concerned me so much, I was afraid to voice them at all, even to my own siblings. In search of answers, I recently turned to the all-knowing omnipotence of Google, searched “adult orphan” and this LA Times article appeared on my screen. Much of the article read like the story of my past eight years of life, since becoming an ‘adult orphan’.

I even wondered if perhaps my own parents had somehow sent the article to me from beyond, as if to say “it’s okay to feel this way.” As soon as I could I downloaded the book and eagerly read account after account of people who have experienced parent-less-ness.

From tears of grief, to sigh of relief…

Thanks to Safer, her book, and this article, I no longer have to feel guilty and isolated about the thoughts and feelings I’ve been ashamed to admit:

Becoming parent-less was incredibly terrifying, traumatizing, and amazingly liberating, all at the same time.

After my mom died in 2004, intense, painful grief consumed me for several years. However, after a few more years, some very unexpected feelings began to surface. For years I struggled with the mixed emotions. There must be something severely wrong with me…  How can it possibly be normal to feel anything but sorrow and grief after your parents die?  How can you actually feel better in some ways, after your beloved parents are gone?

I wondered if I was having these feelings only because of the unique, imperfect, sometimes conflicted relationship I had with my mother. It was not easy to be the daughter of a devout Catholic, clinically depressed, widow with alcoholic tendencies. Safer, the author of Death Benefits, also admits to a conflicted relationship with her mother. However, her book also includes interviews with nearly 100 other adult orphans, each of whom describes a variety of ways his or her life improved after being orphaned.

Like all of us flawed humans, my parents weren’t perfect; they had their issues and faults. But they were basically good people who sacrificed a lot for their kids. And, they’re the only parents I’ve ever had. They brought me into this world. I owe them my very existence.

There is no reason for me to be glad they are gone. (And I’m not.) So why can’t I shake this feeling, that in some ways, my life is a little better somehow, without any parents?

Could it be that the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me, could also be one of the best things to happen to me? Not only were my emotions and my experience normal, apparently they are perfectly natural, according to the book’s author and other experts interviewed for the LA Times:.

“Adult children, having seemingly established their independence, were long thought to absorb the expected blow [of losing their parents] and move on to tend to relationships with the living. Safer’s book, however, comes amid an evolving view of this adult milestone. Increasingly, research psychologists and those in clinical practice see the loss of elderly parents as an event that not only touches off an emotional reaction that is real and long-lasting…” “The death of a parent — any parent — can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves. Nothing else in adult life has so much unrecognized potential to help us become more fulfilled human beings — wiser, more mature, more open, less afraid.”  — Jeanne Safer

Maybe I’m not such a horrible person, after all. Maybe I really don’t have a heart made of cold hard stone. Maybe I’m just a “normal” adult orphan.

Seven year itch.

For me, a shift in my attitude and emotions happened about seven years after becoming parentless, which is a common time frame, according to studies cited in the LA Times article. It was then when I truly started to feel differently about everything, almost overnight. After seven years of grieving my mother’s passing, and after what seemed like a lifetime trying to make sense of my dad’s death during my childhood, I just wanted to live my life, for once. For the first time ever, at age 40, I felt like my life was my own. Not my mom’s, not my dad’s, not my brother’s or sisters’. I just wanted to move on, hold on, and live, as much as possible, like never before.

In contrast, those first several years after losing a parent, especially the last surviving parent, are extremely trying. Some studies have shown that during those initial years, it’s common for adult survivors of a parent’s passing to be very depressed and adopt bad, destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking, overeating, and other recklessness. But then, the self-destructive emotions gradually turn into productive thoughts:

“…With their parents gone, many adults keenly sense that they are ‘next in line’ for decline, disability and demise. That often concentrates the mind on what’s right, and wrong, in their lives — what traits and behaviors have served them well and which would better be abandoned.”

“I’m next.” 

Certainly, with my parents now gone, I’m the next to go,” I’d fear. So why not take that extra drink, or eat that extra dessert? Why bother exercising? Why bother with anything, really? What does it matter?

“I’m next.”

For years, the thought continued to gnaw at me. I wasn’t getting any younger. But eventually, after the passage of much time, the same fear that made me give up, later made me want to take better care. I finally decided it was time to make some drastic changes, so I did.

Today, eight years into orphan-hood, it’s not about being next in line to die. I now realize I’m next in line to live. It’s my turn, at last. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I don’t have time to wonder what my life would be like if my parents were alive today … I have my own life to live, after all.

Is losing your parents the “best thing that ever happens to you,” as Safer concluded? I don’t know that I’d go that far in describing the upside of becoming parent-less. However, depending on your circumstances, there are some aspects of life as an adult orphan that will improve more than you’ll ever want to admit, until long after you experience it yourself.  I hope you don’t become parent-less any time soon, as the ‘death benefits’ of being an adult orphan certainly do not make up for the void that exists where your parents once lived.

The Best Thing About Summer Camp

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Today is my dad’s birthday. This letter he wrote, that I’ve saved since 1981, is one reason why I find it difficult to throw things away sometimes. Okay, all the time.  I worry about discarding some piece of my dad’s life, some memory of him, or of my mom, now that she’s gone too. Once an item gets tossed, the related memory goes with it. Or so I fear.

Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit – I really do throw (some) things away. If it stinks, or has the potential to stink, it gets tossed. Otherwise, I can probably find a reason to save it.

My dad wrote this letter when I was at singing camp – yes, I went to singing camp, thanks to my participation in a touring children’s choir, the Young Singers of Callanwolde.

