Happy Birthday, Dad

Today’s post is by Steve Grooms.

February 20 is my dad’s birthday. Or, I think it is. I used to have documents about such things, but I have moved too often, and I’ve lost much of the paperwork I once had. I once asked my mother if Dad had been born on the 20th.  She said, “George was born on the day George Washington wasn’t.” Mom sometimes talked like Gracie Allen.

My sister recently wrote that my dad and I were exceptionally close. We probably were, although I regret some differences that divided us. My father was socially and politically conservative. He was distinctly uneasy in the presence of assertive women. He came from a family that uncritically endorsed military service. Dad served in WW2, although his experience left him troubled about his government and the military. My hatred of the Vietnam War became a real problem for my dad. All in all, I think we were closer than almost any father and son pair I’ve seen.

We were both divided and united by a love for hunting and fishing. Dad taught me how to fish, and he introduced me to pheasant hunting. In the end, I drifted away from fishing the way he did it, and my style of hunting pheasants was totally unlike his. I tried to disguise those differences, for I didn’t want to hurt him. He chose to emphasize our common interest, although I’m sure it sometimes bothered him that I went my own way.

My dad was a storyteller. I could fill several books with stories he told me on an astonishing array of topics. I keep and treasure so many stories from him that I sometimes wonder if I have forgotten anything he told me. My memory is actually porous and fallible in many areas. My memory for stories, however, is awesome, and my dad shared an amazing treasure trove of stories with me. My love for stories is the most obvious of his legacies to me.

Several years ago I decided to write a book about my parents’ lives. I spent six years researching, writing and editing book. I began the project believing I understood my parents, especially my father. But as I retrieved more and more memories and contemplated them, I realized that my original sense of my dad was shallow and often wrong.

One odd discovery was learning that my dad was so handsome that women sometimes had trouble keeping their composure around him. This just is not a way people think about their parents. As I worked on the book I encountered stories about his impact on women. One reason I missed this so long was my dad didn’t care what women thought of him. He was a one-woman man.

Another surprise: the better I got to know my dad, the more I respected him. I have never met a man with as much integrity. I know his many flaws and shortcomings. He had a terrible childhood that left marks. I’ve witnessed his worst moments of weakness. I know what terrified him and what gave him hope. In the end, he stands as one of the finest men I’ve personally known. That, believe me, was a surprise.

Why do I write this now? When I was dating after my divorce I was surprised to learn that many children don’t know much about their mothers and even less about their fathers. All the women I got to know well had adult children. Those kids, without exception were absolutely clueless about their parents’ lives. Young people are usually too busy with their own lives to think much about their parents. That is surely the norm, and it was probably foolish of me to expect anything else.

When I understood my parents better I was moved by the drama of their story. I continue to wonder if they were exceptional that way. Perhaps most couples that seem boring actually are boring. Or perhaps many people lead fascinating lives but nobody ever notices their moments of great courage and passion.

Do you believe you know your parents well?

29 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Dad”

  1. I’ll add another pair of questions to this topic. Are there any burning questions you would like to ask of your parents? If either of your parents is alive now, do you have any plans to interview them or in some way record their stories?

    When I was researching my parents’ history I developed one question that seemed critical to me. Then, several years into the process of thinking about their history, I became confident I could answer that question.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since my parents died I have thought of lots of questions I want to ask them, mainly about extended family issues and factual things related to where they lived at certain times in their childhoods. Since I was an only child and since my parents lived so long, I think I knew them pretty well, but I know there were things I will never know. My parents were pretty transparent people, though. Not a lot of secrets.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I assume that is accurate, Renee. But almost all families look pretty normal if you don’t know their secrets.

    My sister, very long ago, got the sense our family had secrets. So she began snooping. And she turned up two scandals. She found legal documents saying that our dad had fathered a child out of wedlock. Not true! But in the eyes of the law, that was a fact. (It’s too long a story to retell here.) And she learned that our mother had been born not long after her parents got married. Well, that used to happen a lot. I didn’t think much about that until I later learned more about my grandfather. He was the blandest man imaginable . . . to outsiders. The truth was actually surprisingly scandalous.

