Monday, May 15, 2006

For Mother's Day

My Father was born 1935 on a small dirt farm in northeastern Nebraska. It was not a successful farming operation like the ones his grandfathers had. There’s a story about how destitute the family was one winter when Grandad had to cut down the fence posts from a neighboring farm just to heat the shack. Instead of a well, water was from a cistern, which essentially a pit that collected rainwater. When my Dad was 10, he lifted the lid on the cistern and saw a dead rat floating on the surface. Terrified, he brought the news to Grandad, who said, “don’t worry about it, we’re pumpin’ from the bottom”. My Father recalls dust storms so bad that when you blew your nose, your handkerchief would be filled with mud. He once said if Nebraska had a DCFS back then, they would have taken him away from his parents.

My Dad started his first business at the age of 12. He wholesaled eggs. He would drive a wagon to farms throughout the area, buying eggs and then re-selling them to markets and stores. A few years later, Grandad gave up farming and moved the family to town. Grandma worked at a small grocery store, which she later purchased and ran until she retired. My Dad kept the egg business, and later worked for Grandad, who had started a trucking company. The family prospered, and even bought a TV in the early 50’s. Out in rural Nebraska, I have no idea how much programming was available to them.

At some point, my Father determined that the hard work of farming did not appeal to him. After he graduated from High School in 1952 (in a class of 16 or so), he was drafted into the Army, and spent two years in Germany. When he returned home, he got a job selling shoes in a nearby college town, met my mother (a coed), got married a few years later and managed a shoe department in Lincoln, then moving to St Louis in 1964. We owned a house there at first, then sold it at some point and rented houses. A millinery company hired my Dad in 1966, becoming a district manager. We got transferred a couple of times, living in Ft Wayne Indiana for eight years, Houston Texas for four years, finally moving to the Chicago area in 1981, when my Dad became the president of his company.

My Dad never went to college, and there was never any question that I would go. Actually, all four of his kids were expected to attend and graduate, but I was the only one to follow the program. I did it more for my parents than for me; this fact reflected by my disinterest for the first 3 years of a 4-½ year undergraduate career. It wasn’t until I started doing for myself that I excelled.

My Dad eventually bought his company, which he later sold (but stayed on to operate). When the parent company was eventually sold to Sears, he quit. No sooner did the ink dry on his resignation his health became to falter and he suffered from a brain tumor and then a heart attack within the next 12 months.

All this is background information to make the point that my Dad was a business genius. He was sharp, shrewd, and amazingly intelligent about retailing and merchandising. Had he stayed with Sears, he could have written his own ticket. He chose to walk away, and he and my mom moved back to Ft Wayne in 1989 and he is still in Northern Indiana widowed now these almost 6 years.

In the last 2 years, his health has betrayed him. More shockingly, though, is that his sharp mind is not there. He is in severe financial straits, and only because my beloved (yet ne’er –do-well) brother is living with him, he has a roof over his head.

Now the time has come for him to sell his home and find a new place to live. I had no idea that he was broke until a few months ago, and he refused to let me help him negotiate with his creditors. He had no money for medicine, and is about 4 beats too slow to respond to questions about just about anything.

Last week, he called me in a panic. American Express was threatening to take his home and car if he didn’t pay them $1,000. I may or may not have $1,000 sitting around, but I knew that I wouldn’t see it ever again if I didn’t make another push for him to sell his home and find more affordable housing.

I went to his home and called his creditors, starting with AmEX. It turns out that the call he got was from a collection agency, and it was the initial “send us the entire balance or we’ll have you killed” phone call. I properly reamed the collection guy and laid out the story….give us 4 months to sell the house, and we’ll settle the account. I understand that he was just doing his job, but it was MY Dad he was threatening, dammit.

My “old” Dad, the captain of industry, would have never allowed himself to get in such a situation. But my old Dad is gone. I miss him very much. The Dad I have now is simple-minded and frightened. He has to trust me to get him out of this jam, and I’ll do my best. Despite the fact that I worked my ass off to meet his expectations, I am not the child he goes to first. Rather, he goes to another sibling who instead of meeting the issues head on, just sends money to him, and then calls me and yells at me to fix the problem.

My Dad is listing his home for sale this Wednesday. He’ll sell it, and then he’ll move back to the Chicago area, near the rest of the kids. My brother will be hung out to dry, but he’s 36 and it’s time to grow up. I’m networking trying to find him a job. He has grown up quite a bit in the last 6 months, and I think he’d be a dependable worker. I can only fix one life at a time, I think.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. My Mom passed away 5 ½ years ago (yes, I could give you an exact number of days, but why bore you?). I do all this for her. She’d expect it, and she’d deserve it.

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