“Hello beautiful,” my father-in-law always said when he saw me. A formidable bull of a man, opinionated and outspoken, he intimidated those who never glimpsed the tender heart of a man with a magnificent capacity for love.
My father-in-law grew up fatherless, the youngest of seven, after his father deserted the family during the throes of the Great Depression. But the women in his life armed him with strength, faith and the surprising tenderness residing beneath his rough exterior.
His mother managed to eke out a living by running a boarding house, and he remembered his grandmother saying, “Have faith and work and good things will happen.” His grandmother would later give him a steel-covered New Testament that he carried with him into the trenches of war, and in those trenches, without benefit of clergy or church, he read his Bible and became a believer.
The third woman in his life
My father-in-law’s religion had been born apart from clergy in the heat of battle with nothing standing between him and his God, and nothing would stand between him and his bride, either.
He met the third influential woman in his life when he joined the Marines. Like him, she joined the Marines in a patriotic response to Pearl Harbor, but unlike him, she hated the Corps that assigned her to numerous punishment duties as a result of her rebelliousness.
When he warned her that the big safety pin secured to the left strap of her bib overalls was not uniform compliant and would probably upset her Sergeant, she replied, “It’s none of your business what I wear.”
It didn’t take him long to decide he wanted to marry the feisty, beautiful brunette. But before they married, he went on to fight in Iwo Jima where the ocean was, as he described it, “red with American blood.”
Following the war, they married despite a minister’s attempts to discourage their union. From the reverend’s perspective, a marriage between a country boy from North Dakota and a sophisticated city girl from Maspeth, New York could never last, but 56 years of marriage proved him wrong. My father-in-law’s religion had been born apart from clergy in the heat of battle with nothing standing between him and his God, and nothing would stand between him and his bride, either.
They started life together working as janitors so my father-in-law could finish an education interrupted by war, and many years later, he would become the CEO of a large utility company.
He was a company president when I met him and married his son, but his story emerged over the years, unspooling bit by bit, threading present to past and illuminating the man behind the success. When he was 13, he ran away from home and hopped a train, riding box cars across country. When he was a high school football star his father tried, unsuccessfully, to come back into his life.
I found out there were three things he hated: racism, men who mistreated women, and people who disparaged the country he had fought for.
As my father-in-law grew older, he told the same stories over and over, but with each re-telling I glimpsed a little more of the man behind the success. I found out there were three things he hated: racism, men who mistreated women, and people who disparaged the country he had fought for.
When my mother-in-law became ill his toughness crumbled. A man used to finding solutions, he took her from hospital to hospital and doctor to doctor.
But there were no solutions, so he cared for her tenderly, lovingly, and when she died he was never quite the same. A piece of his heart went missing. He dealt with his grief by plunging headlong into activities, filling his days with volunteerism and charitable causes.
After my mother-in-law died, he drove 400 miles to our house for Christmas every year until he turned 89. When he was unable to drive so far, my husband picked him up.
At 91, he stopped going to exercise classes. “I need to work out more, but I’m feeling weak,” he complained. That was in October. By November, he was so weak he didn’t think he could make it for Christmas.
“I’m coming to get you,” my husband said. “All you need to do is sit in the car. I’ll take care of everything else.”
But we never picked him up. The cancer that ravaged his body was fast and relentless, although he was never in pain. Or at least, he said he wasn’t. He died on Christmas Eve.
It didn’t surprise us when, a few years before his death, he gave $100,000 to the local hospital and was recognized at a banquet as one of their top donors. We were surprised (and I was secretly delighted) to discover, after his death, that he had given to almost anyone who asked; checks written to people and churches and organizations that came to him with their stories and their needs. Beneath the toughness was a tender and generous heart.
I already mentioned the three things he hated most. The three things he loved most were his wife, his family, and his country.
He passed those values along to his son, who has passed them to our sons. He broke his own father’s legacy to forge a new one, and for that I’m grateful. When I think of him now, I imagine him somewhere dancing with the love of his life.