    I go on assuming most families are as boring as they seem to be. My own family, however, has a bunch of weirdness behind the facade.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My father was born full term 6 months after his parents were married. I was the annoying grandchild who discovered this while perusing some family tree books at my grandparents’ house. My cousins were shocked when I gleefully told them about it. My mom calmly said “well, that happened then, too”. It explained why my dad’s younger brother was considered the golden child of the family, and why my dad never could do anything right in his parents’ eyes.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. In my extended family there is a woman who raised a boy she called a nephew. People who know the family think the kid was actually her son, although she never married. I’ve been told the boy’s true mother was actually another of the unmarried women in the family. Lots of secrets!


  6. You don’t need to have paperwork to track birthdates. Here’s a link to your dad’s birth record at the Church of Latter Day Saints site: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QK1S-3K96?from=lynx1UIV8&treeref=LXQR-RT2

    You would need an account to look at it, but you can sign up for free. They never charge you for access to their records. And yes, the birth record shows hew was born on February 20, 1916 in Ottumwa, Capello County, Iowa, to Paul O. Grooms and Flora Simmons.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. If you have an account at familysearch.org, click on the link that says “Family Tree” – on Flora’s side, some of the tree goes back as far as 1405.


        1. Thanks again. My own genealogy work, all lost because of a computer malfunction, didn’t go that far back.

          I remember one story from the Simmons family (my dad’s mom’s family). A young farm kid drove a team of horses and wagon to the docks in New York state in the 18th century. He heard a fight. A man at the docks was claiming his mail order bride, who had just arrived, but she didn’t want to go with him. The farm kid decked the man, drove the girl home in his wagon and later married her.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I have some typewritten notes about the family tree that my aunt Norma put together before she died. She included information about the “non-marital births” in the family, at least the ones she knew about.

    If you look for birth records online, they exclude those records. I can find birth records for all of my cousins except two. (Two of my aunts had children born out of wedlock.)

    Norma’s notes include two male names that have dates by them, but no indication of how they are related. I’m guessing they are the names of the fathers of my cousins, but I would need some help in matching the names to the cousins. Norma did not quite draw a complete picture there.

    Neither of my parents wanted to talk much about their pasts. My sister and I tried to question our father about his previous wife when we were small children. He would say tersely that she died. While it was true that she was dead by then, they had been divorced first, but my father didn’t want to talk about that when we were small children. So we stopped asking.

    As far as we knew then, she had been his first wife, but after he died we discovered that she was actually the second.

    I had a half sister that I never met from my father’s first marriage. She was raised by her maternal grandparents.

    So, no, I don’t really believe I knew my parents well.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I had one chatty, open parent (my dad) and one who didn’t want to talk about her past. My dad left two books of memoir (of an expected series of four). My mom did her best and left us a few sad pages of typewritten stories, full of strikeovers and gaps. Her stories were darker than his.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. One thing I would like to know about is how my parents arranged to elope. Mom was in college at Mankato State and dad was in Texas in the air force in 1942, and they arranged to meet in Wichita Falls over Christmas vacation and get married before he was sent to England. Letters? Telegrams? I would imagine phone calls would have been too expensive or even impossible. It was somehow arranged, and mom took the train to Texas and made it back to Mankato in time for classes to start after Christmas. They kept it a secret until mom finished her degree in the Spring. You couldn’t be married and in college at the same time.

    Liked by 5 people

  9. Excellent post on an interesting topic, Steve. Since I’m a live-and-let-live person (probably to a fault), I’ve never pried much into my parents’ pasts or their personal lives. They share what they want to share … that’s fine with me.

    I don’t feel particularly close to my dad, especially since he moved full-time to AZ, but I too admire him far more than almost anyone man I know. Since we’re both writers of a sort (he a longtime journalist and editor; me a late-in-life aspiring Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist 🙂 ) we seem to communicate better via letters (20th Century) and now emails.

    We get along great, have good times when we manage to get together, and have interesting and detailed conversations, but I’ll always believe he’s a little reserved around everyone, not just his kids because he’s uncomfortable sharing feelings and stories that are “too personal.”

