Summer | 1976

I am back to my hometown for the weekend. It’s a good time to release the memoir written for my creative writing class. Some details about my hometown are slightly different than it was because I started this piece as a fictional story. The second half told of my adult life with dad. That wasn’t the true end of our story. My instructor advised me to write the memoir rather than the fictional version. So here is the reality from the summer of 1976.

It was summer in our small town in northern Wisconsin. Unlike Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, Lakewood wasn’t cliché, but it was charming. The town was only five blocks long with sidewalk along one side of the road; not both sides, just one. Main Street was a state highway with a gas station on each end of town. There were more taverns than anything else but we had the essentials— Elmer’s corner grocery, Hank’s hardware store, Betty’s diner, Percy’s hotel, Jerry’s bait shop, and the U.S. Post Office where my father worked. img_0067Everyone knew my dad and he knew everyone in town, including the summer residents. Our town was named for its two best attractions—thick woodlands and oodles of lakes. The town population tripled in summer, as city folks would venture north for rest and recreation. Dad wasn’t the mayor be he was charming and represented our town well to all visitors.

This particular summer of 1977 was especially vibrant as we celebrated the Bicentennial year across the USA. Red, white, and blue were everywhere with stars and stripes forever! I recall Independence Day was especially patriotic and memorable that year. My sister and I had returned home from a week visiting our Uncle Tom’s dairy farm. She was a few years older than I and appreciated the exciting opportunities of baling hay and milking cows. My eight year-old attitude was anxious to return to the comforts of home– mom and television. We were only nine miles away but it felt like we were across the state. When we arrived at home, dad was painting the wood siding of our house, which struck me as peculiar, considering it was a holiday and all. Didn’t he know there was an All-You-Can-Eat Pancake breakfast at the town hall and a parade at noon? I had an agenda– so did he.

My sis and I didn’t know we were shuffled off to the farm so mom and dad could travel to the doctor’s office for tests. The best doctors were in the city about an hour away. They would make a day of errands and shopping for things we couldn’t find in town.

Earlier that year, Mr. Hansen asked my father if we would be interested in gardening on his land. He had a large patch of yard devoted to a vegetable garden but didn’t have the energy to maintain it any longer. He and his wife loved to grow produce in their garden but she had recently passed on and it was too much for Mr. Hansen to do alone. I imagine his love for growing faded without the love of his life to share time planting, working in the garden, and enjoying meals together too.

It was a very large garden. Dad put on a pair of bib overalls in the spring to till the soil. I never saw him wear farmer jeans. Typically he wore a dress shirt and tie to work or leisure clothes on the weekend so this was a new version of my father. Together our family worked in the garden to plant, weed, and water. Early in the summer, my father’s back started to ache from the extra work. He thought he might’ve twisted it while wrestling with the rototiller in the spring. Tending to the plants wasn’t allowing time for the muscles to heal. Several weeks of treating the backache with Doan’s pain medicine was not working, so he decided it was time to see a doctor.

Like I said earlier, we were pretty young so they didn’t tell the little kids what was going on. From what we were told later, the doctor needed my dad to stay in the hospital for tests. He X-rayed and said nothing showed up except the button on his pajamas, to which my dad replied, “I don’t have buttons on my pajamas.” That’s when they discovered he had cancer.

I remember coming into the living room to hear the news. My older sisters were already crying so they must have thought it would be best to tell them before they tried to explain the situation to the littles. My sister and I were the youngest in the family. The first five girls were born every two years, as if they were planned. There is a five-year gap to my sister then another four-year gap to when I was born. I am the baby and was reminded frequently I was an accident rather than a pleasant late-in-life surprise.

I guess the diagnosis was why my dad had a different agenda on Independence Day. It was just July 4th and a day off work to tackle some of the projects he had been neglecting. I’m not sure when exactly they told us about the cancer but, looking back, he must have been coming to grips with his fate when I was dreaming of pancakes and parades. The visit to Uncle Tom’s dairy farm was the first of many weeklong sleepovers my sister and I would have that year. Every so often, mom and dad would leave for the city and send us to another relatives house. We had lots of aunts and uncles so it became an adventure to eat different meals and have our own bedroom with a door. All the girls in our family slept in the attic of our house with beds anywhere we could fit them. It’s a good thing the older sisters were heading to college because we ran out of beds once the little ones outgrew the crib in mom and dad’s bedroom.

No one really explained cancer very well. Maybe back then, they didn’t know a lot about it except that smoking caused it to grow in your body. My dad was a smoker, from what I’m told. He only smoked an occasional cigar in my presence. I knew him to spend a lot of social time in taverns on the way home. The Post Office was only a block from home but there were three bars between his workplace and home. Our house was a tiny place full of bickering women. I don’t fault him for opting out. My older sisters say he spent a lot more time socializing as the years went on and often missed dinner all together. I was oblivious to any of this because I was in my own world as the baby of the family.

Eventually, after the cancer was discovered and after several trips to the city, dad started losing weight and his skin turned yellow. I didn’t know why and, like everything else, no one explained it to me. I just figured it must be the cancer growing in his belly or the medicine they gave him. As skinny as his legs got, and as thin as his face became, he never seemed to lose his beer belly.

