I woke up around midnight with over one hour of decent sleep behind me. Something inside me pulled me out of bed, to the desk to get my laptop, and then down the stairs to the dining room table. I was going to write a tribute to my Dad—there is no time like the present to gift a tribute to the living.
In this tribute, sometimes I write TO my Dad, and sometimes I write ABOUT my Dad.
Dad, I'm glad I have you as a father. You have been a steady force, a caring father, and a wise soldier.
You see, Dad has been a part of my life for a long time. I don’t remember in the hospital when I popped out of Mom all tiny, crying, red, and slimy, but Dad could tell you he was there, probably in the room if they allowed that back in 1975. I don’t remember coming home from the hospital wrapped up in all those blankets, but Dad was driving the car and helped Mom get out and then helped us both inside. You don’t even have to wonder if Dad helped—helping others has always been what Dad does.
I don’t remember much about moving to our home at 15700 Huntley Road, in Huntsburg, Ohio. They tell me I was three years old when we moved. I remember visiting while the house was under construction. There was this plank that led from the excavated area around the block foundation to the deck of the house. Dad was working there, framing the house. I don’t remember much about the early years in the house, but I do remember walking across unfinished plywood floors after moving in, with Dad doing more work inside the house to get it finished. He worked a lot.
Much of the memories of the years before first grade have Mom in them. Dad was gone to work most of the day Monday through Friday. He would get up for work before 6:00 a.m., Mom would get up to help him get breakfast and pack his lunch, he would kiss her good-bye, and off to work he’d go. I remember Mom in the kitchen when Dad would come home around 5:30 to 6:00 p.m. Dad would smile at her as he’d come in through the garage door in the family room, then he’d come up to the kitchen and hold Mom in a hug as he put down the lunch pail on the countertop.
After supper Dad would go do chores or work in the shop, or sit on the recliner and read the paper and sometimes fall asleep. Saturdays he would go to town often to run errands. If we were lucky enough to go with Dad, he was usually more generous than Mom. J He would buy a Klondike or candy. Dad was always generous. I remember going to Disneyland in Florida with our whole family. Taking a family of five sons with your wife to Disneyland is not cheap, but Dad wanted us to enjoy life. We went to Sea World and Geauga Lake in Ohio often, especially Sea World. I look at the cost of tickets to Sea World now and I think “I’ll take the kids to the park to play basketball or play on the playground.” Dad had this idea that he wanted to treat us kids well. He always went out of his way to provide for his family. I think he remembered his growing up years of having very little, and he wanted his sons to have much.
Christmas was a special time of year for our family. Mom loved to decorate for Christmas, and we always enjoyed it. Dad kind of went over-the-top for Christmas. He has always been a conscientious person—when he does something, he wants to do it right. I laugh now, trying to retrospectively analyze Dad’s generous spirit as I think back to those Christmas seasons. Here you have a man who loves his wife and his sons, and he is generous to a fault. Do I have enough gifts? Shall I get something else? But if I give this son this gift, should I get all the other sons something else? Dad was not the most efficient planner for Christmas. He would often go to Mentor, Ohio, to do his shopping just a few days before Christmas, and he would come home with bags of stuff for Mom and his sons. Each of us boys got a BB Gun at age seven, a .22 rifle at age 13, I think we each got a muzzleloader at age 15, and all the years in between brought coats, shoes, compound bows, fishing gear, tools, games, etc. Mom would open her gifts to find the latest kitchen gadget, some beautiful item of clothing, or another new kind of perfume. I have this memory of Mom having a long, low dresser filled with dozens of perfumes—that’s probably an exaggeration, but it’s a memory nonetheless. I have this faint memory of Dad asking me in my late teens one Christmastime “What do you think I should get Mom?” It was a worthwhile question to ask, because he had given Mom a lot of cool things and poor Dad was probably running out of ideas.
I don’t remember Dad crying much while I was at home. The first time I remember seeing tears on Dad’s face was at a Petersheim funeral in Holmes County. It may have been Rudy Petersheim, and I think I was around eight years old. There we were standing with others outside at the burial. I had just walked by this casket in the church and saw a lifeless body lying there. As if that was not unnerving enough, now they were throwing dirt on the casket in the grave. I glanced up at Dad and saw tears on his face. This was too much. Dad is crying? I stole furtively back to the van and lay down on one of the seats. My propensity to cry easily did NOT come from Dad’s side of the family. Blame the Miller genes for that sensitivity. I’ve cried plenty of times in my day, but I haven’t seen Dad cry much.
When I was in school, maybe in the first grade, Dad was in a car accident on the way to work. I think it happened before we went to school. There was crying in our family then. Mom cried, I remember that, and I think my brothers may have cried, too. Dad’s face was one black and blue mess. A woman had pulled out right in front of him, so he swerved to miss her and hit a tree. Broke his nose badly. The pictures would speak a thousand words if I could show you. But Dad was tough. The pain of that accident and his subsequent visits to the Doctor didn’t seem to faze him.
Speaking of crying, though, Dad nearly died from a fall at the jobsite after I had moved to New York and married Sandy. I should ask Deb, the family historian, which year that was. I’m thinking it was 2002. Dad had, I think, been walking some walls on a deck of a new house, marking the walls to place joists on for the second floor. He must have had a dizzy spell or something, and down he went, headfirst onto the plywood deck from 8’ feet up. We got the call that he was life-flighted by helicopter to Metro Hospital. I think we were able to get away that day and drive back to Ohio. There was Dad in a stubble beard, graying now, with a wry smile on his face. “You shouldn’t have driven all the way back to see me.” I saw him later that day trying to walk in the hall using a walker, his hospital gown dangerously exposing his body in the back—they don’t make those thingees for full grown, active men.
