And she heard me murmur… ” I smell like your grandpa!”
“What goes around comes around” is a phrase we often hear. Smell is one of our greater senses and can take us back to memories both good and bad. This seemed like one of those times. Good smells, that is!
Father’s Day conjures up all kinds of memories for me. My dad worked hard. Some say ‘maybe too hard’ but his work ethic rubbed off on me long ago and so did his desire to have fun when it was time to have fun. Those days didn’t come too often back then as America had not yet perfected its ‘culture of leisure’ as a prime value! Easter Sunday afternoon, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends were his favorites. It meant that he could sit out on his patio to take in the smell of the freshly mowed lawn and relax in his long lounge chair and enjoy the aroma of the burgers our mother had on the grill. And the only thing better than that was to have a slice of Grandma Irene’s, his mother’s, homemade blackberry pie. Most days you could find him in his work clothes, but when he needed to, he could clean up as good as most yet the thought of putting on a tux was foreign to a kid who grew up in “the projects.” But he did, and he gladly donned the powder blue for my two sister’s weddings… just a few months apart in 1978. And on those selected ‘time out’ days he added on a little smell of his own, getting all clean shaved only to be followed by a generous splashing of Mennen’s Skin Bracer, his cologne of choice as he had neither the money nor the flair for English Leather, Brut, Aramis or Macho Musk! We all knew dad was ready to relax when the room had that green odor of Skin Bracer.
The Bible lets us know that we are to ‘honor our mothers and fathers.’ It seems God always asks us to tend to the difficult! It’s a commandment of God with no distinction of that honor being offered whether they are alive or not. I’ve taken the route to live a life that honors my mother and father even though they’ve been gone from my sight for a while. Like lots of men, as we grow older, and having buried our fathers, there are those times we’d like to sit down over a cup of coffee or a cold Budweiser, my dad’s favorite, and talk about more than sports or the weather. To discuss the things we are passionate about is a rare conversation for most fathers and sons. To discuss even some biblical images for love and life or stories of justice and all that’s fair in the world is lacking in far too many father and son dialogues. And in this particular year I’ve been provided one of those moments where I’d give up a week’s pay to talk to my dad as it was my turn to put on a tux and get all gussied up for my daughter’s wedding and having dad’s words sure could have come in handy!
My father died in 1987 and in the months prior I had two memorable conversations with him… one face to face and the second over the phone. The first was when I made a family trip to Ohio in the late summer of 1986. The class of 1972 was not hosting a high school reunion but a road trip to Ohio gave me chance to show off my beautiful daughter to my relatives and that I had survived five years as a Lutheran pastor. I say this because I know some of my family thought I’d never last seminary let alone 5 years of ministry and now almost 37 years later… that part of the family grapevine has quieted. Back to my dad. We were sitting propped up on his bed listening to the Cleveland Indians baseball game on the radio. There were no cell phone calls or texts to interrupt. The game was blacked out in NE Ohio and the TV contracts hadn’t entrenched themselves into ‘sport’ as of yet, so we sat there side by side like the good old days listening and talking about life in Ohio and life in Texas. Somewhere in the middle of the game my dad asks me about stocks and investing. My first reaction was “Whaaaat?” The kid raised on a farm until age eight, then uprooted from rural New York to a steel town in Ohio to spend his years in grades 8-12 living in government housing raised by a single mom with no college education is asking me about stocks and bonds and investments? Whoah! And at age 28 it was not a conversation I was prepared for. But, it was a try. He always wanted to work til age 62, retire and buy an RV and drive my mother around the country visiting his children in Texas and then Georgia and eventually San Diego and Oak Harbor, WA as my sister’s husband was career US Navy having stints in all those ports! Putting some retirement dollars in the stock market seemed a path he wanted to take. I asked him to talk to my friend Mike’s dad. Zeke and my dad knew each other for years from picking us up and dropping us off from all our sports practices. I remembered often how Mike’s dad would turn the volume up on the car radio to hear the stock market report at the end of the day and on our way home from practice. He seemed to know what was going on. Call it networking or a favor, it was my best response!
The other conversation was in March 1987. I called home to my parents to brag a bit about the portable phone I got for my birthday and that I was sitting on my deck in the back yard I helped Henry Abke build while my daughter rode around on her 3 wheeler on same said deck. He was always proud of me as far back as I can remember in his own quiet way and to my surprise he answered the phone and didn’t hand it over to my mother, which was usually how it went. We talked about the weather and the Cleveland Indians upcoming season. March 1st in Texas is way different than March 1st in NE Ohio. We talked about birthdays and how Rachel’s got skipped that year since she was born on February 29th. This was her birthday call to talk to Grandma and Grandpa. I tried to get to her to speak on the phone but she was too busy riding. Had it been 2018 I would have face-timed them and let her talk as she was riding and they could watch her do her circles. Finally, my dad said, “well, here’s your mother. I love you.” How many times he said, “well, here’s your mother” handing over the phone with no extra comment of “I love you.” Even though I never felt unloved by my father, he didn’t say “I love you,” at the end of any conversation, but he did that day. I told him, “I love you, too.” It was the last time we spoke. He died from Legionnaires disease on March 9, a week later. My friend Mike’s dad, Zeke, died just two months after that and I don’t know if they ever talked about the stock market but Mike and I can revel in the fact that our fathers loved us to death. What more could a child want?
So, again, how great it would be if I could talk to my dad this year. To tell him how proud I am of my children and give him all the details of the four grandchildren he would have loved to come sit on his lap in the long lounge chair in his backyard. Along with my prediction of couple of more on the way by July 2019! I wanted to ask him what to say to a daughter on her wedding day… just before you walked down the aisle. I wanted to ask him… “what did you say to my sisters, Becky and Janet… just before you walked them down the aisle on their wedding day?” I asked them and both balked by saying… “I dunno… that was a long time ago… ” So much for a memorable moment. But, the wedding was on the horizon and I needed some advice.
In recent months I’ve asked the older men in my life what they said just before they walked their daughter down the aisle. Some were like my sisters. Not a memory one. Some said, “don’t step on the dress,” which isn’t what I asked but describes sometimes how well men listen. One dad smiled and said, “I told her don’t give your husband cause to have an affair!” Another said, “we can run away right now if you want,” and one kinder dad said he thought this was the 2nd happiest day of his life… the first was when his daughter was born. Dads get all of that! But, I didn’t get an answer that grabbed me even though I didn’t step on the dress. Instead, I took another approach as I wanted to be sure some of the love that was present in me as a gift from my father showed up at my daughter’s wedding!
So, what goes around came back around! Smell is a powerful sense. The day before the wedding I went into the local Walgreen’s in Boerne, TX. I asked for the men’s cologne section but I didn’t see what I was looking for and when I asked the clerk she said, “Oh, that… it’s on another aisle by the razors and blades.” Sure enough, on the lowest shelf at my ankles was a row with a couple bottles Mennen’s Skin Bracer. Go for the green, the Irish say! I did. And on my daughter’s wedding day I got all gussied up, shaved my face and dowsed my cheeks and neck with a hearty handful of the Skin Bracer. I felt a little stronger in the moment, knowing I wasn’t in this all by myself. And when I stood at the back of the church, I turned in toward Rachel and I said, “Take a sniff.” And she did. Then I smiled and said, “I smell like your grandpa!’ And then we stepped toward the altar and the wedding went off without a hitch!
Happy Father’s Day! How holy it is when the smell of cheap men’s after shave provokes a good memory of a great dad! What smelly memories do you have of yours?
murmuring for the good as best I can…