The Last Father’s Day

The heat was oppressive. The air wasn’t moving, hanging like a hot wet blanket, engulfing you, making it difficult to breathe.

In the days before air conditioning, you woke up hot and sweaty, and that was before the sun was even on the horizon. You tended the livestock early, weeded the garden out behind the chicken house and picked whatever produce was ready by 7 AM or so, because the heat and humidity only got worse as the day progressed.

Home sweet home. The farm in Indiana.

In fact, it was so hot on the farm in summer that children were allowed to run around in their birthday suits except for their underwear, and play in the sprinkler or a tub outside, filled from the hose or the well pump. Sometimes the adults indulged in the hose too, putting their thumbs over the end to cause “spray,” or stuck their feet in a bucket of cool water. It was just that hot. 

This particular Sunday, June 20, 1993, just happened to be Father’s Day.

My life in 1993 was very different than it is today. Every June, I spent a week at Rockome Gardens, an Amish “park” in the countryside of heartland Illinois, at a Cross Stitch Festival, teaching and learning and enjoying the camaraderie of my friends.

A group of us met at Rockome from across the country every summer, like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Mind you, Arcola, the closest town, a few miles distant was so small that there was only a railroad crossing, a bowling alley and one small Mom and Pop motel. Of course, there were grain silos and an elevator along the railroad tracks, because after all, this is farm country.

By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3448414

The area around Rockome Gardens was much like the area in Indiana where I grew up, corn, soybeans and farm after farm, so I was quite comfortable driving between the fields and avoiding Amish buggies sharing the road. Everyone waved at each other. Life was simple. I loved it there – it felt and smelled so comfortable.

The needlework show ended on Sunday afternoon, but I packed up early and hit the road so that I could drive to central Indiana in time to see my step-father, the man I knew as Dad.

I knew he wasn’t expecting me, because he knew that I was busy at the show, but I wanted to be sure to get there in time to celebrate Father’s Day.

Dad was 72 years old and had been having health issues off and on for a couple of years. A lifelong smoker, he had been in and out of the hospital with COPD. He would give up cigarettes, certainly while he was in the hospital, and for awhile afterwards, but he always started again. He thought that we didn’t know, because he only smoked when he was at the barn. I know he always thought he’d have “just one” but that one always led to another, which led to another, which eventually led to another ambulance ride to the hospital. Up until this time, the EMTs and doctors had always managed to revive him, patch him back together and home he would come with new resolve among our fervent pleas to spare his own life.

I was so grateful that Dad was still with us, seemed to be doing as well as possible, and was excited to surprise him. I had arranged with my husband to celebrate Father’s Day with him the following weekend by planting two maple trees at our house, so hubby didn’t expect me home until very late on Sunday.

The only place that afforded air conditioned comfort was a car, store or a restaurant. No place else in farm country had air conditioning, including the farmhouse that was always “home” to me, even years after moving away.

As I drove cross country, enjoying the cool of my Mom-van, back road to back road, watching the shimmering heat waves rise up from the pavement, I relished the thought of how surprised Dad would be. I had a small gift of some sort all tucked away, even though I had already send a card and gift certificate to Red Lobster.

Dad’s favorite thing to do at Red Lobster was to order something, add a side of crab legs, which he dearly loved, and then see how many meals he could get out of that one meal via leftovers. Red Lobster was a luxury he never allowed himself unless he had a gift certificate – which is why I gave him one at every possible opportunity.

As people age, they are infinitely more difficult to buy for. First, they have most everything they need. What they want has far more to do with people they love, time and visits that any “thing.” I knew that, which is why I was going home, even though it meant arriving at my own home late that night and getting little sleep before work on Monday morning.

The look on his face would be worth it!

I knew Mom and Dad were going to Red Lobster to eat after church on Father’s Day, so I timed my arrival for after they returned home. That worked perfectly.

As I drove, the baking sun gave way to storm clouds gathering on the western horizon. Heat induced summer storms were mixed blessings, as they brought much needed rain for the crops and sometimes a brief respite from the heat, but they also brought tornadoes and this was tornado alley. We learned what to watch for, and when to run to the basement and dive for safety. Tornadoes were a fact of life and I’ve lived through several.

I watched the western sky as a wall cloud approached, rolling towards me, hoping the downpour that was sure to come would be swift and fleeting, because driving in blinding rain is difficult. Many summer storms were violent, but passed quickly, leaving the vegetation refreshed and beautifully green.

