I'm Forever Holding Onto Fond Memories of My Dad
Guest Post by Colleen Garnevicus
Most of my early memories of Dad are of his light-heartedness. Mom had the day-to-day chore of raising the six of us – as my sister Joanie said, Dad was usually in the “What should we talk about?” mode of discipline, after we had tried Mom’s patience too much. There was always a vague threat of going behind the woodshed, but I don’t know if anyone actually ever went there. Dad dealt with most situations with humor, and it worked for him – he charmed his family and most of the people he ever met.
I remember learning Dad’s name before I was two when I got lost at Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls, and I didn’t know that my parents had names other than Dad and Mom. I was Dad’s little tomboy – tagging after him when he went to cut trees in the woods, fed the pigs, etc. He knew I loved horses even though we didn’t really have any past my earliest years. When an old workhorse, blind in one eye, wandered into our field on Dec. 8, 1961, he let us keep it all winter, and we really enjoyed feeding it and riding on its table of a back. Dad loved animals, too. When Tippy got into a fight with a badger and was too mangled to live, Dad brought her to the lane to put her out of her misery.
I said I’d never forgive Dad for shooting her, but he brought us a puppy shortly thereafter, who became the new Tippy. Dad taught me that when you love something, you don’t want it to suffer, and that lesson came back as he lay dying and was suffering so much, that even putting the IV in was too much pain. It was very hard for us to let him go.
But that’s a later story.
Dad loved driving a bus – it was the time to use his “gift of gab,” in greeting kids each morning and night and in the camaraderie, he shared with the other drivers. He really enjoyed taking groups on trips – he would have been a world traveler if cows hadn’t kept him captive here until he was 65.
I remember when my husband Tom and I had just gotten in from traveling 24 straight hours to get home to Wisconsin, and Dad immediately suggested we get in the car and drive to Colorado. We went a few days later, but not immediately. When we were almost there, we were stopped for speeding, but Dad’s easygoing manner and gentle wit got him off with only a warning – he was just anxious to get there!
Dad loved to tease Mom about lots of things. Early on, it was about her cooking (she sometimes missed key ingredients of things, like the bananas in a banana cream pie). Later, about getting lots of kings in the Stupid Game. He loved to play cards. When I bang a card down trumping an Ace, I always think of him. When I sit in his spot at the table, he is there, too.
Every night after supper, we knelt down with our rosaries that hung from nails on the cupboard and prayed the rosary together. Mom or Dad would lead – Mom, slowly, with about 12 or 13 Hail Marys in each decade, and Dad, quickly, sometimes using only nine Hail Marys. We always wanted Dad to lead. Sometimes he’d wink at us when it was over in record time!
Dad was a holy man, but often could be heard snoring during the sermon, never having gotten enough sleep. He was a welcoming man, inviting people over at the drop of a hat, and always enjoying visits a lot. He could talk with anyone – and it sometimes got him into trouble with Mom, who would warn him not to “flirt” in town, but knew that if he ran into someone, he would have a conversation. When he was late, he’d throw his hat in the door first, and if that didn’t get thrown back out, he’d follow it.
He loved reading the Leader each day. He loved his Milwaukee Braves and especially Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, and Eddie Matthews. He loved red, especially in tractors and cars (the green tractor in our machine shed now would probably irk him a little!). He was a man of routine – he and Mom walked all the line fences each March 19, his name’s day, the feast of St. Joseph.
Dad sometimes used pretty colorful language, especially when he was around his brothers for a bit. Although he didn’t encourage this language in his kids, occasionally, when the little ones echoed some of his more descriptive phrases, I think he got a kick out of it.
Dad was not afraid to show affection to Mom or to us kids. I remember kissing his bald spot each night before bed as he sat in his chair in the corner of the living room, watching the news. He believed in family outings, whether it was seeing Ma and Pa Kettle movies in Durand or going to the stock car races. He loved the family trip to Wisconsin Dells, and I’m sure he saved for it for some time.
We didn’t know we were poor. We had the richness of the affection of our parents; we basked in their love; we worked side by side with them outside and inside.
I remember one July 4 when Dad came in from the barn and said, “Does everyone want to come and watch the fireworks? I’m putting the cows in the pasture with the new electric fence tonight!” He could make simple things exciting. We did spend all night chasing cows – laughing a lot about it – the cows didn’t recognize the electric fence as any kind of fence, and they really got spooked after they ran through it. I remember all the nights when we were all exhausted after barely getting the hay into the barn before it rained, and Dad made even those very tired times fun. When he put the tractor into road gear from the hayfield, and we rode on top of the last fragrant load, we were all exhilarated.
He loved popcorn and well-worn overalls. He loved us unconditionally, even when we sometimes disappointed him. He loved New York City when he came to visit, especially the George Washington Bridge and the Circle Line Tour. The top of the Riverside Church scared him a little – he wasn’t so fond of heights, and standing by the open steeples next to the huge bells on a day of a little wind wasn’t easy for him.
