My father died of cancer on this day 22 years ago. Sometimes I feel like it was just yesterday; other days it feels like forever ago. My father was my best friend and, despite that, sometimes I find it hard to convey my feelings about him, as well as paint a picture of his personality, in writing. Perhaps these seven stories will do the trick.
1. My father had a great work ethic—and what seemed like a million jobs. My dad taught me the importance of a good work ethic and continuous learning. He worked six—and sometimes seven—days a week. He was employed as a painter by the Chicago Park District, but also worked on side jobs at night and on weekends throughout Chicagoland. As a kid, I remember him working at his side jobs while we visited with my grandparents on the North Shore, and him crying as he drove away from our cabin in the North Woods because he only could take a week off work. I also remember him constantly learning new skills—from the latest faux finishes, to power washing graffiti, to asbestos removal, to Spanish. The same was true in his personal life. In the fall before his death, he asked me to drive him 300 miles from Chicago to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in southern Illinois for a seminar on Native American history. He barely made it through the same-day round-trip, but he had a great time at the seminar. It was the last time that he would leave Chicago.
My dad was a meticulous worker. Unlike some trades workers, he never left garbage behind or did shoddy work to cut corners. He took pride in his work and said that he’d rather make less money than do a bad job. I worked for him often when I was in my teens and early 20s, and he frequently reminded me that my work was not up to his standards of quality (whether it was washing walls or chiseling up old tile from a kitchen floor)—it could always be done better in his opinion. And he was right.
My father was a strong union man. He knew that some unions were corrupt—just like it was a possibility in any other organization—but he supported any union that operated justly. I remember how the Chicago Tribune and other products would suddenly disappear from our house when a union boycott was announced by a local union. My dad believed in fair pay, fair work hours, and the dignity of the worker—whether they were street sweepers or street designers. Being in a union has somehow become a bad thing these days—at least in some circles. I think many Americans forget that before the advent of unions, the average workday was 10 hours (according to a study by MIT), and workers had few avenues of redress if they were injured on the job or fired without cause. Some Americans forget that much blood was shed to establish and ensure worker protections that many now take for granted. My own great-grandmother Ida was beaten senseless by corporate goons in the early 1900s for having the audacity to try to launch a garment workers’ union. But that’s another story. My father had these lessons ingrained into him as he grew up and was proud to be a union member.
During his lifetime, my father was not only a painter (which included painting the end zone logos and yardage lines for the Chicago Bears for many years), but also a funeral director and a bilingual building inspector for the city of Chicago. I think he would have been most happy as a funeral director/mortician, an occupational field he worked in for several years part time. He had a helping spirit and a natural gravitas that can’t be taught or faked. At the time, the funeral business was dominated by family firms, and he was unable to break into a full-time position without moving away from Chicago, so he eventually went back to painting full time. Seeing him in these various jobs taught me to keep my mind open to new possibilities, and not to be stuck in a job I hated if I could do something about it.
2. My father loved to grill. His favorite recipe was what he called “trail burgers,” a scrumptious mix of onions, carrots, green peppers, potatoes, spices, and ground beef that he wrapped in tinfoil and cooked on the grill. It was Boy Scout camping food, but he also loved making trail burgers at home in our backyard, the cicadas singing so loudly that sometimes our conversation was drowned out temporarily. We’d sit and talk as the aromatic smell of the trail burgers wafted through the yard. I once asked how long the trail burgers took to cook, and he simply said two beers, so we’d each have two beers. Years ago, after my father died, I’d make his trail burger recipe, have two beers (or maybe more), and think about our time together. I haven’t done so in a while, but sometime soon, I’m going to give the trail burgers another go and think about my dad.
Here’s the recipe in case you want to give it a try and think about someone you love that you miss. This is straight from Taste & See, a cookbook produced by my grade school.