I drove in front of the wall cloud for quite some time, at about the same speed apparently, but when I turned north, it overtook me and I found myself in a hail-filled downpour. In the open country, there is no place to “go” and the best you can hope for is to find someplace to pull off the road so someone won’t hit you. No one can see.

Normally, I find summer storms refreshing. I woke up to so many storms, both during the night and to gentle early morning rains when I was a kid that rainfall feels soothing to me, and so do storms, unless they are particularly violent.

But this day, the storm and the greyness didn’t lift.

I arrived “home” in the mid-late afternoon and walked in, just like I had done for decades. I knew where the key to the back door was hidden, but I never had to use it. The door was never locked. I don’t even know if the key worked, truthfully. The lock probably would have been considered antique and there was only one key in existence for everyone to share. Generally, someone was home, and if they weren’t the dog wasn’t going to let anyone but family in anyway. The front door, not once in my entire recollection, was ever used. This was farm country and that’s how farm country worked!

Dad’s two favorite places, other than the barn, were at the kitchen table and in his recliner. Beyond any doubt, he could always be found in one of those three places. This day, he was seated in his chair in the kitchen wearing his ever-present overalls. He looked up to see who was walking in his back door, and I could see the surprise on his face turn to pure joy as he recognized me.

He had no other visitors.

I walked up to him and hugged him and declared, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad.” He beamed, thunked me on the head with his thumb and tousled my hair. All was right with the world. He may have been a quiet, soft-spoken prairie farmer that time passed by, but he was the most important person in the world to me that day.

He was infinitely strong in his silence, a granite pillar, a mighty example of kindness and good. He stood steadfastly for what he believed, even when it wasn’t convenient or popular. He believed in his family, equality and what was right.  In fact, he believed in me when no one else did.  It was Dad who told me, another hot summer day, years earlier, “You can be whatever you set your mind to – and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.” He didn’t have to say any more. He had said it all and changed my life with one sentence.

Thanks Dad.

He asked what I was doing there and I told him I had come to see him on Father’s Day. He immediately began to worry about me driving home late at night.

Yep, that was Dad.

I told him I came to visit and the drive didn’t matter. I could tell, in spite of his protests, he was secretly pleased.

I’m not sure where Mom was. She was there, I’m sure, but these 24 years later, what I remember of that afternoon was sitting at the old kitchen table and visiting with him. I don’t remember what we talked about, except the storm (of course) because farmers always talk about rain, and about what he ate at lunch at Red Lobster. I think I brought him a mug or something like that as well, and he complained that I shouldn’t be spending my money on him.

That was always Dad.

That was the same man who would patch anything and everything together with duct tape until it simply could not be fixed again, and then begrudgingly purchase a used replacement, but gave me his last $20 when I left with my young children to move away – to pursue that career he encouraged me to follow. He desperately fought tears that day and asked if I was sure I didn’t need more money. I tried to refuse his $20, but he wouldn’t let me. I later found a $100 bill tucked in my purse, which he adamantly disavowed any knowledge of when I tried to pay him back.

That was Dad.

Dad’s sense of humor never failed him. Sitting at the table that day, I recalled that one year I gave him a hairbrush with no bristles for Father’s Day, because he was bald. He pretended to use that hairbrush for years, which would always cause peals of laughter.

Dad, smiling at me as I tried to get one of my kids ready for Halloween. He was wearing a wig, so I wouldn’t “recognize” him – and to let me know he wasn’t bald anymore!

Yea, that was Dad.

We laughed in the heat that day, sitting at the kitchen table with the whir of a very ineffective fan in the background, as we recalled many funny stories, some of which both of us didn’t agree were funny. But we laughed at all of them anyway!

That was Dad. Never malicious or hurtful with his humor, but always a practical joker.

At some point, Mom came in to fix dinner, called supper on the farm. Dinner was at lunch and the word lunch didn’t exist in that world. I told her I couldn’t stay to eat. I had many hours ahead of me, on those same back roads in the rain.

Dad walked me to the car and uncharacteristically told me how much he really appreciated me finding a way to stop. He told me he loved me.

That was not Dad. He was a man of very few words, and never “those” words. Never.

I looked at him a long time, in silence, and he looked at me too. Straight in the eyes. Tears welled up. I knew how much he loved me.

I had always known.

I know he knew how much I loved him too. I tried to tell him with my actions always. As Dad would say, “actions speak louder than words.” I’ve lived by his simple “farmer’s wisdom” my entire life. It never fails me.

