My Dad's first lesson in being a man began when he was just a boy of eight or nine. That's when his own father -- under a street lamp in Brooklyn, New York -- turned and walked away from a wife and four young children.
In January, this memory seems to touch my heart on a deeper level. I suppose that's because it is during this month -- the month he died in 1991 -- that I miss him most.
My Dad was a real man in every sense of the word. As a child, he stepped up to the plate and took on the role model of family man. He took that responsibility very seriously, especially when his Mom was at work and he was in charge of two younger brothers and a sister.
That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a young boy, but my grandmother didn't have any other choices ... until the state stepped in and put them in foster care. It must have nearly destroyed my Dad to be separated from his siblings. Were they safe? Who was caring for them? Would he ever see them again?
My grandmother eventually gathered up her children and moved out of state to live with her sister's family. Life was hard, times were tough and two families under one roof have to work at getting along. Dad continued to watch out for his siblings and did what he could to help provide for them.
Some people wither under pressure and become victims of their circumstances. I think the difficulties my father faced worked to strengthen him, instead. He was determined to try harder, work longer and reach higher with an eye toward the future.
Dad later joined the Army, became a radio operator and learned Morse code on one of those old-fashioned finger-tap models. Later, he was among ten soldiers who were handpicked and shipped out under cover of night to a base in Oregon during World War II. Their job was to study the Japanese secret code and break it ... and they did.
It was on a visit to his sister's home back in Missouri that my father met my mother and won her heart. She likes to recall how he told her that when they married, he wanted to make their house a real home. I believe, after his life experience, a real home meant somewhere to settle in, knowing you're loved, accepted and always welcome.
I'm thankful Dad overcame the tough times he experienced. Instead of becoming bitter, he became better -- as a son, an older brother and, eventually, as a man. He would not abandon responsibility and walk away from hard times. Instead, he would stand up taller, roll up his sleeves and meet it head on. And he did, time and time again.
Dad didn't get to finish school as a child, but he got a lot of education around our supper table at night. It was there he'd ask questions and show interest in our school experience. We never suspected just how hungry he must have been to catch up on what he'd missed. All along, he was picking up on things like grammar and punctuation and storing it away for future reference.
Back to Brooklyn, New York: I don't know why my grandfather abandoned his wife and children and vanished like a mist in the night. As far as I know, he never contacted them again. What I *do* know is that his actions caused a young boy to basically abandon childhood and put on the mantle of manhood.
Dad made it his mission to love, protect and provide for his siblings and mother. While it wasn't easy, it became the training ground for his future family -- the one I grew up in. The way he embraced his responsibility and put his whole heart into it left a lasting impact on all of us. That, and the fact that he never walked away from us. Instead, his homecoming every night was something we kids and Mom could count on.