TRAIL BURGERS…from Chef George of the North (my dad’s cookbook pseudonym)
Ground beef, ¼ pound to ⅓ pound patties
Onions, 2 slices per serving
Sweet green peppers, about 4 to 6 pieces per serving
Potatoes, 3 to 4 pieces per serving
Carrots, about 1 carrot per serving
Salt and pepper on patty, if desired
Form a hamburger patty, about ¼ pound or ⅓ pound. Cut the onions into slices. Slice the carrots into strips about 3 inches long. Slice the peppers into thin strips. Slice the potatoes into French fry size. On 2 pieces of heavy-duty tin foil (about 12 x 16 inches) place in the middle 1 slice of onion; on top of that 3 or 4 pieces of potato are placed; next, put 3 or 4 pieces of carrot; then a few pieces of pepper. Now place the meat patty on top. Now continue building the ingredients in the opposite order. Your finished product should be layered in this order: onion, potato, carrot, pepper, meat patty, pepper, carrot, potato, onion. Enclose the tin foil using the drug store fold. Place in an oven or grill on hot coals with the fold in the tin foil on top. Cook at medium temperature for 20 minutes. Turn over with fold down and cook for 10 minutes. Serve; season with ketchup or steak sauce, if desired. Beware of hot steam when you open the tin foil.
3. My dad loved hiking and camping. Some of my earliest memories involve hiking with my dad in the Palos Forest Preserves in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. They are some of the wildest places in Chicagoland—vast, sometimes hilly, stretches of dense woods, prairie, savannah, wetlands, and other ecosystems. You can get lost (in a good way) in these preserves, and that’s what we’d do sometimes—hiking, and exploring, and just enjoying nature. My dad taught me to appreciate nature and to love hiking and camping. This love of nature and outdoor activities has been like a special companion to me throughout my life. Hiking and camping have provided me with so many opportunities—to make new friends, escape the world on solo trips, launch the nature blog that you’re reading, and simply discover amazing natural places. I’ve tried to pass this love on to my son. I’ve taken him camping since he was four, and hiking from the time he was maybe 1 years old in our hiking backpack. The outdoors is something my father and I shared, and now my son and I are doing the same—making memories and experiencing natural destinations in the Chicagoland area and beyond that most people never see. Thanks, dad, for helping to create a great family tradition that I hope my son passes on to his children.
4. My father loved working with his hands—building bookshelves and even our new garage after the first one was smashed by a tree during a storm; trying his hand at basic plumbing and electrical work; and, for fun, restoring old steamer chests and picture frames. One time, he restored an 1890s Painted Lady by researching the original exterior woodwork and crafting replacement pieces, as well as matching the colors to those popular during that era. I worked on that house with him and, after we finished it, I remember thinking it was the prettiest home in the neighborhood. I was proud that my dad could turn something that was broken and ugly into something that was beautiful.
My dad also loved carving fierce, wonderful creatures—muscular panthers, dinosaurs with wild jagged spines, and anatomically absurd giraffes with pencil-thin necks and chunky lower bodies—for us to play with when we were young.
My father’s life (unlike mine) was a life of physical labor, and his hands were the “canary in the coal mine” for the challenges of his job. They were sometimes bruised and often dry and cracked because of the harsh chemicals he worked with and the physicality of his daily labor. The worse his hands looked, the harder he’d worked that week.
On the other hand (no pun intended), the hardest my hands work on a daily basis are when they beg words up by tapping the computer keyboard for hours at a time. My father walked, and bent, and stooped, and reached, and lifted all day. I reach for the phone and stoop to pick up the occasional dropped paper clip. My dad worked at parks all over the South Side of Chicago—many of them in impoverished neighborhoods. I spend most of my waking hours in front of a computer screen at a desk, where I do 95 percent of my work. My hands are soft—not the supple, delicate hands of a hand model, but rarely cracked, never bruised.
When my dad became sick with cancer and stopped working, his hands became something new…
During his hard years of work,
my father’s hands were the roughest grade
the texture of drying concrete.
As his hospice days passed,
small patches of his infected skin
began to heal,
turning from red
to brown to yellow.
In the days before his death,
his hands grew soft, moist
and pink as baby skin.