I remember lying on the sofa with dad, watching television when I was really small—probably before Kindergarten. His belly was so round, it would knock me off the couch if I didn’t hang on to the edge of the cushion. It wasn’t squishy round but firm, like a basketball was under his shirt. It’s kind of crazy to think of a tumor growing in someone’s body and even crazier to think that injecting poison into a body or zapping the tumor with radiation was the only hope for a cure. Death seems like a better alternative to all of that.

Contemplating death is probably why dad started going to church again. I hadn’t given much thought to why mom and my sisters went to church but dad always stayed home. Before his diagnosis, I recall asking my mom why he didn’t go to church with us and she simply replied, “If you ask him, he probably will.” I innocently quizzed him and he did go to church that Sunday. He dressed in his navy blue suit and sat on the end of our regular pew. At one point, he kept singing a hymn when only the first four verses where noted on the board. I think he was embarrassed because he didn’t come again, except for holidays, until after his diagnosis.

Dad rested in their bedroom most of the time and started reading the bible. He started going to church on a regular basis and would even go to chapel at the hospital if he had an extended stay for treatment. He wrote me a letter and made note that only a few persons were in church which made him sad. I think he was gaining new perspective on life and regretting some of the choices he had made at the expense of family time.

Sometimes I’d lay in bed with dad and read the Sunday comics. I recall asking him what he thought heaven would be like. He read chapters from the Bible to explain what he was looking forward to. That made me feel a little better about what I didn’t understand. No one really told me there was a chance he could get better. Everyone seemed to be preparing for the worst.

It was a springtime day when he told me about heaven. The asparagus was sprouting along the side of our house. I was excited to harvest the first crop and made a snack for us to share. He told me he didn’t really like asparagus much—only the top of the spears. I cut all the tops off and served them to dad with butter and salt. I had been pretty selfish up to this point in my life, being the baby of the family and all. That’s not to say cancer was life changing for me but it did change me in ways I wouldn’t realize until I was much older. I still think of heaven when I eat asparagus and my dad and how it’s a really nice feeling to give the best of something to someone you love.

Dad was pretty weak for a long time. There were days we couldn’t come close to his bed because any bump would hurt his entire body. I hated to see him grimace with pain so I stayed a safe distance away. I just wanted to curl up next to him like we used to do on the sofa but knew he needed time to rest. As hard as it was to see him suffer at home, it was harder when he was away from home for treatments. My grades slipped that year, as my mind would often wander when I was sitting in the classroom. Dad would help me with my homework on days he felt stronger. He was really good at math and logical thinking; especially helping me understand story problems.

A few years before cancer came into our lives, dad decided we should go camping. He hoped to retire at an early age to be a snowbird. He dreamed of buying a large RV to spend winters in Texas and returning for summers in northern Wisconsin. He settled for a smaller trailer until he would be old enough to retire. We would hitch the Trailblazer camper to the station wagon and head further north than we already were to enjoy the many National Forest campgrounds nearby. As our small town became more popular, sometimes we would park the trailer in the woods for a night to simply enjoy the sound of crickets rather than the tavern patrons stumbling around after the taverns closed. Camping trips were some of my more special memories. Dad would squeeze on the top bunk of the trailer to read the Sunday comics with me and share a bag of jellybeans. We both liked the black ones best. My father didn’t have another summer of camping.

The ambulance came in the middle of the night. Dad had fallen in our tiny bathroom and mom couldn’t lift him. My sister and I did not wake through it all; nor did anyone wake us. We woke up that Saturday morning for cartoons to find our eldest brother-in-law, Howie, making pancakes. He simply told us dad had been taken to the hospital. Our mom and older sisters were with him. We carried on as usual.

Dad had slipped into a coma when he slipped on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night. Later that day, he peacefully passed on. This is what my sister and I had been told. The days that followed were much the same with funeral preparations, meals brought to our home, cards of condolence, and a house filled with family. No one explained much to us, as per the norm.

He passed away in the spring, a few weeks after our meal of asparagus– one of the last meals he was able to keep down. I now realize my mother was coping with the loss of her love the same week of her 49th birthday and Mother’s Day. She was often sad, with justifiable reason. The experience also strengthened her faith. Cancer had consumed dad’s body but rejuvenated his soul– a gift despite the loss.

3 thoughts on “Summer | 1976

  1. Lisa,
    I remember driving to Madison to visit with Uncle Don. I lived in Milwaukee with Jan and Jackie at the the. I was like the first time that I had a serious talk about cancer and death with your father. I remember how much I learned with that conversation. I cried all the way back to Milwaukee. I don’t think it was too long after that, that he passed. I remember coming up for the funeral. I learned a lot during that time.
    And when my own mother got cancer, I remember a lot of my conversation with Uncle Don. His words came back to my mind, and helped me, to try to help my mother.
    I spent a lot of time with your family. It seemed like your parents and my parents spent a lot of time together, when we still lived up in Mountain yet. So, I got to spend time with my Swanson family.
    I love and respect you. And love your ability to put words on paper.

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