My Hero, My Dad

He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.  ~Clarence Budington Kelland

Today my dad (Eugene J. Abel, Sr-better known as Gene) would have been 82 years young.  Born as the Great Depression was starting, to a mother who wanted a girl, in the city of Philadelphia so began my dad’s life.

He was the second son of two children.  His mom, who came from a poor Irish/English background, stayed at home although I think she may have worked at some point. His German father was strict and worked on the railroad.  They did not have much money, and both his parents came from large families of 13 children each.  And my grandmother revealed to me later in her life that she married at 19 to get out of the house and her unhappy life.  It did not turn out to be a happy adult life for her either as she viewed it.

Isn’t he the cutest baby

I barely remember their house and small garden/flowers growing up so I don’t know where my dad’s love of gardening came from.  He graduated high school, went to work and met my mom.  He was drafted into the Korean War towards its end, but did not see any action due to drinking foul water on maneuvers in Texas.  The war ended and he came home.

He married my mom in 1954 after she graduated from nursing school as an RN.  He was going to night school after the war to get his accounting degree.  He could only go part time because he had to earn a living.  They started a family in 1956, and had 4 children in 5 years.  During this time, my dad continued to go to school at night while my mom stayed home and raised us kids.  She would work on weekends while my dad took care of us.  To say this was non-traditional is putting it mildly.  How many fathers in the 1950s cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids?  Not many and how many parents really shared everything:  work, kids, household?

We moved to Indiana in the fall of 1962 where my dad had a new job.  From the city to the country without batting an eyelash. We moved from a tiny cramped row-house to a tri-level 4 bedroom 1.5 bathroom house.  Mom stayed home at this point, and my dad drove an hour each way to work because he chose to have his family live in a bit of larger city than where he worked.  And he drove a junker of an old car always making sure my mom had the station wagon.

So you can see my role models were very different (at least that’s what my friends always said).  And my dad was the consummate kid.  He loved to play with us.  When we were growing up in Indiana he came home from work, and was always playing ball with us or some other game.  He even made folding the laundry fun.  We never folded laundry without having a sock fight, and he would usually start it.  My mom always said she had 5 kids and she was right.  But first and foremost, he was always our father.  He disciplined us even though I think it hurt him more sometimes.

1949-my dad as a young man

But what I remember most was the love.  The complete unconditional non-judgmental love and acceptance of all of us with all our faults.  He never dwelt on those faults either.  He would look at the positive.  He would talk with us.  He would let us make up our minds, and make our own mistakes.   He let us live our lives even if he didn’t approve.  And you never really knew if he did because again he did not pass judgement.  He was the proud dad and he always made you know just how proud he was of all of us.

My dad was always loved and admired by all.  I used to work summers in the same company he worked when I was going to college.  You could see the admiration of his co-workers and employees he supervised.  He had many friends and I never remember anyone ever saying an unkind thing about him.

His sense of humor though was legendary.  It was the Irish in him I suspect.  That dry slightly sarcastic way he had of saying things that was so endearing.  We loved to hear him tell the same stories over and over again or have him sing his silly songs.  Those that know me well know I inherited his sense of humor; dry and sarcastic as well.

A daughter’s first harvest

So when did he start gardening.  I don’t really remember.  What I do remember was he took care of the bushes and lawn in Indiana.  But when we moved to central New York in 1968, he spent so much more time planting.  He was forever planting trees some of which made it and others he constantly replaced.  He loved his apple trees and quince bush.  And he was always in a battle with the rabbits (we lived in the middle of farm fields again in a new housing development).  But this time it was different.  I saw my parents working together to create small gardens with bulbs and flowers.  They both loved roses and he tended them lovingly.  What was new here in NY though was the vegetable garden.  I am not sure how they started and how they learned, but I remember the first small patch was planted with many different veggies (peppers, cukes, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, radishes) and we had a great harvest.  Each subsequent year, they increased the size of the plot and planted many other veggies.  I remember the load of manure they would till into the soil (the smell was most memorable).  I never remember a crop failure or pest problem although I am sure there were some.

