October 6, 2018. Today would have been Dad’s 90th birthday. He had been looking forward to this day, and we had been planning his party for a couple of months. Milestone birthdays were always special to Dad and it had always been important to him that we acknowledged and celebrated these events. He and I had carefully planned Mom’s 90th birthday celebration last year, and he was looking forward to his weekend celebration this year. His niece and her family were traveling from Phoenix to Houston, and we had been discussing menus and seating arrangements before his surgery on August 22, 2018. Instead of celebrating his 90th birthday, today we celebrated a life well lived. I wish that we could have done both. As his favorite daughter, I felt that I had to share what I knew and loved about him with his extended family and friends, many of whom had known him for less than 15 years. I was pleased that I was able to get through my thoughts about Dad without crying. It was what he would have expected of me.
My father was somewhat of a Renaissance Man. At work, he was an accountant and systems analyst. At home, he liked to cook and concoct recipes. He enjoyed traveling and had visited all 50 states and Puerto Rico. He enjoyed sports and the theater and accompanied my mother to the symphony. And something that most people didn’t know, he could wiggle his nose and his ears–at the same time. Dad was the youngest of four brothers, and like his brothers before him, his skeletal system was composed primarily of funny bones. He was a big tease, but could take it as well as he could dish it out. My general memory of my childhood is one of laughter and love.
As most of you know, I’m an only child and my parents and I were very close. But up until I was 15, I was a real Daddy’s Girl. When I was about 5 or 6, he would bring home Winnie the Pooh books from The New York Public Library and read them to me before bed. He also read me most, if not all, of the Grimm fairy tales, which probably contributed to many of my childhood nightmares. When I got older, he brought home all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which started my lifetime love of reading.
Starting with my 6th Christmas, he took me on annual pre-Christmas excursions to New York City. We rode the bus from our town in New Jersey to the New York Port Authority and then walked what seemed to my short legs like miles. He introduced me to the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the magical window displays on Fifth Avenue, the toy department at Macy’s, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We both agreed that the idea of roasted chestnuts was far better than their taste.
I was by his side in his basement workshop, “helping” him with household projects. I have vivid memories of going with him to Two Guys, the Target of the 1960s east coast, to test vacuum tubes when the TV was on the fritz. He, in turn, would play the Barbie board game with me, take me to football games at the local high school, and spend endless winter hours sledding with me on my Flexible Flyer. Our summers were spent at home in our fabulous backyard, getting sunburned at the Jersey Shore, or camping at Lake Wallenpaupack.
My father was very organized and a planner. I was turning either 12 or 13 when my parents let me have a slumber party, and Dad wanted to ensure that we filled every waking moment of the party with activities. To prepare for it, he brought home a book from the library that contained party games. We spent many hours trying out different games to see which ones would “make the cut.” Decades later, when I hosted a party to celebrate my husband’s 50th birthday, my father was there to help plan the menu and the timing of each appetizer. He practically drove me crazy, but the party was a success, in large part because of him. He was a party planner to the very end. As Mom and I were going through some of his papers a couple of weeks ago, we stumbled upon a seating chart that he had drawn for his 90th birthday party, which would have been this evening.
Although he was very organized, his memory sometimes failed him. I recall a summer day in the 1970s when he stormed into the house holding a couple of vases. These were gifts that he had bought for my mother, and he was incensed and a little hurt that they had been squirreled away in the garage. My mother insisted that she had never seen the vases before. It didn’t take long for him to realize that it was he who had hidden the vases in the garage. He had purchased them a couple of years earlier, well in advance of the occasion, and had forgotten about them. Unfortunately, this is a trait that I have inherited from him.
There were a couple of times when his lapse of memory resulted in a B&E. When I was just shy of my 3rd birthday, my parents remarried, which is a whole other story. They left me at home with a babysitter and weren’t far from home when they realized that Dad had forgotten the marriage license. They drove back home, and he sneaked into the house to retrieve the document. I have heard this story several times and have always been appalled that they weren’t alarmed that he had been able to break in without waking me or disturbing the sitter. They also had to break into their Grand Junction house after selling it. They had left some important papers in the kitchen when they went to the closing. Without thinking about it, they surrendered all of their house keys to the new owners. So before they left town on their journey to Temple, they had to break in and then repair the screen that they damaged in the process. I’d say that I wished that I could have been there to see it, but Dad probably would have made me climb through the window.
