Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

Hard not to think a lot about my Dad this time of year.  Last Monday was the third anniversary of his death, obviously today is Father’s Day and tomorrow would have been his 75th birthday. 

It makes me especially sad that my nieces and nephews will never get to know him.  Juliette and Owen did, briefly, Kiu and Leelawadee will know only stories and pictures of Pepere.

My laptop recently crashed and due to a miscommunication with the fixer, I lost my entire hard drive.  One of the hardest things to lose was a text copy of the eulogy my sister gave at his funeral.  She was in Thailand at the time and because my brother and I were too much of a mess to give it (he’s too selfish and I have a crippling performance anxiety),  she had to do it by Skype.  It perfectly described the imperfect relationship we had with our Dad.  Was he objectively a great Dad?  Nope, although parenting is imprecise and hard to measure.  He always saw his role as financial provider and left the provision of attention and affection to my Mom for the most part.  When we were younger, he always told my Mom he thought he would be a better father when we were older.  When we were older, he mentioned that he thought that he was a better father when we were younger.  He was horrified when at age 23, I pointed out to him that I played 12 seasons of varsity sports in high school and 4 seasons of varsity softball in college, and yet he had never seen me play a game (in any sport).  To his credit, he attended my very next softball game for my summer league, but it was at night, when he wasn’t working.  On the other hand, I had to ask my Mom to stop attending games because at one point in college, she was so exuberant after a (rare) big hit from me that she rushed the field and gave me a hug on the bench.  So while my Dad’s attention and affection may have been lacking, he had the great sense to marry a woman who had more than enough of everything to give her children the emotional safety and consistency that all children need.

So I never wanted for anything I needed throughout my childhood and adolescence (to be clear there were many things I WANTED, but were not needed, that went unprovided).  He even took a second job while we were in college so we wouldn’t graduate with an overwhelming debt load.  My senior year in college, all three of us were at school and he was trying to manage three tuitions, including the whole boat for my sister whose college offered no financial aid.  And I thank my father for the advice he gave me in my youth when I pitched a fit over not being able to get $45 adidas Gazelles or a Champion sweatshirt or whatever then trendy and expensive clothes I wanted: if you want it, get a job and pay for it yourself.  So I did.  I had a paper route the day after I was eligible at 11 and a weekend job as soon as I could get my working papers at 14.  A post for another time will be the awesomeness of my college job in the mail room, in which I worked as often as my class schedule would allow.  But suffice it to say that one of his greatest gifts to me was his work ethic.  That and a love for animals.

But back to the eulogy.  The theme was that while my Dad may have struggled to physically or verbally show affection, he did so effusively through his hands.  Whether it was working two jobs, tending his garden in honor of his father (below is an article from the Globe from September 4, 2005), repainting my condo 2,000 times or even changing a light bulb, he would work tirelessly.  I came to understand and appreciate this as an adult.  As a result, I have a now tragic learned helplessness for relatively simple household tasks.  It was my opportunity to spend time with him and his opportunity to show me he loved me, so we both fostered my ineptitude, but it is unfortunate now that he is no longer here.

A perfect example is when I came home late from work to find my beloved kitty had passed (RIP Sophia). He was the one I called at 1:00 AM that night.  He came over, wrapped her in her favorite blanket and took me to the MSPCA where he took care of the logistics.  My Mom would have been too concerned about my complete emotional decompensation and need for consolation that she would have missed the immediate need of making sure my cat’s body was properly taken care of.  As an adult, I realize that this was just as loving as a hug and shoulder to cry on.

We had become very close by the time he got sick and I took a leave of sorts from work and moved back in with my parents to help out.  We instantly resumed our childhood nightly ritual of watching Jeopardy! – I was the fastest, but when my Mom and I were stumped and he had time, there was rarely an answer he didn’t know.  I was at his bedside on June 10, 2010, the night that he died, and as usual, Jeopardy was on in the background.  The Category was Short Stories and clue was:

"In an 1842 tale he wrote, "Down--still unceasingly--still inevitably down!... I shrunk convulsively at its every sweep" .

My Dad’s last words were the answer: “The Pit and the Pendulum”, which technically was wrong because the answer was supposed to be Edgar Allen Poe, but also more correct because he not only knew the author, he knew the exact story it was from.  And if you haven’t read it, the story is about a man sentenced to death who must endure the torture of being bound while watching a scythe slowly descending to its ultimate arrival of his demise.  He ends up saved at the last moment, but there would be no French Legion to save my Dad.  His last words were uttered at 7:59 pm and he had passed by 8:15.  He had had enough and his slow torture ended after two long, hard years, with his children all present and loving, which I guess in retrospect, does indeed mean he was a great Dad by any standard.

Boston Globe - Boston, Mass.
Keith O'Brien, Globe Correspondent
Sep 4, 2005

Paul Desharnais plants vegetables in his yard. Tomatoes here. Basil there. He has sage and chives, too, and winter squash and cantaloupe, beets, and eggplant.
Then there is the cornfield.

"Field" probably isn't the right word for it, of course. It's not much bigger than the Buick Century that sits in his driveway next to the tiny patch of yard. Small though it may be, however, the crop attracts attention.

"It's mostly amazement," says Desharnais, "that it can be done."

Around the Hall Street neighborhood where Desharnais has lived since 1961, he and his wife, Irene, are known by strangers as the "corn people."

And as Nicole Desharnais, one of the couple's grown children, recently realized, the memory of the perfectly planted corn in the small yard in the city stays with longtime residents.

"You lived in the corn house?" someone familiar with the neighborhood asked Nicole, 32, not long ago, after connecting the description of her childhood home with the memory of the corn. "I never really thought about it," she said. After all, she and her two siblings grew up with it, planting the seeds in tidy rows every June with their father.

Paul Desharnais, 67, a retired painter, estimates that he has been growing corn in his yard for almost 30 years. This year's crop is a good one, he says maybe his best steady and plentiful. He and Irene, a first-grade teacher, don't mind the people who stop and stare.

"Usually, it's a conversation starter," Irene said.

Not that she and Paul find anything amazing about their urban "field."

"Corn has always been a crop around this area," Paul says. "People stop and say, `Oh, that's interesting. Corn right in the middle of Jamaica Plain.' Now stop and think about it. . . . This is where it started. So why not?"

The garden took shape, almost by accident, he says, after his father, Wilfred, died in 1975. Until then, Wilfred Desharnais had kept the yard meticulously manicured, according to his son, possibly to remind him of the sprawling green pastures of his youth on a dairy farm in Canada. But after his father died, and Paul finally found the time to begin working on the yard again, he decided to rip up the lawn altogether and plant vegetables instead.

The way he figured it, "You can't eat crabgrass."

So in went the tomatoes and the peppers, the strawberries and the carrots, and the corn. By the end of the month, he and his wife will have picked from their yard some six or seven dozen ears of corn. Irene will already have the sugar water boiling when she goes down to pick it.

"You can't get it any fresher," she explained. As it is, the corn is already juicy. The ears, Irene likes to say, are getting full. She can tell just by feeling them as she did one recent evening, standing among the green sun-dappled stalks with her husband looking over her shoulder. There were people coming to dinner, and she wanted to make sure there was enough corn to go around.

"Everybody," she said, "loves the corn."


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