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Second Thoughts: Still in Harshaw, still at home

My father never touched alcohol, wouldn't allow it in the house.

But, without condemnation, he helped a drunken neighbor who stumbled to our home after crashing his car. Another time, my Dad quietly stayed up until dawn, watching over my brother who was seriously ill after drinking more than a human should.

Tom Herman was the sort of man who would invite nephews, neighbors and near-strangers for dinner -- and knew my mother would feed them.

It's funny the things you remember at the death of the man you lived with for a third of your life but never understood.

His passing early last Saturday morning was no surprise. Over the last years, I've started the 200-mile drive more than once thinking I'd not make it home in time to see him alive. But all those other times, I'd been wrong. This time my brother's voice on the other end of the call at 5 a.m. told me otherwise.

This time I had intended to leave in another four hours to make the trip to sit by my father's bed one more time. I had dreaded the drive I didn't make. But by noon, I would have given much to have been there.

Standoff -- for many years that pretty much summed my relationship with my Dad.

If he answered the phone when I called home from college, I would simply ask to talk to Mom. It seemed my Dad and I had nothing to say to one another.

There was no animosity. It was as though we spoke two different languages. And, to be honest, I didn't put much effort into learning his.

My Dad had done nothing to alienate me. Except that I felt I had tried hard to do everything right, and he always managed to put his finger on the smallest shortcoming. He wanted to keep his kids close to home. I couldn't wait to leave.

He and I were different. I am a daydreamer, a reader and an organizer. He saw no value in anything that wasn't solid, and he reveled in -- if not chaos -- commotion.

I needed peace and order. He loved having the house filled with his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and far-flung relatives.

He loved the land, his land, whether it was tillable, tree-covered or swamp and wanted to keep it forever. I enjoy the Northwoods but have no need to lay claim to more than my own house.

My father was more likely to set out alone in his pickup to wander back roads than to play basketball or catch with his children. You wouldn't find him in the evening in slacks and slippers reading his paper in the living room. You'd more likely see him in his chair -- in jeans and a version of the same plaid cotton shirt he always wore -- watching the news and demanding quiet.

In my late teens, when I first came across the word, I would have described my family as "dysfunctional." But that was before I knew what the term meant.

My parents bickered, but there was no violence between them. The thought of my Dad cheating on my Mom was laughable. He didn't steal, smoke, drink or gamble. He came home every night.

His main vice was Pepsi, and he played a fierce game of checkers.

I longed for a family that went exotic places. Mine did not. I wanted parents who said, "Yes." My Dad mostly said, "No" -- to contact lenses unless you paid for them yourself, to teen parties, to dating, to anything fun.

Whenever we bought him a gift, he said, "You shouldn't have," and meant it.

My father and I had no interests in common -- until my children were born.

My daughter, the first grandchild, was his star. My little son and the other grandkids lived to be spoiled by Grandpa, who could be counted on for a trip to the candy store or to be the first to put a boy behind the wheel of a pickup and guide him across an empty field.

When my daughter was injured in an accident, my Mom and Dad dropped everything to be with us. Grandpa sat for hours with my daughter, who was not in pain but in traction and bored as only an immobilized three-year-old can be.

Years later, they came immediately when my daughter's tentative diagnosis was a name I couldn't bring myself to say aloud. The scare was worse than the illness, but they came.

As my children entered their teens and often drove me to exasperation, my father was the voice of calm and reason. Whether I asked for it or not, he offered advice that I knew in my heart was right.

To this day, to my surprise, I sleep more soundly in my parents' house than anywhere else.

The last time I saw my father was a week before his 86th birthday and two weeks before he died. During the three brief times I was alone with him, he looked at me with pleading eyes. He had reached the point where words eluded him and keeping his eyes open for a few minutes took more energy than he had. I don't know what he wanted, whether it was to go home, to simply go or for understanding.

"It's OK, Daddy," I said, not knowing what I meant either, and I gently rubbed his shoulder. "It's OK."

That week my family took him home to die there, and after 11 days he did.

The epitaph my sisters and brothers chose for him was "Gone to Canada to be with Ben," a reference to my brother who died decades ago.

I would have chosen, "Still in Harshaw. Still at home."

As I grow older I realize that we all fall short of the ideal our children would want us to be. I think now that simply being there -- like a rock, steady and solid -- is the best we can do for them. It's what my father did for me.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.