And I think the garden was his solace.  It was where you would find him puttering in a peaceful happiness it is hard to describe.  He even planted cactus at their house when my parents moved to Arizona.  That was when the bottom dropped out though for my dad.  He had lost his job at about 50 and tried his own businesses.  He fell in love with the weather in Arizona when he took me to graduate school there.  So they moved there in 1985.  My mom knew something was wrong even though we tried to believe it was just depression.  It turned out to be early onset Alzheimer’s.  My dad suffered with this disease for almost 15 years until it took his life in 1998 soon after I was married. He was only 68.

My dad on the left with a friend

Amazingly though he never lost his sense of humor or his love for his family.  He would continue to garden until the disease took so much of him he did not know us anymore.  He suffered in silence, never wanting his family to be hurt or affected by the disease because that was the kind of person he was.  And for his sake we never showed the pain we felt or the made him feel like he was incapable of anything he wanted to do.  It was the little triumphs like when he could walk from the car to the house or still feed himself that sustained us and at the same time pierced our hearts with a searing pain.

So I remember the man with the song in his heart and all the things we shared:  gardening, our love of old movies, story-telling, discussing politics and the news.  He was the listener and I was a talker.  His were the huge shoulders that I cried on and that held me up when I needed them.  His voice, the heart of my father, was silenced long before his body gave out.  I really lost him soon after the disease started.  I was 28.  To say I miss my father can’t even begin to express the love, pain, sorrow I feel daily.  I feel his presence though whenever I am in the garden.  In that place of peaceful solitude that sustains my soul, that puts me in touch with him and his memory.  And maybe that is why I love it so, why I feel the compulsion, the yearning to be out there.  To be with him if not on this plane of existence then in another with his spirit.  So today I am celebrating my memories of my dad on this his birthday.  It is the least I can do after all he has done for me….I love you daddy!!!

Flowers seem intended for the solace of ordinary humanity.  ~John Ruskin


Special Note:Thank you to all who have read this celebration of  my dad’s life.  It seemed fitting to finally write this memoir although it was difficult.  I hope my siblings read this, and hopefully find some solace.  The picture at the top of the post was taken when my dad was in the middle stages of the disease.  The disease even made it hard for his brain to tell his body how to smile, but smile he did even though he had to work at it.  He is pictured with his trusty buddy, our dog Banditt.  They were never apart until my dad was so sick he had to live in a group home.  It broke Bandit’s heart I think, and his health declined until he died a few years before my dad.  They are together now and I know Bandit was there to great him.  I wonder what my father would have thought of this blogging thing, and of his daughter’s writing.  I am sure he would be proud smiling that fabulous grin beaming ear to ear…..

41 Replies to “My Hero, My Dad”

  1. Hello Donna, I had just finished reading your last posting and was about to comment when I decided to take a look around your site. On coming back I found you had just posted this beautiful memoir. I have to say I found it deeply touching. I can only say he would be very proud to see just how much he still means to you.

    1. Alistair, this means alot coming from a wonderful father such as yourself…it was clear to me how wonderful a father you are by your post where you shared your daughters beautiful jewelry….The memories I have of my dad sustain me every day…I am so glad you came back and found the post and liked it…

    1. Marie thank you reading and sharing in this day…I believe his energy is in my garden too…he would love being there and in some ways I believe he is there with me…

  2. Wow…I can’t stop crying. What a beautiful way to honor your father. He sounds like such an incredible man. No wonder you turned out so amazing as well! Thank you for sharing…

    1. My dad and I would be crediting each other and not taking any credit ourselves..we are both like that…thank you for sharing in his special day!!

  3. What a beautiful and moving tribute. I love that Kelland quote – so true of my father, too. I’m so glad that you wrote this and hope that many read it.

    1. Thank you Ginny…the quote was perfect and when I happened across it I knew it said it all…thank you for sharing in this special day!!

    1. Carolyn, the bond we have with our fathers is so strong and continues even when they die…he was too incredible a person and I felt compelled to share him with the world..I know he is smiling down on me today with that incredible grin!!

  4. Wow how did you write this with a dry eye,very powerful!!!!I felt like I was reading about my father he would have been 82 this past Jan 1st, he was in the Korean War and got married in 1958 and had all three of us me Ray and Rob1960 1963 and 1964.I so glad to hear that you had such a good up bringing your father would be so proud of you today, you are a role model to all of us, and that comes from the way your parents brought you up,job well done to your parents!!!!!Remember you will always be #1 in our eyes!!!!! We will think about your father today and wish him a HAPPY 82ND BIRTHDAY!!!! Have a Great Day!!!

