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…..

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