Dad recovered from that fall, and we were so grateful. Sometime within that year Dad and Mom visited us in New York and came to the church small group that Sandy and I were a part of. I remember it was hosted at Matt and Eleanor’s house that week. When it came time for sharing, Mom shared with the small group how grateful she was that Dad was alive, and then Dad shared a little, too. And what do you know, I saw tears again on Dad’s face. That fall shook us all up. We were all grateful he survived. I remember my cousin Parch telling me, “Man, when we heard the news about your Dad’s fall we all were afraid he was going to croak.” Well, Parch has had to lay his father's body in the grave some years ago and now, this month, his father-in-law has passed away. As I read the family's tribute to Roman Miller a week or so ago, it was one of the prompts for me write a tribute to my Dad while he can still read it. We never know how much time we have together.
I have some memories of Dad on trips that make me feel kind of badly for him. We drove to South Carolina once a year around Christmas to see Grandpa Schwartz and his family. This was like a 13-15 hour drive. Those drives he would park the van in the garage and get it warm and running, then when we were young he would carry us out to the van early in the morning while it was dark to get a good start. We might pretend to be asleep when we got a little older, just to see if we could trick Dad into carrying us. We would usually stop at Bob Evans or a sit-down breakfast place somewhere in West Virginia in the late morning. Well, we also drove to Missouri to see Mom’s family about once a year, and those drives were like 14-16 hour drives. Imagine taking your family twice a year on those long drives, and then all the places in between.
We went on several trips out West, covering more than 6,000 miles and taking more than 3 weeks for each trip. It seemed like things often went wrong, like the green van going through at least a quart of oil for every tank of gas in the last 3,000 miles, or the tire blowing out on the pop-up camper on some lonely Colorado road. When Dad would get anxious, we could tell. He would start burping. Out would come the Maalox, or maybe he would just pop a few Tums and chew on them. I feel about 20% responsible for some of his anxiety though, because traveling with my four brothers led to a fair share of brother fights in the van. So there was Dad, driving the van, while we would occasionally get involved in noisy fights in the back. One memory stands out when we all knew Dad had reached his limit. This time he banged hard on the dash up front and yelled. It caught our attention, and we stopped. What came next was supposed to be a threat. “If you don’t settle down and stop fighting, we’re going to have to… to… stop by the road and make pudding!” There was a short silence after we contemplated that grave threat while staring straight ahead, but then we exchanged wide-eyed, confused glances and burst into loud laughter. Even Dad smiled after that one. I think he knew his attempts to generate a bona fide threat had fallen flat.
So much more could be said about Dad. How he took us to church every Sunday morning and back to church every Sunday evening that we had a service. How he took us to church on Wednesday evenings for prayer meetings. How he would pray for us. How he would go help brothers in the church work on their houses for weeks at a time, coming home from work, eating supper, then going to work on a house for a man in the church. We didn’t think it was too funny when the one man in the church bragged about how cheaply he had built his house. “Yeah, you had our Dad for three months many Saturdays and evenings, donating his labor to build your cheap house.” Ah well, that was Dad--helping others has always been what Dad does.
I went to Sharon Mennonite Bible School when I was 19, and encountered this new-fangled (to me) teaching that the fathers ought to get involved in courtship. So I remember coming home and working with Dad that next summer as a carpenter. We drove to and from work together. One night we drove in the lane, and as he parked the van I worked up the nerve to tell Dad I liked a girl. He listened. I told him that I think it would be kind of neat if he would call up the girl’s father and tell the father that I was interested in his daughter. Dad paused. He looked at me, a little confused, and then said astutely “Uh…I think that’s your job.” I stammered a bit and nodded my head sheepishly, opened the van door and took the lunch pail in. That was that. Well, I did get married to the girl, in case you wonder, but I was the one to speak to Webster Clay about her. It was probably best that way.
When Mom died of cancer in 2005, Dad had a very rough three years until he remarried my stepmother, Ada Mae, in 2008. He really missed Mom, as we all did. It was hard in one sense to think of Dad remarrying. We knew that Mom could never be replaced. But I am so grateful to God that he gave Dad the opportunity to marry Ada Mae and have companionship with her over these past eleven years. She has been a gift to our family, and to Dad in particular.
As the years have passed, it seems to me that each year makes my heart feel a little closer to my father. I like it that way, the “feeling closer” bit. Only I wish I had been more intentional about getting closer to Dad when I was younger. Dad is 69, and I figure if God gives him another 11 years and I get to have coffee with him once a year, that’s only eleven more times to have coffee with him. That’s too short, you know? Surely I could do something to spend more time with him? I don’t see Dad moving to the Bronx, so that’s out. I don’t see me moving to Huntsburg, Ohio, at this time, so what to do? One thing I want to do is call him more. Just talk about life, share updates, and stay connected. Out here in the Bronx, we have six children to care for ourselves: some are young adults, and some are still children. The longer I am a parent, the more I honor my father and mother for their parenting of me and my four brothers.
Dad, I am very, very grateful to God for being so generous in giving you to me as a father. You know I have not been a perfect son—I know that you have not been a perfect father. But I have to tell you, your life through the years has taught me more than words can say, and I have always known that you love me. You have been a steady force in my life. You have always expressed care and interest in me and in my family. My children love Grandpa Schwartz.
I honor you today, Dad. If there is anything this Thanksgiving season that stands out as a top-tier reason to be thankful, it is that I have you as my Dad. Thanks for all you have done for me as my father, and for who you are as a courageous man of God.