I haven’t bought my dad a Father’s Day present in more than twenty years. He died 22 years ago. But with all the advertising on TV over the past few weeks, I’ve been prompted to think more about my dad, about the kind of dad he was, and about the kind of presents he liked to receive, and to give. I think his favorite present was one he gave both to himself and to his family. He really liked to take his whole family – three kids, their spouses, and all the grandkids – out to a restaurant for dinner, preferably a buffet. He was proud of his family, and he liked to show them off, especially on Father’s Day.
He came from a large family himself. He was one of ten kids. His family had the Korth farm on Rock Lake in Lake Mills, Wisconsin – the farm that has now been turned into a county park, “Korth Park.” As one of the older boys in the family, he had to drop out of school in seventh grade to go and work as a “hired hand” on another farm to help support the family. The blessing in disguise for having to be a country school drop-out is that is how he met his future wife. The farm where he worked was in Cambridge, only a couple miles from the farm where my mom grew up.
When my parents were first married, my dad got an assembly-line job at General Motors in Janesville. But as soon as their first daughter came along my mom and dad bought my mom’s family farm in Cambridge from my grandparents who retired and moved into town. My dad was destined to be a farmer.
As a farmer, my dad worked hard. The only time he was in the house instead of working outside was during mealtimes and when he was sleeping. Fortunately, mealtimes were times of conversation as well as eating. I remember talking a lot about the weather, but that’s really important to a farmer. We also joked and laughed a lot.
When my dad “retired” – that is he sold the cows and just raised corn, he took over primary responsibility for vegetable gardening from my mom. He kept two huge gardens and raised enough produce to keep our whole extended family fed year around, plus have enough to give away to friends who came to visit. He loved spending time in the garden. Weeds didn’t have a chance. He knew how to use a hoe well, and he cleaned and sharpened it after every use. I still have the hoe in the garage, although I haven’t used it since we moved to the condo.
The only thing he liked better than spending time in the garden was going to the restaurant in town to have morning coffee with all the other retired farmers. He hated to spend the money on coffee, but the life of a farmer is solitary, and this was how he could get his social needs met. One year I gave him a jar of coins for Christmas – so he could have right change for the 35-cent bottomless cup of coffee. The restaurant had raised the price by a nickel.
On April 2, 1991 my dad turned 87. We all got together to celebrate his birthday. A few days later he was out on the tractor, working up the soil for his huge gardens. In June, just as his gardens were beginning to flourish, he got sick and was diagnosed with leukemia. He died within a few weeks. I guess we could say that our dad’s last present to us was another huge vegetable garden that we enjoyed all summer long.