Images and memories of Dad, some long forgotten, have been coming to mind over the past few weeks. I have to start with one that Mom has told me over the years. Even though I wasn’t there when it happened, it illustrates Dad’s sense of humor perfectly.
When Mom and Dad first moved to New England, they were part of the Newcomer’s Club. This group would rotate their monthly dinner party to a different home each time. The month that Mom and Dad were hosting it, they had it on a Friday instead of a Saturday. Barbara and Richard had a habit of showing up early every time. So Dad rolled up his pants and put on a bathrobe, and answered the door as if he’d just gotten out of the shower. Barbara and Richard looked stunned when Dad said, “Oh, hi. Did you think it was tonight? Um, it’s actually…tomorrow.” They stared at each other, Barbara got out her calendar and checked it, and Richard was speechless. Mom said he kept the ruse going for a few minutes. Finally, he cracked up, and Barbara chased him into the house, beating him over the head with her purse. Typical Dad!
I have another favorite story about Dad that I didn’t hear until years later. Both he and Mom served as chaperones on many school field trips for both my class and my brother’s class. There was one boy who was hard to handle, and the teachers were concerned about his behavior on the upcoming trip. In retrospect, my guess is he probably had ADHD, but that diagnosis didn’t exist in those days. Dad was “assigned” to sit with this boy and keep him calm on the bus. In his gentle, soft-spoken manner, he talked quietly with this kid the entire time, and he never once misbehaved with Dad there. The teachers asked him, “What did you do?!” Dad shrugged. He was an innately good kid who might have had a tough home life, but who was now basking in being given Dad’s full attention. As everyone was returning to the bus for the return trip, this boy ran up to Dad, saying, “Mr. Hurst, Mr. Hurst! Can I sit with you again?” Dad smiled and said, “Of course. I’d like that.”
Dad was a homebody, and enjoyed everything about the home he and Mom had built in 1975. They had taken six or seven house plans that had elements they liked, and Dad tweaked the final design himself. Grandpap Hurst did the electrical wiring, and the initial framing of the house was a team effort that included cousin Gary. It’s pretty incredible to realize that, in that age before pneumatic nailers, a 3,000-square foot house was erected with little more than a strong will, a radial arm saw, and a few hammers. Dad told me once that every evening and every weekend, he’d pick up the hammer to do something. Ten years later, he grabbed the hammer reflexively and realized there was nothing left to do.
Working and playing in the yard was a huge part of growing up with Dad. In the winter we'd put on our snowsuits, and Brian and I would pile on top of him on the toboggan. I remember how much fun it was to play with him, and how warm he felt even in a blizzard. In the summer, he’d mow our entire acre of lawn with a push mower. I didn’t realize what a feat this was until I had a half-acre of my own, and it wasn’t even on a steep hill the way the house in Vernon was. He was devoted to the rose garden, and all through the summer there would be roses in our bedrooms and on the kitchen table.
I have to tell a story about my brother Brian that Mom shared with me shortly after Dad’s passing. Brian used to build tree houses in the pines behind our house (usually 20 or 30 feet up). Dad would intentionally leave out just the right tools to help him. He’d select things that he felt were safe for a young boy to use, and would leave them where Brian would find them. If the tools disappeared for a little too long, he’d innocently ask, “Hey Brian, have you seen my hammer/hand saw/etc.?” Brian would say, “Oh! Just a minute…” and would run off to find the missing tool. While Brian searched, Dad would nudge Mom and they would share a good laugh.
It may sound silly, but I remember the ritual of working our way through seven or eight cords of wood every fall and winter fondly. It’s amazing to think now that Dad split every single log by hand with an axe, and Brian, Mom, and I would stack it in the garage. It was a project that lasted several weeks each fall, and the smell of cold winter air mixed with the smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves brings me back to that time. Dad taught us that teamwork was part of our family. When we were in high school, it became common knowledge that if you came in through the garage (as most people did), Dad would bust you if you didn’t bring in an armful of logs for the wood stove. Even years after we graduated from college, we all roared with laughter when high school friends, unprompted, came in with firewood when they arrived for a visit. In July.
Dad also taught me to love nature and the weather. The front door of our house in Vermont was intentionally set back far enough from the edge of the porch so that we could stand outside and watch incoming storms without getting wet. I couldn’t begin to count the number of rainstorms and blizzards I watched with Dad on that porch. Our front portico is similarly deep, and whenever there is an incoming storm, I’ll always stand outside the front door to watch, even for a minute. It seemed appropriate that the week Dad died, it rained cats and dogs almost every day. According to Mom, Dad’s storm watching made her pretty nervous back in Ames, Iowa when I was a baby. The tornado sirens were sounding, and the police were driving down every street with megaphones, warning people to take cover. Dad was outside, hoping to see the tornado. Mom yelled, “Bud, what are you doing?” “I’m looking for it.” he replied. “What are you going to do when you find it?!” she said.