The strength in my father’s arms
was the last to go,
he who made his living—
with his hands
building and painting,
and carving fierce,
panthers and dinosaurs
and giraffes—for us to play with
when we were young.
[from my poem published in The Mid-America Poetry Review (ISSN 1526-369X), Autumn 2001]
5. My dad was very cool under pressure. He had a gun—and once had to use it. In fact, he had several. I never knew this till I was in my 20s. He never told me. A friend of his spilled the beans—or the buckshot—and filled me in on one crazy 30-second glimpse of my dad that I would have never known to be possible because, in my view, my dad was a man of books and ideas, not gun culture. I know you can be both, but I was still surprised when I learned that my dad was a gun owner. He was not a rah-rah, NRA gun person, but more a city person who was cognizant of the utilitarian need for a weapon when you work in some of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
So, back to the crazy 30-second glimpse of my dad told to me by his friend. As I said, my dad worked in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. As he and his coworkers painted benches, field houses, and fences in big sprawling parks, sometimes their trucks were broken into, and a few painters were robbed. (Cue “My Kind of Town, Chicago is…”). One time, he was talking to someone on a pay phone (remember those?) in a park, and a guy came up to him and stuck a gun in his face and tried to rob him. According to my dad’s friend, my dad kept talking on the phone, pulled his own gun out, and then paused and said, “F-you, go away,” and continued his phone conversation. The guy was surprised and walked away. Cool as a cucumber, that was my dad. I do not have that kind of ice water—or cucumber juice—in my veins.
6. My dad was a leader and a frequent volunteer. My father had a service-oriented mindset. He was always doing for others. Scout leader, church trustee and volunteer, election judge, election canvasser, and the list goes on. Instead of talking, he did. Although always short on time, he tried to make the world better by offering his trade services, leadership ability, and what not to any problem that needed a solution. And he didn’t blow his horn about it. He just did the work to make the world better. We need more people who are less interested in credit, and more interested in providing service to others.
7. My father loved to take solo canoe trips. He’d head to the wilds of northern Michigan or Wisconsin with a small single-burner stove, some food, water filter, fishing pole, and a sleeping bag, then paddle until he was deep in the woods. This was before cell phones and satellite emergency beacons. He was literally “off the grid” for days, and, as a child, I always wondered if he’d come back safely, but he always did.
One time, he told me that his canoe flipped over as he traversed the White River in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest (I think the canoe hit a big submerged rock). One of his legs was caught on some part of the canoe as it flipped, and he was pulled beneath the canoe. He told me that he swam along under the canoe, sucking from a pocket of air, legs bumping submerged logs, passing fish, frogs, and water snakes, swimming until he could release his leg and right the canoe. Another time he ran into an angry black bear, another, a fierce thunderstorm flattened many of the trees near his campsite. When I was young, these stories scared me—it felt odd to think of my dad in danger. As I grew into my teenage years, his stories stopped scaring me, and instead fueled my wanderlust. Because of him, I’ve traveled solo all over the western United States, and those experiences were some of the best of my life. If you’ve not traveled alone to a national park or some other beautiful place, you should do so before you die.
My father has been gone more than 20 years. Losing a parent is like a daily punch in the face—especially in the first few years, but eventually you build up enough scar tissue to accept what you can’t change.
When I think of my dad, I remember the wonderful conversations and times we had, but my favorite way to think of him is canoeing solo in the wilds of Michigan on the White River. I like to think this is his heaven. The trees tower above him as he softly paddles the winding river. He is calm and peaceful. There are no troubles, no pain, no cancer, just peace, the beauty of nature, and the excitement of what may lie around the next bend. He knows his family back in Chicago loves him (and that he will soon see them again), and that’s fuel enough for the day’s journey. His paddle parts the water on the left side of the canoe, and then the right. The river teems with fish, the sky is blue, and the threat of rain is days away. His paddle parts the water on the left side of the canoe, and then the right. He repeats the process again and again as he continues his journey.
Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes
NEXT TIME AT NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND: The Joys of Winter Hiking