The Dad of My Childhood: Memories of Michigan Beaches, Chili Dinners, and Hard Work

Lake Michigan brought seagulls and warm sand to my childhood. The feeling of the lake air and the steady sound of the waves. The water smelled intoxicating. Except when the storms would wash up dead fish on the shore—then I would run and squeal and ask my dad to pick me up. I thought the squeak of the sand was actually fish squeaking under my feet.

The dad I knew when I was young was jolly and liked to play with us. Holding onto his shoulders while he swam (in his jeans) in Lake Michigan, pretending he was a bear, riding on his back—all these were part of my warm childhood in Wisconsin.

I can’t imagine how overwhelming the financial responsibility of feeding six children was. I picture that my Dad looked up one day and saw six almost–grown children and wondered how it happened. Now that I’m a parent, I can relate to how the years race by while you try to survive and provide.

While I wish we’d been closer through these years, looking back, I’ve always been proud of him. The way he could figure out how to build any house if he had a blueprint, and how he could even build some houses practically from memory. The way he slipped into German whenever he got emphatic, and the way most people wouldn’t notice because he had such a thick accent, they didn’t always understand him anyway. The way no one could match him for speed on the job site, and the way he has a few small pieces missing from his fingers to prove it.

The way he hid Snickers under his mattress so his six little girls wouldn’t find them.

The way he pronounced my name Mareesa.

Dad had to leave school around sixth grade to work. And yet this didn’t hold him back. He supported a family of eight with his own two hands, at first working for a construction company on $7 an hour, later with his own home-building business.

When Dad was still on the construction crew, he noticed the other men took a lot of smoke and coffee breaks. When he asked them why they weren’t concerned about getting the roof on in time, they all laughed. “For $7 an hour? We don’t get paid to work that hard!” And they added, “You work too hard for someone who makes $7 an hour.”

“If I keeping working like I make only $7 an hour, I’ll always make only $7 an hour,” was his reply. “I work to get the job done.”

Dad went back to work, with no smoke breaks and only a few for coffee.

Within two years from that day, Dad built his first house on spec, purchasing the materials with a 0-percent interest credit card, then selling the house before the bill ever came due. On this stellar business plan, Dad turned his first profit, and he was in business for himself. His former crew members, however, were still making $7 an hour.

I remember asking for things growing up, and the answer was always, “When the house sells.”

Every morning we would help Mom pack his lunch of ham, homemade zwieback, and a Stanley Thermos of tea.

Some of my fondest memories are of going to the job site along with him. We didn’t have many safety measures in place, just a bunch of kids running around among nail guns and plywood!

When the houses were only 2x6s with no walls, we pretended we were magical beings who could walk through walls.

When we took family vacations (which consisted of eight of us piling into a station wagon to visit our grandparents in South Dakota), there were no leisurely travel plans. “Conquer the trip!” Dad would say.

His loud voice would awaken us in the morning, especially on Sundays. “Let’s G-O!” he would repeat until we all had no choice but to be wide awake to get ready for church. He made boiled eggs on Sunday mornings to give Mom a break. Then he would make chili for supper. Those are the two things my dad was able to cook, and he made them every single week that I can remember.

Today he is in his sixties, and he still builds things. He is suffering from early stage Parkinson’s disease. I know he was proud of the six girls he raised, hurting if we were hurting. Happier if we were happy. He loves his 16 grandchildren.

Sometimes I get the urge to send him Snickers, just to hide under his mattress. Maybe the grandchildren will find them there.

Marisa is a writer of children's stories, poetry, and nostalgia. She lives in Denver, thinks fondly of her childhood in Wisconsin, loves words that inspire, and adores Tolkien, Lewis, Beuchner, and Geroge MacDonald.

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