Both of my parents loved animals, and for my 6th birthday, they let me pick out a puppy at the local animal shelter. As I held the little ball of fur in my arms, my father reiterated to the shelter worker that what we wanted was a “medium-sized, short-haired dog.” The guy pointed to the puppy’s paws and ensured my father that this dog fit the specified criteria. For years we laughed at how Teddy, this medium-sized short-haired dog, grew into a 65-pound long-haired mop of a Disney dog with small paws. Like me, Dad loved that dog and taught the dog all sorts of tricks: he could play Dead Dog, sit up like a human on the bottom step of our split-level house, retrieve slippers from a dark closet, and fetch the morning newspaper. One year, there was a newspaper strike that lasted for many weeks. To ensure that Ted didn’t forget how to retrieve the morning paper, my father wisely tossed an old paper on the lawn during the strike. When the strike was finally over, Dad opened the front door so that Ted could get the paper. Unfortunately, after resuming publication, the paper was especially large and the dog couldn’t get it into his mouth, and he came running back to the house. My father sent him out again, and the dog sniffed the paper and returned. After a couple more attempts at trying to get the dog to pick up the paper, Ted finally gave the paper a good sniff and peed on it. For my parents, the strike lasted one extra day. Fortunately, the paper was much smaller the next day.
When my parents lived in Grand Junction, they lived on Locke’s Flocks, a 15-acre “gentleman’s farm” on which they grew alfalfa and raised sheep. You might not be aware that a ewe will nurse only two lambs. If she has triplets, she’ll kick out one, and it becomes the bum. Sheep farmers must then assume the role of the “mom,” and they must bottle-feed the orphaned lamb. During their first lambing season, the first or second ewe lambed triplets, which sent my father to the CoOp to purchase lamb formula. He was somewhat miffed when he returned home with a 25-pound bag of dry formula. I remember him saying, “We have one lamb; what the heck am I going to do with all of that leftover formula?” Their ewes were pretty healthy and had lots of triplets, and during their first lambing season, they went through that first bag of formula and most of a second.
When my father was in high school, he wanted to be an architect; however, his high school guidance counselor told him that there would not be much call for architects in the future. He advised my father to pursue something more secure, like accounting. Dad was able to exercise his architecture chops by significantly changing our New Jersey home and by designing three of my parents’ houses and a couple of dog houses.
Dad held several different accounting positions during his 31-year career with Shell Oil Company. During the 1960s, he fell into an opportunity to represent Shell and work on an American National Standards Institute team that developed standards for punch cards. Back in the day, all data entry was done on a punch card, and the shape, size, and thickness of the card were specified by this committee. Punch cards contained 80 columns for data entry, so when the ANSI standards were being developed for reserved columns of data, these data architects had to be careful about how many columns they used. When specifying the date columns, it never occurred to this committee that you might need four columns for the year. Years later Dad said that it would have been relatively easy to add the two digits, but at the time they didn’t consider the 21st century.
In 1976 my mother started a business, and I joined her as a business partner three years later. Dad had always handled our accounting, and after he retired in 1981, he had a desk in our office. One day he came to the office with his nameplate: Neal H. Locke, F.O.O.P.H.O.T.O., which stood for Father of One Partner, Husband of the Other. We all laughed, but his cleverness was nothing new to me.
During the weeks leading up to the year 2000, as Dad was listening to the radio, a couple of on-air personalities were pondering how many Y2K babies would be born. He was shocked when one of them said, “Well, I guess we’ll have to wait to see how many babies are born on October 6,” which was Dad’s birthday. It was at that moment that Dad thought about his place in his family. His brothers were born in 1921, 1922, and 1924. I couldn’t believe it, but at the age of 71, he suddenly thought of himself as an “accident baby.”
I grew up in the days of three TV channels and no Internet, so many of our evenings were filled with board games, like Sorry and Parcheesi. Dad loved card games, and after Stan and I were married, Dad and my mother did their level best to teach us how to play bridge. In the end, Oh Hell became our game of choice and he played it whenever he was in the company of at least two other people. He taught countless friends, our Homecare aides, Stan’s nephews, and my girlfriends how to play the game. Before Dad’s recent hip-replacement surgery, he and I had planned how we would play the game with my cousin’s family during his 90th-birthday celebration.
Although the Locke family has always been separated geographically, family was important to Dad. After his brothers had passed away, my father made a list of his nieces, nephews, and their children, and sent them cards on their birthdays. My cousin, Chris, said it well: “He took the role of being the last of the Locke brothers very seriously.”
When it comes to my Dad, I have only one regret, and that’s that I never got around to taking him to a sushi bar. I think that he would have loved it and we would have had fun, although we wouldn’t have been able to include my steak-loving husband and mother.
I’ll miss so many things:
– watching him and my husband Stan play cribbage
– games of Oh Hell
– the way that he said “that smells” when he referred to something that was mine
– the artistry that he used when he made a sandwich. You’d think that the presentation of each sandwich was being judged on a British cooking show.
– the way that he called me Skidge, although I never knew why he called me that
– the way that he was always available when I needed advice, especially financial
– cooking in the kitchen with him
– the way he asked my mother every Sunday morning while making waffles if she had changed the recipe, or if she had given him the right spoon
– the way that he smiled at me as I entered the house
– the way that he looked at my mother
I know that I should be grateful that we had him for so many years. And sometimes I feel greedy for wanting more. But I can’t help it.
I miss him.
We miss him.
He was the best.
This post concludes this Blog series about my tale of my two parents.