Remembering My Father-in-Law Jim on Father’s Day

I’m taking a break from nature to write about Jim McKenna, my father-in-law, who passed away in 2003. I wrote this remembrance two days after his death.

Jim was a great husband, father, brother, uncle, great-uncle, father-in-law, and friend, and everyone—no doubt—has their own fond memories of him. One of my best memories of Jim was when I came to ask Kathy and him for their blessing to marry Amy. He could have put me through the wringer, but all he said was “welcome to the family.” This simple welcome showed that he considered me worthy to marry his daughter. I will never forget this kindness.

One of the best things about Jim was that he liked to talk. I will miss the late-night conversations we often had when Amy and I used to stay at the McKenna’s. We would sit at the kitchen table, drink coffee, and talk…ok, let’s be truthful, Jim would talk and I would listen, occasionally interjecting a question or comment into the conversation. Our talks would often grow animated and the only thing that would stop us was utter exhaustion or, more often, Amy or Kathy calling downstairs to tell us to be quiet and come up to bed. 

Another thing that I liked about Jim was that he had a funny way of responding to almost anything you asked him. If you said “How are you?,” he would answer “Let me check…” and then he would do a quick inventory of himself, and then say  “Fair to middling.” If you called the house and you asked if Amy or Kathy or Molly were there, he would say “Yes,” followed by silence. Finally, he would say, “Oh, did you want to TALK to her? I thought you were just checking to see if she was here.” Or he’d say, “You mean you didn’t call to talk to ME?” In almost any situation where something went wrong he would blurt out “Murphy’s Law,” as if that explained everything.

But if I was asked to describe Jim in two words, I would say: problem solver. He was the kind of person who went out of his way for his friends and family. He was always eager to try to make someone’s life better. Jim was especially good at fixing mechanical problems.

He helped Amy and I countless times over the years. Three of these times revolved around our car, a 1993 Chevy Cavalier, which although no longer new and shiny and fast, still gets us to where we need to go…well, at least 70 percent of the time.

The first example is minor, but telling. One night, I was parking the car at the McKenna’s and Jim noticed that our antenna was broken. I mentioned that I was planning to buy a replacement the next day. He would have none of that and walked to a spot on the garage wall where there was not just one or two, but three antennas on a hook waiting to be used. Jim always seemed to have the right screw, tool, fuse, or, in my case, car antenna, when someone needed it.

The next example deals with our car’s air conditioner. I still picture him grunting and groaning as he maneuvered around his tool-packed garage on an unseasonably warm, spring night, scooting under our jacked-up car, trying to fix our balky air conditioner. I’m sure that 10 minutes before we arrived he was lying in bed or on the couch in terrible pain from his back injury. But, true to his nature, he always jumped into the fray when someone needed him.

A final example of Jim’s giving nature occurred on Christmas a few years back. Amy and I were heading home from Uncle Fred and Aunt June’s farmhouse in the country, driving the dark roads when our headlights went out, flickered back on weakly, and then died for good. We called Jim and headed back to the house. When we drove up, Jim and Uncle Fred were standing outside in the near-zero chill ready to get to work. They huddled under the hood, testing wires, replacing fuses, until the lights eventually came on. Jim was always dependable and ready to help.

My last thought about Jim is that he never quit. He had a tremendous will to live and succeed despite the many health and life challenges he faced over the years. Just recently, he spent hours trying to connect his daughter Molly’s cable and VCR to surround-sound speakers. He tenaciously attacked the jumble of wires, cords, and electrical components as he crouched on her new apartment’s hardwood floor, flashlight and tools in hand. He had gotten a late start on the project, the time grew short, and despite countless changes in strategy, he was unable to fix the problem. This really frustrated him. He liked things done right and he didn’t like to fail.

Later, we realized it was the VCR itself that was broken, so Jim wouldn’t have been able to connect it no matter how hard he tried.

At heart, Jim was a fixer and a problem solver who was happiest in the thick of things, whether it be talking with his cousins and friends at the World Problem Solvers’ meeting every Thursday or helping someone fix a broken air conditioner, heater, or car. These are some of my best memories of Jim, immersed in other people’s problems, his forehead furrowed in concentration, a tool in hand, his eyes intensely focused, a look of satisfaction on his face when he solved the problem. You knew if Jim was around, things would be OK. 

–Written on November 6, 2003

Copyright (text/photo)

Good news. My new book, Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit, will be published on June 29, 2021. Click the link above to learn more.

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