    Still, I got lucky in the parent lottery and couldn’t have asked for a better mother or father growing up, especially considering today’s problems of far too many single parents and broken homes.

    Chris in Owatonna

    Liked by 3 people

  10. HI –
    Thanks for the stories today Steve.
    My parents were pretty open. It would be too hard to keep a secret anyway; the cousins all talk too much. Which I think is actually a good thing; don’t try to hide anything, just get it out there and then it’s over.

    Mom and Dad both wrote out their stories. And my brother did some interviews. The mysteries go back another generation. Grandma (Betz) wasn’t supposed to marry Grandpa Eggler. The Egglers were pretty fancy farmers. The Betz’s were nobodies. There are stories of stuff being thrown in ditches and people being disowned. Maybe that’s why my folks made a point of not keeping secrets?
    I got along with Mom better than Dad. Course I was working with Dad and taking over the farm from Dad and always comparing myself to Dad. It was complicated.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I wish I h ad asked more questions when Dad was alive, and when mom still had her memory. There are lots of little things now I’d ask her – should write them down and keep them with me for the occasional “good day” when her memories are more accessible. And sometimes when paging through a photo album something will surface.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, but to answer the question – sort of. I know their personalities, most of their history, how they reacted to things. But there are a lot of things I don’t really know – neither kept a journal that I was aware of. What were their big disappointments? What did they fear? My dad mind was intact to the end, so I know what his beliefs were about afterlife, but I may have to guess about my mom’s. Hmmm, maybe I’ll look for an opening and ask her.


  12. How well do I know my parent’s? That’s a good question. I suppose the answer depends on how you define “know.” Some of the “facts” of both my parents’ lives are sketchy. My dad’s biological father remains a mystery, and the year of my mother’s birth, for instance, is either 1919, 1920, or 1921. As was her wont, she had altered the date on her birth certificate (just as she altered my given name on my baptismal certificate). She did this prior to moving to England during WWII, supposedly so she would be eligible for whatever papers were required. Later on she would make some contradictory claims about her age, but by that time, no one really cared. We settled on 1920 as a reasonably accurate date, and so that she would only be a couple of months older than dad.

    Mom was pretty and gregarious, and had the Irish gift of gab. Dad fell head over heels in love with her and married her before he discovered that much of what he knew about her wasn’t true. They were both twenty-two years of age.

    I grew up surrounded by dad’s “family” in a small town where everyone knew everybody’s business. Our family stuck out like a sore thumb, partly because of mom being a crazy, Catholic, Irish woman, and partly because dad was a sailor who was gone most of the time.

    I have no doubt that both mom and dad had secrets that no one knew anything about, and it’s only in retrospects that I understand some of the dynamics that were at play in both of their lives. Nevertheless, my sense is that I knew them both well, and I see a lot of each of them in myself. Not necessarily something I’m happy about or proud of, but there it is. At this point I have outlived them both by five years, perhaps I’ve gained some wisdom over these last few years?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, Steve, that’s very kind of you to say that. My sister and I have been trying to reconcile some of our different recollections about our family, lately, and I find it interesting how difficult that can be. Some of the issues that have come up are insignificant in terms of who is right, but I’d just like to know the facts, and at this point, that may no longer be possible.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. To finish. Last weekend I took Dad to the Air Force museum in Dayton. One of the planes was of a type he had serviced in the early fifties. It had my mother’s name on it with her last name initial. Coincidence? Perhaps but Dad is convinced it’s named for Mom. I will not disabuse him otherwise.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. Another example of a harmless perception that it makes no difference whether or not it’s accurate. If it gives your dad some joy to believe that, let him, I’d say. I can think of very few people who can honestly say that their parents loved each other intensely, Wes. That’s a rare gift.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I’m glad you had that background, Wes. My parents were deeply, joyfully in love with each other. When I was growing up I didn’t know that was unusual. I knew some couples bickered a lot and other couples got divorced, but it took a long time for me to understand that the depth of my parents’ devotion for each other was rare.

        Liked by 3 people

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