My father passed away in 2008 at the grand age of 90, and now more than ever I am grateful for the lessons learned from this Depression-era man.
I often smile when I read stories about urbanites planting gardens. My father tended a family garden for years and I still remember how we were always trying to give surplus zucchini away to neighbors and friends.
My dad grew up in a small manufacturing city, but when he married my mom, they bought a plot of land in the 'country' ~ long before the current back to nature movement became 'nouveau.' My dad built the house my five siblings and I grew up in ~ yes, built it himself, with only subcontractor help for plumbing and masonry. My mom still lives there and keeps track of neighborhood goings on from her perch on the front porch.
I was probably in my forties before I truly came to understand the tremendous emotional impact the Depression had on both my parents, but especially my father, who was the youngest of seven children. I recall, among other stories, of his telling of only having boiled potatoes for dinner during those lean years.
This experience, though, made him the ultimate conservationist. We did not waste anything when he could help it. I must have been told a million times to close the front door 'because I'm not paying to heat the outside.' He was always admonishing us to turn off the water tap and put things 'back where they belong.'
Both through example and our regular road trips, he taught us the value of natural resources and the importance of taking care of things.
Oh, yes ~ the road trip ~ a now seemingly forgotten part of Americana in this age of getting everywhere fast. During the summers, just about every weekend we packed into the family station wagon and head out for a day 'adventure.' Dad rarely told us in advance where we were going ~ just that we were going for a 'ride.'
And what rides they were! We climbed natural glacier outcroppings at Nelson's Ledges, fed the fish at Pymatuning Reservoir, toured the cheese factory owned and operated by the Amish, and explored more museums than I can count, even obscure ones, like a place we stopped once where a man had collected thousands of Indian arrowheads.
Almost all of these trips cost nothing more than a tank of gas and a picnic lunch, yet by the time I was an adult, I felt that I had visited just about every corner of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and upstate New York, including my still very vivid memory as an 8-year standing next to Niagara Falls and hearing the roar of the water while feeling its fresh mist on my face.
We took another annual excursion, too, 15 miles up the road to see my dad's boyhood friend, Harry, who still ran a large dairy farm. There we kids would run around the farm, slop the pigs, pet the horses, look for eggs, and even milk the cows. My grandfather's family had been farmers for years before moving into the city to work in the steel mills and I always thought that visiting the farm was a simple way that my dad touched his roots. More importantly, I learned at a young age where meat, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables really come from...and it's not Trader Joe's.
My father was really into old things and history, so we explored 'historic' buildings and even old cemetaries, looking for the gravestones of recent family ancestors. He taught me how to capture butterflies, identify leaves from more than 100 varieties of trees, tell whether a piece of wood was 'crookeder than a dog's hind leg,' and build interesting 'toys' in his garage machine shop that he would call 'whim whoms for wozzers.' I really hated holding the boards steady across the wooden 'horses' while he worked, since I always thought he'd miss that nail with his hammer and hit my hand...but he never did.
On this Father's Day, I'm reminded that my passion for restoring our natural systems grew mainly from my dad's respect for and belief in the importance of human stewardship of the land, water, animal and plant life. That respect could only come from someone who lived close to the land. His actions remind us that from 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' we are all intricately linked to our environment and that our natural world needs to be nurtured, especially in our now heavily urbanized culture, where most Americans have totally lost connection to our 'roots.'
I'm grateful that my father's lessons keeps me connected to mine.