Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Good-bye to Dad (Fred) .1

It doesn't matter who my father was;
it matters who I remember he was.
- Anne Sexton

May 2005

It's been almost a year since I said a final good-bye to my father. Fred Hansen died at home May 15, 2004 surrounded by his family including his wife and 6 children. At his request, he was cremated and recognized as a WWII US Navy veteran. Against his request, we held a memorial service to say good-bye to Fred, and to honor his life. I wrote the following piece to read at the service; I share it with you now in honor of the first anniversary of the celebration of my Dad's life.


My childhood memories of my father, Fred Hansen, are older than those of any of his other children. As his first born, I experienced a different side of my father and mother than did my 5 siblings. Many of my earliest memories of Daddy, and some from later life were of everyday experiences with my father; ordinary things only known about by him and me. Today, as we remember Frederick Hansen’s life, I want to share some of my personal memories of my Dad with all of you.

My father was not always a curmudgeonly old man … he was playful, inventive, tireless and funny. He wasn't always a grouchy old guy in a wheelchair who couldn’t remember what day or year it was. He was an electronics engineer during the first years of the US space program, then later a professional safety inspector for the nuclear power industry. He attended MIT and Northeastern University – both considered among the finest engineering and management schools in the Boston area. He read voraciously, and learned much of what he knew by reading. He learned and shared his knowledge with anyone who needed it, or anyone he thought might benefit.

My dad designed additions to our home. He repaired and rebuilt everything from a doll carriage to a sports car and he fixed or rebuilt dozens of appliances. Along the way, he taught his 6 children the many practical skills he acquired – sometimes against our wills - as his work crew and project helpers. Dad was always showing us by example how to accomplish the task at hand, whether it was insulating the attic and the crawlspace, rescuing a wild rabbit from the kitchen cabinet, or pulling wires through the walls of a huge Victorian farmhouse. He loved his camp in Northern New Hampshire, and spent many hours there with his buddies and with all of us. In later years he enlisted my brothers to help him repair the old 1-room cabin.

My dad was a true engineer – he dreamed up inventions and ideas and ingenious solutions, but he didn’t always complete what he lovingly sketched out on paper. He was a highly creative person, but not with paint or clay. Instead, he designed rock walls, landscapes, play areas, kitchens, workshops and cool contraptions - stuff like a soap box racer that could seat 4 kids AND had a huge bell to warn everyone that the Hansen kids were playing in the street again.

He taught us all to hunt and fish, and also how to clean and cook and eat our game. For all the years my father hunted I never knew him to bag a deer – I suspect he found the prize too beautiful to shoot, although he hunted and tracked them alone and with friends and with Snuffy, our beagle for many years.

Fred had very few life rules, but they were tough: don’t talk back, don’t lie to anyone, respect your elders, and don’t back down if you’re in the right. Always look someone in the eye and tell the truth. And no matter what, NEVER refer to your mother as “she” but always as Mum or mother. Respect for women was high priority, and mothers got the highest respect of all under Fred's rules.

And I remember another memory of my father, with regard to my mother: my father said to me more than one time over the course of my adult lifetime that he knew my mother was the only woman for him. He said she was the only woman he ever met who could argue any point with him, from politics to religion, and hold her own. He had the utmost respect for her intelligence, and was not afraid to admit that he believed Patsy was one of the few people he ever met who was smarter than him.

Because Fred was a hard act to follow, I spent 50 years looking for a man who was very much like my Father in all the good ways, and finally got it right when I met Doug. I was very happy that my father was able to attend our wedding in 2002, and I know that he genuinely loved Doug as a cherished son-in-law. He was proud of Doug’s work and he gave Doug his hearty approval when asked for permission to marry. Dad remarked later on many times that he thought our wedding and the garden party afterward were one of the nicest he had ever attended – we thought so too, and were happy to have him and our mothers with us that day along with friends, family and neighbors. He was also very vocal about my younger sisters choice of husbands – he once said to me he could not have made better choices for them had he made the arrangements himself.