Dad tucked us in every night and woke us up every morning. He would kiss us goodnight, covering our faces with little tiny “butterfly” kisses. Then every morning, entirely too early and far too cheerfully, would come in to raise the shades, with a hearty “Good morning!” Every morning he asked me if I wanted eggs and toast for breakfast, even though I almost never did. Cream of Wheat was about the most adventurous I got in the mornings, but he always had his two eggs over easy, with toast and coffee. Dad was a man of habit, and he had even timed his eggs so that he could put them in his little cast iron skillet, set the stove to “2,” and come down from his shower when they were just about done.
Dad did most of the cooking in our home. Cooking was one of the ways he nurtured us, and he often asked us at breakfast what we wanted for dinner, because he wanted to plan. Making spaghetti sauce was always great fun, because he’d start with the sauce mix in the packet, but add ground beef and other fixings, then season it to taste. He taught us how to choose what we wanted by smell rather than by name. “What smells good tonight?” he’d ask. After it had simmered for a while, he’d yell, “Tasting time!” and we’d clamor downstairs to see how we did and add what we wanted until it was just right. He also taught me to clean up as I cooked, which is something I still do quite obsessively to this day. Those were blessed times, when we’d have Dad all to ourselves. Kitchen time was Dad time.
Every year, we made Christmas cookies and frosted and decorated them as a family. I’m pretty sure we ate half of them as we decorated. Dad would say, “Aww, look. This one’s broken. I guess I’ll have to eat it.” Then he would slather some frosting on it, and say, “COOKIE MONSTER!” and eat it while making Sesame Street sound effects. I also remember decorating Easter eggs, and Dad was able to make the absolutely perfect shade of robin’s egg blue. Every year, there was the requisite brown egg that we made after they were all finished. We’d dip the egg in every bowl until it turned a sickly color, and try to decide if it was ugly enough. If it wasn’t, it would go back into the coloring dye.
Watching TV or movies together was one of our favorite things to do in the basement family room. Saturday cartoons were wonderful traditions, and he laughed as hard at Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner as we did. He introduced us to Blazing Saddles, which was one of the funniest movies I’d ever seen (or have ever seen since). To this day, I don’t know if he was laughing more at the movie or at us as we nearly cried in hysterics. Because of him, we started hunting down every Mel Brooks movie there was.
When I was in college, Apollo 13 came out. Dad joked that he had the “original soundtrack” to that movie, since he’d recorded all of the radio broadcasts when it actually happened. Of course, there is a lot of science and physics involved in this movie, and I was glad I was with Dad when I saw it. Every time they talked about something that happened mechanically in the shuttle, Dad would lean over and explain it to me. That movie night is one of my fondest memories of him, because he helped me appreciate both the technology and the history of the event on a much deeper level.
Dad taught me how to ride a bike. I don’t remember when we decided it was time to take off the training wheels, but I couldn’t have been more than five years old. We tried a few times in the cul-de-sac at the bottom of our driveway, which we called the “circle”. He was holding onto the seat while running behind me. After a few tries, I looked back, assuming he was still pushing me. To my surprise, I was halfway down the street and he was still way back in the circle. He had this fabulous expression on his face that I still remember to this day: a look of wonder, of joy, and bit like he was holding his breath.
Dad started to teach me how to drive long before I was old enough to get behind the wheel. I remember him letting me move the gearshift while he depressed the clutch. I’d ask when I could do it, and he’d tell me to wait until he said it was time. “Now?” “Not yet.” “Now?” “Not yet.” Finally, he would give me the cue: “OK, now!” I started doing that when I was only seven or eight, and it made me feel important. Dad was great at making me feel important.
It was just as wonderful learning how to drive “for real” with him. He was so patient, and never raised his voice or lost his temper, even though he probably had every reason to fear for his life. There were many hours logged in the old red Corvair with its smelly heating system and smooth old leather seats. He coached me on when to dim my lights for oncoming traffic. We lived out in the sticks, so you might drive several miles without seeing another car. He seemed to be a little psychic about when a car was coming around a corner. I finally asked him how he knew so soon. He paused and said, “You can see the car lights’ reflection on the power wires.” To this day, if I’m on a country road at night, I look to the telephone wires and think of him.
Dad insisted I learn to drive standard transmission (or “stick,” as we called it) soon after I got my license. Again the model of patience, he took me out onto Pond Road where there was very little traffic, and coached me how to shift as smoothly as possible. Each time I got it up to third or fourth gear, he’d tell me to pull over and do it again. I never once felt pressured, or that I wasn’t doing it well enough. He just knew it would take many repetitions for it to be comfortable, and he was happy to do as many times as necessary. 15 years later, when Joe and I had to have the clutch replaced in our Corolla (at 100,000 miles), the mechanic told me he’d never seen a clutch worn so evenly on both ends. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me how to do it right.
