My dad died last month at the age of 88. I couldn’t possibly convey what an amazing person he was in an 800-word column, so today I thought I would write about just one of the many things I learned from him. My dad taught me the importance of being able to laugh at yourself.
Dad was an Episcopal minister in New Jersey. He had five children, all spaced about a year apart. It would appear, from family photo albums, that my mom was pregnant every fall for a half a decade.
We didn’t have much money; but my father made sure we always had what we needed. Every summer, we would spend August vacationing at a camp on a lake in Maine. My parents would load all five kids and a month’s worth of clothes and necessities into one station wagon for the 8-hour trip. It was like fitting the contents of a swimming pool into a shot glass. Just to ensure we were violating every law of physical space, they added to the mix three loose cats and a dog. With limbs askew and faces pressed against the windows, we became contortionists for the duration of the long drive, spilling out of the vehicle like circus clowns when we arrived at our destination.
Much of our vacation time was spent playing in the lake. At some point, we determined we needed a diving raft.
One spring, prior to our annual pilgrimage, my parents went for a canoe trip on the Raritan River in New Jersey. I suspect this particular waterway was an EPA Superfund site, as their bucolic paddle was highlighted by the passing of many forms of industrial waste floating on the water. At one point, they saw a huge hardened piece of yellow foam the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. My dad steered towards it. “We can bring this to Maine, anchor it, and the kids can use it as a raft,” he suggested. So they towed the colossal piece of foam back to the car.
A few months later, the blob, strapped on top of the canoe trailer, made the 400-mile trip to the cabin and with team effort, the new diving platform was dragged down to the beach and anchored off shore.
My siblings and I couldn’t wait to get into the water and play on our new, unique raft. It was difficult to climb onto, but we got the hang of it in a matter of minutes, and spent most of the day jumping off the mass of industry by-product having a blast.
Unfortunately, that night we all started to itch and develop angry rashes from our skin coming into contact with the toxic material that was our raft.
My dad was not to be deterred. He affixed a sheet of plywood to the top of the foam block. This modification resulted in our rashes being complimented by wooden splinters. Eventually, the discomfort caused by the raft outweighed the pleasure we derived from it, and it remained anchored and unused the rest of the summer. But for many years to follow, my dad took extreme pleasure in retelling the story of his failed attempt at securing a diving raft for the cabin.
Another memory of our childhood my dad enjoyed retelling was how, each year, he would wait until Christmas Eve to buy our tree. There was one reason he would do this: Trees were very inexpensive hours before the big day, and my dad was cheap. All that would remain on the lot at this point were pathetic-looking, non-symmetrical pines with huge bare spots. He would purchase a tree, bring it home and become an amateur arborist, sawing off branches from the back, drilling holes in the trunk and sticking limbs in the front. By the time he was done, the tree looked good enough for display at Rockefeller Center.
A final example of my dad being able to laugh at himself occurred when he came to Vermont for my son’s college graduation. We were sitting at a backyard picnic, and my dad was telling us how his back had been bothering him. He said his doctor recommended shoe inserts a few weeks earlier to help align his spine, but they had no effect at all, and he was feeling so bad he was now experiencing balance issues. Being a hot day, my dad had kicked his shoes off, and my friend looked at the inserts. “These are in the wrong shoes,” my buddy observed. He switched the inserts, and gave the shoes back to my dad, who put them on, and miraculously could walk without any balance issues at all. One of the last times I saw my dad, we talked about this very incident from years ago, and he laughed hard.
My dad enjoyed life; and when he could laugh at himself, he enjoyed it even more. Not a bad lesson to learn.
Mark Albury lives in Northfield Falls.