My father liked to cook – but as his children we sometimes dreaded his ventures into the kitchen because he was so uninhibited there. One time he was cooking a huge pot of spaghetti sauce and there were lots of little round green things floating on the top. When I asked him what they were, he explained matter-of-factly that he always put the leftover veggies and meat from the fridge into the sauce, then he's hide them by pureeing the whole mixture in the blender before serving it to his sometimes fussy-eaters children.

My dad was a creative problem solver by nature. He shared his solutions with us as the need arose. Some of the simple tricks he used and perhaps invented include:

1. Using a diaper or towel to strap a small child into a chair or high chair before those appliances came equipped with safety straps.
2. Bending the stick on a lollypop to prevent accidental choking if the child fell with the pop inserted.
3. Nailing window stops into the upper floor windows so the window wouldn’t open large enough for a child to climb out on the roof or fall and be injured. (I learned only in the past year that I may have inspired that invention when as a small child living in a third floor apartment I believed I could fly just like my hero, Superman.)
4. Cutting a hole in the plastic lid of his coffee so he could sip it with the lid on while driving; there are dozens of variations on this idea in use around the world now.
5. Denting a soda or beer can to identify it as your beverage at a party. He also promoted inscribing your name with a Sharpie on beverage containers for the same reason.
6. Playing "Hands UP" with small children when you close the car doors to prevent any pinched fingers.

My father loved his foreign 2-seater cars. He wasn’t a sports nut or gambler, and he only played golf on occasion – but he loved riding around with the top down and zipping along the back roads of New England on day trips with Mom or at road rallies. When I was 15, he taught me to drive in his red MG. More than once I was his elected car-repair assistant - at least until my brothers were old enough to step in as apprentice mechanics. I remember helping to bleed the brakes on the Ford in Holliston before I was 10, and pulling the engine valves on the MG when I was 13 or so. Later, my sister Lauren took Fred’s yellow TR7 over some highway hurdles in Germany on the AutoBahn.

Dad loved to travel, and his work included plenty of opportunities to indulge his passion. He was a Navy veteran from WWII, serving on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. His career after the Navy was into the new field of electronics; later he moved to nuclear power and his job took him all over the USA and Canada, and into Europe. He (and the family) spent 2 years working in Europe from a home base in Germany. Dad and Mum traveled on vacation from the Caribbean to Alaska and they visited hundreds of places in between. They lived for short periods in Indiana and Illinois before Dad's retirement to Pennsylvania.

My father was a stoic individual outwardly, but a soft sentimentalist and a loner privately. In our last real conversation, only weeks before his passing, he expressed his concern for my mother - he was worried about her having adequate funds after he died. He made it clear that he knew his time was close. I reassured him that he had nothing to fear, that we knew he had done all he could to provide for his family and his wife in his lifetime. Mom was taking care of the finances herself - she's an accountant after all - and she was also looking after his affairs diligently and fairly. He knew I didn’t throw any BS, and he was okay with things after that. He told me not to cry, and even smiled at Doug and me as we talked about our engineering business – the business he encouraged us to start up. And, he understood completely when I said he was "back to himself" that day, when he pointed to Doug’s face and said “what’s that” indicating a slight double chin – and to my 5-to-10 extra midsection pounds. He said to me, “How do you know I'm 'myself' - because I’m a wise guy?”. Yes, that, and because he could tell me the name of the old movie on the television that night, and the plot of the story, and the name of every actor in the film.

Yes, he was a wise guy – and a wise man – and he was my father. He was also Daddy to Chris, Mark, Dana, Lauren and Lisa. and Papa/Grandpa to a baker’s dozen of our offspring.

Fred was a good man. He did his best. That's all that we can ask of ourselves and our family members.

Fred, my Dad also was ...

Silently Sorrowful
Stony-faced when Angry
Sometimes pigheaded, always opinionated, and vocal
Fiercely independent
Loving and tender

… and Fred Hansen was my Dad.

He had pet names for all his children, especially me. I loved him and I miss him. I still remember the special names he gave me - names that he would ask me to recite all together, even when I was 50 years old:

Lee Martha - Chicken Pie - Apple Dumpling - Baby Girl - Nutsy - Princess - Hansen