I tried to speak. I couldn’t. My voice cracked as I told him I loved him and I simply couldn’t say goodbye. The tears streamed down my face, mixed with sweat, in spite of my attempts to stop them. I felt his rough thumb, calloused by decades in the fields, as he tried to gently wipe my tears away.

Dad was of course sweating, not crying.

I finally got into the car. Dad stepped back a couple steps, between the house and the old building that passed for a garage, and began waving to me, very slowly. He just stood there waving. He never did that.

I knew I had to leave, but for some reason, I was transfixed in that moment in time. Time simply stopped.

Finally, I backed out of the driveway and pointed the car north. As I passed the little white church at the crossroads, on the land he donated, I braked to look in the mirror, and I saw him, still standing there watching me disappear, still waving.

I saw the storm clouds gathering again, and I knew I had to hurry or they would overtake me. I wanted Dad to go inside, out of the storm. He had already weathered too many. I desperately wanted him to be safe, and to be there went I went back the next time, waiting for me at the kitchen table.

I drove away, down that lonely grey road as the storm began. I had no idea I was crossing a divide.

The day after we planted those maple trees, my life changed forever.

That was the last Father’s Day.

It was also the last Father’s Day my husband would be with me.

And the last time I ever visited Rockome.

A year later, I would be on the other side of that terrible divide, and all I could do was to look back in life’s rear-view mirror, longing to see Dad waving. Wanting desperately to turn around and go back. Aching inconsolably for what was forever lost.

I’m so incredibly glad that I found a way to make it home on that sticky hot Sunday for what would be the last Father’s Day.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and thank you.

Eloise Lore, my grandmother’s sister, Barbara Jean Ferverda (at right) and Ralph Dean Long holding Spot. Garage, burning barrels and outhouse in the background.

50 thoughts on “The Last Father’s Day

  1. A good and well written story. Always follow your heart when you feel you need to visit someone. So glad you did. Made me so wistful for those gone ahead. My father is still here, thankfully he quit smoking when I was a child, he is 83 now and healthy. A blessing. I will take he and my mom to his pizza place tomorrow and give him his favorite Mounds bar. A good man. Very loved. Wish my brother could have lived to join us.

  2. What a heartfelt Father’s Day tribute to your father Roberta … may his memory be a blessing.

    All the Best,

    Jeffrey Mark Paull

  3. Love this piece of writing and the photos. You are gifted, Roberta, and many of us are most appreciative.

  4. What a poignant story of you and your dad’s last moments together. Very touching to me because this will be my first Father’s day without my dad. Thanks.

  5. I do not often cry, but your story made me cry. I think the garage and the burn barrels memories did it.

  6. I’ve been reading your blog for such a long time.I loved the memories of your (step) father. It made me cry, because I could relate. Thank you so much.

    Sincerely, Diana Cormack

  7. Thank you for the Father’s Day story! I so enjoyed reading! You reminded me that time is fleeting: precious time with our loved ones, making memories, loving each other, is what it’s all about!!

  8. Your beautiful story made me tear up! It’s so hard to lose our parents… I lost both of mine 9 years ago… Thank you for sharing…

  9. Beautiful story. I could relate to every single detail about farm life, even tho’ I grew up on a farm on the East Coast. And I could relate to the beloved father slowly losing the battle to stay healthy. Thank you so much.

  10. Any man can leave behind an X or Y chromosome. It takes a real man to be a father. It appears
    Roberta’s step-father was a real man.
    God bless men this Father’s Day that commit to nurture and love their children. May men that neglect, abandon, or abuse their children, be in Heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

  11. As a fellow Hoosier I recognized my people in your tribute. It was so moving and brought back memories of my Indiana farmstead so long ago lost. Thank you.

  12. BAWLING NOW

    On Sat, Jun 17, 2017 at 12:37 PM, DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy wrote:

    > robertajestes posted: “The heat was oppressive. The air wasn’t moving, > hanging like a hot wet blanket, engulfing you, making it difficult to > breathe. In the days before air conditioning, you woke up hot and sweaty, > and that was before the sun was even on the horizon. You ten” >

  13. Rockome Gardens is gone now too, turned into the Aikman Wildlife Adventure. It was a wonderful quirky place and I’m glad I got to visit several times over the years but never managed any of the shows.
    My father was a carpenter, son of a carpenter from Germany, born in Iowa, fought in World War II in North Africa and Italy in the Army Corp of Engineers, back to construction after the war and took up oil/acrylic painting in his retirement. Sadly all but a couple of his paintings were lost last year along with many of his tools, it wasn’t a happy time. He was born in June 1908 and died in March 1990. He is deeply missed and I will probably ache inconsolably for that loss the rest of my life, as I do for my mother and maternal grandmother. The world is so much emptier without them.
    Happy Father’s Day to your Dad, to my Papa and to all the fathers out there.