I also remember him driving me down to college each fall. He would take one car, while I would drive mine. We’d play tag the whole way down to New Jersey, grinning at each other each time I’d pass him or he’d pass me. And unlike most people who might have been terrified of my driving, Dad would say when we stopped for a break: “I enjoy driving in tandem with you.” Good thing…since he was the one who taught me!
He also trusted me. The first big snowstorm always hit in Vermont during Thanksgiving weekend, and the year I got my license, it came on Thanksgiving Eve. When it came time to drive 25 miles to New Hampshire where we spent nearly every holiday, there was already a foot or more on the ground and it was still snowing heavily. Dad tossed me the keys, and I looked at him in horror. “You’ve got to learn to do it sometime. We’re right here with you, and we’ll coach you the whole way.” We made it there without a scrape, and he and Mom never lost their sense of calm.
For a man as traditional as he was in some ways, it was important to Dad that I was able to take care of myself. Before I left for college, he taught me how to change my oil and put on a spare tire. To be fair, I didn’t absorb the information, perhaps because I was 17 and easily bored. And honestly speaking, to this day I would rather call AAA if I have an emergency. But the fact that he gave me two fully stocked toolboxes before I left for grad school and my first apartment is quite wonderful. He wanted to give independence and self-sufficiency to his daughter, not just to his son.
Of course, music was my deepest connection with Dad. I was blessed with the musical gene because of him, and he told me many times that he was so proud of me for doing what he hadn’t had the courage to do. When I was 14, I was invited to audition for a month-long European tour for young musicians. I didn’t know anything about the details until after I’d put the audition tape in the mail. When I saw the paperwork and realized how expensive it would be, I said to him, “That’s an awful lot of money. How could we afford it?” He replied firmly, “If you get in, you’re going.” It was clear there was to be no discussion, and I went. My brother also went to London and Russia on school trips. I know now how incredibly lucky we were to have parents so supportive of our dreams.
“Support” is perhaps an understatement for this next story. When I was 16, I played Peter Pan in the high school musical. The rented harness so I could fly had a huge leather strap around it that left blood blisters all over my back. Mom and Dad decided that they would make a harness one for comfort as well as safety. Dad thought seat belt material was the best choice, and found some at an auto supply store. Dad designed the harness, and he and Mom worked together to sew it, going through boxes of sewing machine needles that seemed to be breaking at every turn. When it came time to try it on, Dad lifted me off the ground by the shoulder straps. He may have been 5’8” at his tallest, but as my mom used to say, he was strong as an ox to be able to dead-lift me! On opening night, Mom told me later that Dad asked her, “Where do you think we should sit so we can catch her if she falls?” The answer would have been “on stage,” but instead they decided to sit near the front, each on an aisle seat, so they could get to me quickly if the harness broke. Luckily, it didn’t, and they told me later that they breathed a huge sigh of relief after the flying scene.
When I started going to church of my own volition in college, I invited Dad to join me. One Christmas Eve, we went to the Episcopal church in Brattleboro. He stopped singing during the carols so he could listen to me. “Dad,” I whispered at him, “Keep singing!” He shook he head and said, “I want to listen to you.” “But Dad…!” I wanted him to sing with me, since he had such a beautiful voice. “Sing with me!” He’d just shake his head and smile, and so it would go.
One of my favorite jokes began when Brian and I were in high school and were in the plays and musicals. Since it’s bad luck to actually say “good luck” before a performance, the tradition is to say instead, “Break a leg.” Well, Dad thought that was even a bit too serious, so he’d always say, “Break wind!” Every once in a while I tell this to my students, and they think it’s either completely stupid or hilarious. Several years ago, he reminded me that he’d always be with me when I performed. Before every audition or performance he’d say, “Now remember, before you go onstage, you just look over your shoulder and say, ‘C’mon Dad, let’s go kick some ass.’ “ It seemed like such a silly thing for him to say when he was alive, but now that he’s gone, I’m sure I’ll do that from now on. I’m also absolutely sure he’ll be with me.
For my last story, I have to talk about language. When I was in high school I began my studies in French, and Brian started soon thereafter. We’d occasionally speak in French at the dinner table, which became in some ways our secret language since Mom didn’t speak it. It was never cruel, though, as our phrases were often simple and simply an opportunity to practice. I remember the day I told him, “J’aime toi,” which is, of course, incorrect. He simply replied quietly and warmly, “Je t’aime.” He had a way of correcting us that was wholly gentle, without being critical.
My favorite phrase, though, was his special way of telling me he loved me. He’d look at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and say, “You make my heart happy.” He often said it out of the blue, when I’d catch him staring at me at random moments. While he often said the words, “I love you,” his way of saying it was somehow even better. Truly, we never had reason to doubt he loved us.
Rest well, Dad. And know that you were loved, too.