He loved Luchow’s, the Viennese restaurant where we went to eat. There was a traveling polka band in it, and even though Dad already had indigestion that should have pointed to stomach cancer, he loved the eating and the camaraderie of the place and having lots of family with us. He enjoyed Jones Beach, and put his feet in the water, even though he was afraid of water – even his bathtub could have only an inch or two in it! He would watch the soap opera with Mom in their later years, so touring NBC Studios, where their soap was made, was fun for him.
He and Mom would sometimes do the polka in the alley between the cows during the milking at night if a good tune came on the radio. A few of us kids would be sitting on the feedbox, dangling our legs. Cats would scatter from the flying feet, waiting for the castoff milk in the bottom of the milker. The warmth of the cow’s breath and the gaiety in the air when they danced made us feel like we were at a party, albeit a smelly one. Sometimes they’d get a good swat from a not-so-clean tail as they danced by.
The last summer was the hardest. In April 1978, Dad drove the school bus one morning and went straight to the hospital for “ulcer surgery.” The afternoon before, Tom and I left from New York to surprise him when he got out of surgery.
The surprise was on us.
When we got to the hospital, the surgeon took us to a room and said that Dad had less than six months to live. I fainted, for the first and only time in my life. Dad had been operated on for stomach cancer, and it had already gone to his liver. There was little they could do.
By June, when we came back to Wisconsin at the school year’s end, he was back in the hospital. We began the daily routine of driving Mom to visit – from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. each night we were there. Family members and extended family and friends would visit, but we were always there. We got to know lots of our nieces and nephews by playing with them on the hospital lawn while their parents visited.
Dad appreciated every second of the time we spent with him and every visitor he had. He also appreciated everyone at the hospital who took care of him, especially Nurse Peggy Savides, who asked him lots of farming questions, having just started farming herself.
He was able to come home for a bit in the beginning of July. We had a party for him – quite different from the cow-chasing July 4th years before. Dad was painfully thin, less than 100 pounds by then. We have a picture of him with a sparkler – his eyes glimmering even brighter than the handheld fireworks.
Those few days at the farm were filled with pain not alleviated by pain pills. I got to help by changing the colostomy bag, something Mom just couldn’t do, and taking over the dressing of wounds, etc. He had to go back to the hospital – it was too scary being at home, away from any substantive pain relief.
When [new] Tippy died of old age in the weeks before Dad did, Dad insisted that Mom needed another dog at the farm to protect her. We found a Springer Spaniel at the pound that Dad named Rex, and we brought him to the hospital. Kittens, corn, lots of things had come up to see Dad. The nurses on the 4th floor – the hospice floor – looked the other way. His room was at the end of the hall, and almost anything was allowed there.
Dad got in the wheelchair that day, with his IV and all the other tubes trailing, and our parade ventured down to the hospital doors to meet Rex. This jumping, boisterous dog was meek and quiet as a lamb when he met Dad. (Mom would often be knocked down by the exuberant Rex before he got hit by a car just weeks after he came to live at the farm.)
By the end, we stayed all night in his room at the hospital, for at least the last three weeks. Our days were spent playing cards. When Dad was no longer strong enough to hold the cards, Tom made a card-holder out of wood.
Dad was afraid of dying alone, and we didn’t want that either. Twice, when he thought the time had come, we called everyone together at the hospital. Each time, he rallied and sheepishly grinned the next day as we played cards again, calling it a “dry run.”
When they could no longer sustain him with the IV (at first, I railed against what I called their “starving him to death,” but there were no veins any more that would accept the needle), Dad slipped into a coma for the final day, and he died with many of us around him. At that point, we were ready to let him go – too much suffering – we wanted him to feel the light and grace of heaven.
Dad taught us all how to live and how to die, with humor and courage and love. We’ll miss him all our lives.
Colleen Forster Garnevicus and her husband Tom are parents to three grown boys and the happy grandparents of Eden, Elijah, and Cole. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1971 with degrees qualifying her to teach high-school English and K-12 music. Colleen signed up for VISTA that summer and spent three years in inner-city Kansas City starting a free instrumental music lesson program for more than 200 students and a National Endowment funded jazz workshop and concert series, which hosted esteemed jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Jimmy Heath. In 1974, she moved to NYC to study jazz sax with Heath and began teaching music at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS). She met Tom at the school on Central Park West, and they raised three sons in the Bronx. She taught at ECFS until 2007 when she and Tom returned to live on the farm in west-central Wisconsin where she was born. After retiring from teaching, she was a substitute band director at various schools in the area before working 10 years as the music director of a large Catholic parish in Eau Claire.
Colleen is fully retired now and spends her time with her husband, four cats, and one dog. She also enjoys visiting and hosting visits from her three sons and their families in Philadelphia, Denver, and Oakland, and loving her three (soon-to-be-four) grandchildren. Life on the farm in a pandemic is blissful and distancing a piece of cake, except for missing those grandchildren!