Medicine For People!

April 2017: People and Things as They Could Be - A Picture of my Father

Dutch Windmill Museum in Nederland Texas
By Sandman 511 - Picture from my cellphone, CC BY 3.0, Link

People and Things as They Could Be: A Picture of my Father

Table of Contents

  • People and Things as They Could Be

A Picture of my Father

My father was the seventh and last child of Dutch immigrants to Nederland in Southeast Texas. His parents ran a small dairy of about 20 cows, about the minimum number required to support a family in those early days of the 20th century. Times were so hard that at one point they pulled up stakes and moved to Arkansas where the future appeared to be a little brighter. After a couple of even tougher years they returned, bought the dairy back, and picked up where they left off. My first memories of that house include the chamber pot under the bed and the outhouse attached to the barn. The only water in the house came out of the sink in the kitchen. The eggs cooked in that kitchen came from the chicken yard out back.

The house seemed fine to me as a child, but it was too small for their large family. My grandparents' bedroom did not have a door, being a partitioned section of the living room. The living room itself was a place of curiosity for the grandchildren, its main point of interest being some odd commemorative pillows and knickknacks picked up at Chicago's World Fair in 1933. Family visits, meals, the parakeet, newspaper reading-all that occurred in the dining room. My father and his siblings had grown up in the only actual bedrooms in the house, two of them, both upstairs.

My father and his siblings helped my grandfather run the dairy, caring for the cows and chickens, delivering the milk, and--in my father's case--once pulling the bull off my diminutive grandfather. It had pinned him down in some low-grade cow-human disagreement. All the boys, including my father, ran the morning milk deliveries in their turn. My uncle Marion related how he once came home from the deliveries short a nickel on his collections. He spent the rest of the day, until dark, in forlorn hope searching the gravel road over which he had travelled.

Despite the family's limited means, two of the boys would become lawyers and another two, businessmen. My aunt Marie raised four children who went on to respectable achievements, while my aunt Anna, legend has it, taught half the children of Nederland to read. Then there was my father, the naval officer.

In those days, most people in Nederland worked in agriculture, petroleum, or the trades. College was a big deal, something expected of only those near the top of their class. My father was the school valedictorian. His teachers wanted him to make the best of his intelligence but money was lacking. West Point seemed the best solution. Cadets were appointed by their congressman, and my father did not get the appointment. But when the top two candidates for the Naval Academy failed the admission test, my father sailed in. He loved Annapolis and the Academy and never looked back.

Some people work for money, some for fame. My father believed in the common good. Competence in his work as a naval officer served the common good; his ships always won the proficiency awards and the sailors and junior officers respected and liked him. He excelled in everything except self-promotion. He loved the Navy and wished for nothing more than to take on more responsibility. But while everyone agreed he was an extremely competent sea commander, after 23 years the Navy let him go. He never expressed disappointment. Years later I told him I thought he was better than the officers they had kept. He accepted my compliment but disagreed with me. He had been given trust from those he supervised and trusted that those above him were as idealistic as he. I am biased and don't think they were.

My brothers and I grew up in a family with a sense of mission. My father would be overseas for months at a time. My mother would explain that his absence was in service to our nation and we needed to serve as well by maintaining the home fires-which in practice meant keeping our bedroom neat, cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes, and so on. Hmmm.

Then the day would come when we would all dress carefully and go to the Navy pier to see his ship come home. My mother was always the first to say "there he is!" as the lines sailed across the narrowing gap to the pier and the ship silently eased into her berth. Dad would come ashore, hug my mother, shake my brother's hand and mine, and soon we'd be home. If Dad had been to Europe, he'd bring a cruise chest full of fabrics and Mediterranean treasures for my mother. He'd have bright shiny objects and toys for my brothers and me as well.

If my mother had found fault with our behavior in his absence, after a day or so she would inform Dad of our transgressions and the spankings she had deferred until his return. He'd take us upstairs, close the door, hear the story, and if convinced we would transgress no more, in his gruff and kind way as likely as not suspend the sentence.

As is the way of young men, I had difficulty appreciating him. He was often preoccupied with his own thoughts and tasks. He was embarrassingly square and serenely content with the ways of the world he had grown up with. He saw no need to become overly excited about what was "cool."

Our family lived in a hierarchical world. We were children, they were parents. They would never have conceived of being friends with us. We could find our own friends, but we couldn't find parents. They stepped up to the plate. Manners, study habits, life habits, home skills-nothing was omitted. One night after bedtime, my father came across a news article about the declining physical abilities of American children. We were rousted up and ordered blinking into the lights of the living room to hear this news and to show how many push-ups we could do. It was probably above average, but that wasn't enough. We were ordered to do better in the future.

Though my father took all of us to church each Sunday, his greater devotion was to our education. Once he met with my algebra teacher to find out why I had gotten a B in algebra, despite receiving "A" grades on every test. The algebra teacher explained he was having difficulty teaching the class because of my constant interjections on better ways to solve the problems. My father listened politely, turned to me, and said "that's why you got a B. Don't let it happen again." As we drove home, his silence on that matter made it clear the issue was over.

My father often mentioned the song he and his classmates would sing every morning to the teacher:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
We're all in our places
With bright shiny faces,
Oh this is the way
To start the new day.

When he thought we needed an adjustment in our attitude towards school, he would sing the song to us.

While my father never hesitated to make paternal judgements, he did so with a humility I could not discern at the time. He was prompt in his correction of our perceived faults and shortcomings, and then we all moved on. That was the hidden grace: our behavior may have been lacking, but the quality of our character was never in doubt.

One cannot live through adulthood without stepping on someone else's toes. What a benefit to have learned early how to accept correction without complaint or an exaggerated sense of injustice, to know that at least in my father's eyes, any shortcomings could be acknowledged and then forgiven, that I could always regain his confidence and my overall value remain undiminished.

While our family attended church and my father would on occasion discuss the sermon with my mother on the way home, he could never be confused with Billy Graham. Regular were the weekend evening dinners followed by my mother at the piano and my father and his fellow officers singing Navy songs. Most of the time though, he was austere in his habits. Most of the money he made went to the family. Aside from quality clothing and a set of left-handed golf clubs, I can think of little that he spent on himself. The example he set was one of quiet attention to his responsibilities and innocent enjoyment of his leisure time.

Changing careers, he eventually came to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an administrator. He suffered a near-fatal stroke while working for the NRC and qualified for sick pay while recovering. After he returned to work, the checks continued to come until my father called to correct the oversight. Mom says the bureaucrats were astounded.

The stroke crippled my father's left leg, arm, and hand permanently. Several months after the stroke, he abandoned his wheelchair and got around by swinging his stiff left leg. A lefty, he started writing with his right hand and returned to the NRC for several more years. He was as organized and task-oriented as ever, and his handwriting was better than before!

Some years later he developed lung cancer. We boys had been taught to maintain a military bearing, which definitely did not include crying in public. A year after his diagnosis, I walked into his room at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. He lay mostly unclothed in bed as an aide bathed him, his bones frighteningly distinct under his sallow skin. Tears came to my eyes immediately. For once, he seemed content to see his oldest son crying over him.

My father saw people and things not just as they were in their present incompleteness, but what they could become. That is what he saw in his world and in his children. How lucky my brothers and I were.



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.