Singing camp was just like other camps – bunk beds, grimy bathrooms, murky green swimming pool, bad food, and bugs – except that at singing camp, we had rehearsals about five times a day. We sang for our supper, and our breakfast, and our lunch too. Every. Single. Day…. for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably about a week.

Ultimately, the best thing about singing camp was this letter from my dad. He wrote it to me when I was nine, less than a year before he died. I’m sure when he wrote it, he never imagined that the simple camp note would be such an important memento to me. Thirty years later, his note helps me remember what it was like to have a Dad.

I’m really glad it didn’t get thrown away.

The Last Day – Remembering the Rain

That’s my dad, looking dapper in his signature bow-tie, working the room at the wedding of a family friend in 1982.

The photo is, in many respects, unremarkable. Except that it was taken the day before he died.

The bride found the picture of him with her wedding photos and brought it to us this year.

I have studied the photo, over and over again, to see a glimpse of Dad’s last day of life. I search for some indication of his thoughts and feelings. Was he happy? He looked it. Certainly he had no idea it was his last full day of living, or that he would be gone within 24 hours of this photo. Did he feel any twinges or signs of the heart attack that would stop his heart the next day? Does he look like his arm or his chest hurt? I cannot tell. It doesn’t appear so.

One day he’s at a wedding, dancing and talking and celebrating with friends. The next day, he’s gone. Just like that.

It was pouring rain that day my dad died. I remember so much about that day, even though I was only ten. My mom used to say it was “morose” to think about that day, that I needed to move on.

I’ve moved on. Still, thirty years later, sometimes it actually helps to remember the rain and the pain I felt that day.

Oddly enough, when I’m having a really bad day, or if I’m feeling lost, I remember the rain. And no matter how bad my day today has been, or what is upsetting me, it suddenly pales in comparison to how I felt on that stormy Sunday in 1982. And I know that, because I survived that, I can get through just about anything.

One of the worst days of my life, now helps gives me the perspective to get through the storms, three decades later. That, along with my memories of my Dad, on better days, make me realize how fortunate I am to have had him even for a few years.

When I had a dad, life was all about ice cream, bike rides, barbie dolls, and fireflies. My greatest responsibilities were doing my homework, making my bed, and helping with the dishes. Because I was so young when I lost him, I become ten years old again, whenever I think of him.

For many years, I only felt pain from losing him so early. But eventually the clouds parted and the sun could shine again.

My time with him was very short, but it was a good time in my life, when I had a Dad.

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A Lifetime of Lessons in Ten Years

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Dad and the baseball team. That’s him in the front row, far right.

We only shared space on the planet for ten years, but those few short years I had a dad made a tremendous impact on little me. After my dad passed away, I spent too much time focusing on how my father’s passing affected my life. I was preoccupied with what my life would be like, and who the other me would be if my dad had lived longer.

After a while I realized it was much more conducive to remember how his life shaped my life, as opposed to how his death impacted my life. It’s much more fun to think about all that was added to my life by having a wonderful dad for ten years, than to dwell on what was taken away when he died. It took me many years to get to that point, but at least I got there.

Which brings me to Father’s Day. How do I celebrate Dad’s life rather than mourn his loss, on special days when I can’t help but think about him? Of course, I think about my dad every day, but it’s still important for me to commemorate him now and then, in special ways on certain days like Father’s Day.

My dad loved baseball, and he loved the Atlanta Braves. One of his favorite past times before he passed away was “jogging,” as the “new exercise craze” was called back then.

So it seemed appropriate to commemorate him on Father’s Day weekend this year, as the 30th anniversary of his passing approaches in July, by participating in the Father’s Day 4-Miler Race at Turner Field! It was such a fun run!

We started outside the stadium, ran around some of Atlanta’s oldest in-town neighborhoods including Grant Park, and we ran by the Atlanta Zoo, which was a bit smelly for a run. We then looped around back to the stadium, where we ran in through the tunnel, entered Turner Field near first base and finished the race after running to home plate, with a (very small) crowd of spectators in the seats cheering us on.

I think my dad would have loved it. He loved the Braves before the Tomahawk Chop and Turner Field. He loved the Braves when they were in the generic, now non-existent Fulton County Stadium. I wish he could have been here to run it with me or watch me finish. Hopefully he could “see” me, somehow. I often feel like he’s with me, so perhaps he was yesterday too.

Shortly after the race yesterday morning, I drank a beer. It doesn’t matter what time of day I race, a ceremonial beer (or two) is consumed afterwards. There’s nothing like a cold one after a run, another life truth my dad taught me. He would let me have a sip of his beer when he’d get home from his run. Yes, I was a kid, but it was only a sip, don’t judge! And it’s one of my favorite memories of him.

“My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived, and he let me watch him do it.”  – Clarence B. Kelland

More importantly, while my mom constantly informed me of my many flaws and limits, my dad always tried to help me see that I could do, or be, anything I wanted, as long as I put my mind to it, and worked hard at it.

How did he teach me this? He lived his life.

My Dad was the son of very poor Hungarian immigrants.   His parents, (my grandparents) were uneducated and didn’t even speak English. My dad grew up in a very poor neighborhood outside of Saint Louis, Granite City, Illinois, where his dad worked in the local steel mill, and meals often came from the backyard supply of chicken and vegetables. In spite of this, dad achieved the American Dream. Dad worked his way through school by joining the Army. He became an officer in the Army and member of the corps of engineers, graduated from college, became a civil engineer, a homeowner, and a father of four. He was a patented inventor, and business owner. All with little to no financial support from his parents. He did it on his own.

It makes me proud to have had him as my father. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but to his ten-year-old daughter, he certainly was.

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Father’s Day Thoughts: Who My Father Was

Who the Other Me Would Be