  14. Thank you Roberta. 🙂 So this was my 1st Father’s Day without my dad. My dad was known to be a long talker. Phone calls were always minimally 1 hour long. Today I wished to have that long phone call. In all honesty I never was bothered by the long phone calls. I enjoyed them. I miss them. My gut wanted to call him, to say Happy Father’s Day, and to tell him that I love him. I went to church today, which is nothing different than my normal routine. In sacrament meeting I heard a talk about father’s and what a father should do…my dad got every nail on the head! I never fully realized how hard he tried to be a good father and a better man than he was…until today. My last phone call with him was not a good one…mostly because of how stressed and unhappy he was. I am happy though that the last time I saw him…it was his birthday (a few years ago). I took him to brunch at the Amish market. He loved going there. It actually was a thing. Every Saturday morning he would go there for breakfast and take one of us kids with him. I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he said “a loaf of peach bread”. My dad was a simple man. I guess I never appreciated how simple until recently. His whole life was his family and church with occasional peach bread. 🙂

  15. Thank you, thank you. That was my home in Central Illinois you wrote about. It was our summers, our corn, our burn barrels, our yard, and most especially my gentle, quiet dad. You made me cry with those happy memories. Thank you, thank you.

  16. I am a father 83 yrs Old. My son and his wife just left going home after Father’s Day visit. Reading this it could be the father she is writing about. Thanks

  17. Miss Roberta
    You are a beautifully gifted writer. This reminded me of my grandparents house in Milburn OK in the 1960’s. They migrated to Ok in the 1890’s from eastern Tn. A little further south than where I understand you are in Tn. Oh how I miss them even more as I grow older. I miss the simpler times and even the outhouse and barn and the humble ways of the sharecropper. I really enjoy your writing. Thanks

  18. Well you made me cry. AGAIN! My last Father’s Day was the day that he and my Mom sat my husband and I down and told us the Doctor had told him that the tests they had run repeatedly over the last 3 years had finally shown Cancer as they had suspected all along. They said he had maybe a year but it was less than 2 weeks. My birthday is at the end of June and he’d been in the hospital for a 3 or 4 days by then. For years every special day, Christmas, New Years, and my birthday, at 12:01 am the telephone would ring and Daddy would say “Just wanted to be the first to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Years” or “Happy Birthday” and then he’d say ” I’ll remind your Mom to call you later,” and he’d laugh and hang up.
    He was in and out of awareness by the 29th but I still got my phone call. Early on the 30th he asked Mom if it was still my birthday, she said “No”. Then he asked if it was the first, my nephew’s birthday, and she said “No”. “No one’s birthday?” “No, Darling, no one’s birthday”. He smiled up at her said very plainly “I Love You! Good Bye” and he left, just like that. Mom said the light went out of his eyes as if it had been switched off.
    That was 30 years ago. On Father’s day I thank my husband for being such a good Father to our children and I think how lucky I was to have had my Dad, I smile & remember some of the family stories and I don’t always cry, he wouldn’t like that. I try to go to bed well before midnight on the 28th which is difficult for this night owl and every year I thank him for staying that one last day.
    You would think that after 30 years it wouldn’t still be so hard, that I would not still miss him so much but I do. Mom has been gone 18 years this July. It doesn’t get easier, it gets different. I am used to being without my parents. I don’t think of them as being lost, they are not lost to me. They may not be here physically but they are always in my heart and my mind. It is like a wound, first you are numb, then there’s pain, which will lessen with time as healing begins and finally there’s the scar. You don’t think about it but it’s still there always and yet the world continues to go round.
    Thank you for your family stories, you bring a sense of humanity to this crazy world because we can relate to you through common experiences and you bring back the impression that life is not scripted, 2 dimensional and happens only online.

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    • If you click through to Family Tree DNA, what do you see? Normally you would see a page that says Family Finder $89, Y DNA from $169, etc., in boxes. In the box, it says “order now”. Click on that and it takes you to a cart where you can see other available products. An account is set up when you purchase.

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