Last Saturday would have been my dad’s 112th birthday. He was born April 2, 1904, and died at home on June 19, 1991, at the age of 87. “Good enough for who it’s for” was one of his favorite expressions. He used to say it jokingly when he gave a gift to someone, or when he did something kind for someone. For example, early in my years of living in Chicago, Mim and I moved into a new, larger apartment. One of the bathrooms didn’t have a storage cabinet for towels. I asked my dad to build one for us. I gave him the dimensions that would conveniently hold several folded towels and a six-pack of toilet paper, and that would fit in the space available in the bathroom. He basically built me a big box out of plywood, put a shelf in the middle, mounted two doors on the front, and painted it white. It wasn’t very elegant, but it was exactly what we wanted. When I thanked him for it, he responded with “Well, I guess it’s good enough for who it’s for.” Said with a grin, the implication was that I wasn’t good enough to deserve anything better than that humble cabinet.
One of Dad’s favorite things to talk about during his later years in life was all the changes he’d seen in his lifetime. He described how his life started out for him on the farm in Lake Mills. He talked about walking three miles with his brothers and sisters and neighbor kids to the one-room brick schoolhouse down the road. (The building still stands today.) He talked about hitching up the team of horses to work the fields, as well as to pull the sleigh over the snow-covered hillsides. Then he talked about changes in transportation – from coaxing the horse to pull the buggy, to crank-starting his first automobile, to zooming along today’s interstates, and watching planes fly overhead. His next topic often was changes in farming technology – draft horses, to the old “F-20” tractor, to his bright red “H” classic workhorse of a tractor, and the huge new tractors sported by some of the young farmers today – those with air conditioned cabs. He would hardly call that farming. Then he talked about the changes the telephone brought about. He was clearly in awe of the changes in everyday life that he’d seen during his lifetime.
As I think back about the life he lived, I think of the personal and social changes he saw as well as the technological changes he lived through. He was born Carl Robert Korth, on a small farm in rural Lake Mills, Wisconsin. The farm was next to Rock Lake – a good source of fish to supplement their meals, when they had time to fish. Carl was the fourth oldest of ten children, the second oldest boy. When he reached the age of 12, he had to drop out of school to go to rural Cambridge, about 10 miles away, to work on a farm as a hired hand. His meager earnings were needed to help support the family.
Occasionally, Dad talked about those years of being a teen-aged hired man. He stayed at the farm in Cambridge all week long. Sometimes he was able to go home on weekends. He had a room in the farmhouse where he slept. He was given meals in the kitchen – after the family was done eating. He didn’t have particularly fond memories of those years. He was a German-American farm boy working for a Norwegian-American farm family, and there were cultural differences and biases. Dad’s story-telling when he was in his 80s revealed that he had felt somewhat looked down upon for being just a poor hired hand, and being a German-American one made it even worse in the eyes of Norwegian Americans.
His skill as a farm laborer was a big help to his family in Lake Mills by enabling him to help support them. Unfortunately, his deepest desire was to be a carpenter. But that would never happen. He knew how to farm, and farming would be his livelihood for the rest of his life.
The best part of working as a hired hand in a Norwegian-American community is that’s where he met his future wife – Elsie Kenseth. She belonged to the same church as the farm family Carl worked for. The young people of the church had a very active youth group, and Carl was allowed to participate in some of their activities – like ice skating parties, baseball games, and picnics. When in their twenties, Carl and Elsie married, and they took over the operation and eventual ownership of Elsie’s family farm.
Carl also joined Elsie’s church, the church whose claim to fame was “The oldest Scandinavian Methodist Church in the World.” During the time Carl and Elsie were active members of the church, the congregation was very proud of it’s Norwegian heritage. Carl was “welcomed” into the church as Elsie’s husband, but he was never asked to be an usher or have any other role with responsibility within the church. He could attend services and potlucks, but he was never part of the “inner circle.” Life in the church for Carl wasn’t all that different from life as a German-American hired hand on a Norwegian-American family farm.
When I look back at how my dad was treated as a cultural outsider throughout much of his adult life, I think about his favorite joking expression – “good enough for who it’s for” – from a slightly different perspective. I’m glad he was able to approach his circumstances with humor rather than bitterness.
Forty years later, when Carl retired – sold his last cows and butchered his last chickens – he turned the chicken house into his carpentry shop. That’s where he made the white cabinet for our bathroom in Chicago. He also made lots of magazine racks, knife holders, boot jacks, book shelves, and small windmill-style lawn ornaments. He also helped my brother Danny (who had become a carpenter) build modest ranch-style houses in Cambridge throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his retirement years, he finally was able to do what he had wanted to do all his life.
Last weekend, Pastor Jeff’s sermon was about kindness, about how being kind is not just saying the right words, like “I’ll pray for you in your difficult circumstances.” Kindness is asking the question, “How can I help you?” For my dad, kindness would have been asking him, “How can I help you feel more welcome?” Just giving him a job as a hired hand and allowing him to attend church services wasn’t really enough. That wasn’t “good enough for who it’s for.”
Happy birthday, Dad. I wrote this blog for you. Hope it’s “good enough for who it’s for.”