    1. Nina you are such an incredible person and your kind sentiments overwhelm me…you understand and say what I am feeling…thank you for thinking of me and my dad…let’s wish both our fathers a happy birthday today!!

  5. A beautiful tribute to an obviously very special Man brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharingf this with us – you must be so proud to have had such a special man as your Dad.

    1. Christine I am beaming with pride…I cried writing it but it just felt right…thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!!

  6. This is such a well written remembrance and wonderful tribute to your father. My dad was 69 and passed of emphysema and cancer. So sad when they are so young and have to live through a disease that causes pain and hardship. You did a wonderful thing penning such a loving tribute.

    1. Thank you Donna..until you experience the loss of a parent, you don’t know the pain…here’s too all our fathers and mothers who have passed…we send our love and rememberance…

  7. Donna-Thank you-
    You captured it all so well. I do remember a few things about the small garden of tomatoes & a strawberry patch in Indiana. But yes the truely BIG Garden was in Liverpool, NY.
    I know daddy is proud of you.
    I didn’t know you had that picture of dad & Banditt taken at the cabin in Strawberry.

    Happy Birthday Daddy!

    1. Thanks Sis…I think we have all been in pain long enough. He would not want that and I think it is now Ok to remember and talk more about those things and him…we will all heal if we do…if you can let mom see it on your computer this weekend I think she too would like it…although my recollection may not be as accurate as hers…love you!!

    1. He was all those things and more and I believe he is very proud…he was always proud of us even when we made mistakes…he loved us, picked us up and helped get us on the right path from time to time if we needed it…and he never judged….just gave us lots of love and encouragement…thx for sharing in his special day today!!

  8. Donna, such a sweet tribute to your Dad. What a full bucket of happy memories you have! Teary-eyed, I can empathize as I lost my Dad about four years ago…he would be 89 this May. He called my sisters and I his ‘little dumplins’. I think your dad may have loved gardening also because he enjoyed the nurturing aspect of it as he had with his children. What a loving man he must have been. I’m happy for you that you were able to write this…heart rending as it must have been. Great work!

    1. Marcia it was difficult to write with the swell of emotions it brought on, but I knew in my heart it was time to share his story…thank you for sharing some memories of your dad too…we will celebrate all of our dads today!!

    1. Carolyn I am so glad it brought back wonderful memories…hopefully they were tears of joy…if I could wish one thing it would be to share one more day with him and talk and garden…

  9. Dear Donna, I love this tribute to your father. I believe I got my love of gardening from my dad, too. I feel I know your dad through your words. He would be so proud of you! P. x

    1. Jennifer thank you for reading and I am glad it touched you…I think he definitely would be proud although he would have been very modest about it…

  10. Dear Donna – the sentiments of this tribute are very heartfelt and especially as your narrative summarises so well the life and love of a truly good father. It would have been a pleasure to meet him. A two fold loss between his illness and his passing. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Laura thank you for reading and sharing in his day…you definitely would have loved meeting and talking with him…I wish I could have brought him to Ireland and England to find and meet family…he would have been at home in both places…

  11. Such a touching tribute to your hero, your Dad. Happy memories will always live on forever Donna. My Dad is my hero too….miss him a lot, he would have loved to see my garden, the only one among his children that inherited his passion for gardening…

    1. I fixed the typo for you…thank you for celebrating my tribute…so glad it brought back fond memories for you of your dad as well…and how wonderful you have his gift and love for gardening….

  12. You were so young – only 28. Still, you have wonderful memories of a loving father. How beautiful is this post. I know the healing nature of a garden. Having lost family members close to me, the garden truly is a place of solace and remembrance.

  13. Donna, you always write beautifully, but this was so moving. What a fabulous tribute to your Dad, he was clearly an extraordinary man. I envy you having a father so emotionally engaged with you – my own is a rather remote figure, though I know he loves me. I am so very sorry your Dad – and your whole family – had the latter years of his life blighted by early onset dementia, such a cruel disease. Thank you for telling us about him.

    1. Thank you for sharing in his story and I am so glad it touched you…he indeed was a remarkable man and father….I know how lucky I was to have him…

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