Reflections of My Father

Reflections of My Father

How do I ever explain the enigma that was my father…? 

He taught me many things…a few stayed learned.  Among them was to love fiercely, if unwisely; to respect nature and its mystical properties; and to trust in a sense of fairness.  His stern countenance could be intimidating if he thought you were bullshitting him.  But he had a profound moral compass and held fast to his American dream.  Only later, with his passing, would I learn that his dream had become his nightmare. 

A carpenter by trade, my dad grew up on a family farm – the youngest male – and became a skilled farmer, working alongside his own father.  Attending a one-room country schoolhouse, his education extended no further than the eighth grade. His mother’s dying wish was to bequeath the farm to her youngest son.  That, however, was hardly the wish of my grandfather…leading to a scandal and a swindle, in one bold stroke, by a woman who seized the farm my grandmother intended for my father.  

Forced, by his father to choose between remaining a farmer or remaining married, my father took his young bride and baby daughter and sought employment wherever he could find it.  Eventually, a wealthy doctor offered my dad the job of managing his farm.  He raised horses, cattle and cash crops.  For a time, it paid the bills…providing his wife and two young daughters a temporary home.  When his wife was stricken with tuberculosis, my father faced new challenges…how to possibly manage a growing farm AND care for his little girls.  Eventually, he began leaving them with his mother-in-law for long stretches, as he farmed and made the frequent hundred-mile trek to visit his wife – now a tuberculosis patient – in a remote facility.  World War II raged; but my father was a productive farmer, and the U.S. War Department needed food for the troops.  Thus, my father fought the battle of weeds and rocks, manure and fickle weather, tilling the soil, planting and harvesting crops and livestock…for the war effort. 

One of his side jobs eventually compelled him to realize he was pretty good with a saw and hammer.  Hanging his shingle, he became a carpenter…eventually, a general contractor of home building.  He designed and made cabinetry, building additions onto homes, erecting new houses as folks could afford.  By the time I was born, he had a well-deserved reputation for being hard to get to know, even among his friends – especially his friends.  He was, in short, a hard-ass…and a shitty businessman.  But he was one helluva gifted carpenter.  

Meanwhile, the terrible legacy that was carried from Bohemia (Czech Republic, as it’s known today) to the shores of eastern Michigan via Lake Huron in the late 1860’s, was kept hidden from most of the Reinelt family offspring…until it couldn’t be hidden any longer.  Seems that sooner or later, being born a Jew will catch up with you.  As it so happened, my father was the “Isau” to his father’s “Isaac.”  (If you’d like to know more about this biblical betrayal, there’s a little number by the title, “Charlie’s Ladder,” that explains all.) 

Cutting to the chase, my father – forced by circumstance and heritage – left home shortly after marrying his bride.  His Jewish lineage, a well-guarded secret, was never mentioned by our mother. Instead, another family member brought to light – on the day before my father’s funeral – what further research would later confirm:  a family of Czech Jews, attempting to “fit in” after escaping the German Bismarck’s ethnic cleansing, lived in the shadows of a respectable “German family” façade.  Was he trying to spare us from his own legacy of loss and betrayal?  We may never know.  What my sisters and I instead inherited was a different legacy…scars invisible to the eye. 

I think that my three sisters – two older, one younger – suffered dearly from my father’s lack of…shall we say, “emotional availability.”  He was, in fact, equally unavailable to each of us, in our own unique needs.  Yet, it was this prematurely aged and profoundly depressed man that ultimately offered each of us – in our vacuous emotional voids – the very best he had to give:  his talented hands and his love, poured into the things he built for each of us. 

For my “biggest” big sister, he built cabinetry and shared his love of gardening.  She is – to this day – a master gardener with three gifted daughters who married incredible husbands.  

For my “second biggest” sister, he built a new home into which each of her four beautiful daughters was born.  Later, he remodeled an old home she rented amid the angst of raising those daughters in the aftermath of a painful divorce.  Though she departed this life in 2012, she lives on in the beautiful visages of her four splendid daughters.  If I could tell her one thing, it would be this:  Emily, Dad loved you beyond words. 

For my “kid sister,” our father built a china cabinet, housing her inherited glassware and china, etc.  It was her about whom he knew the least, she being the youngest, coming into existence as he approached his fiftieth year of life.  But what he did know compelled him to fight for her freedom from her mother.  It was he who asked me to “look out for your little sister.”  Truth is, I’ve done a poor job of that.  And yes, Sis, Dad caused you pain in some of the things he did…AND he loved you more than you know.  Two things can be true at the same time. 

We are – three of us – still alive today because of what our father taught us about loving fiercely, working tirelessly and zealously protecting that same sense of fairness he taught each of us.  In his later life, he did what he’d never done before:  upon my return to university one Sunday evening, he threw his arms around me, kissed me on my cheek and said, “I love you, son…forever.”  Funny, how that is the one thing I always carry in my heart about him.  Which, oddly enough, reminds me: 

My father taught me something else…that to create is to bleed from our souls.


Faithful readers, we all bear scars.  We all have stories, painful and profound.  But for those of us fortunate enough to have fathers who persevered, remaining faithful to their families…those are men whose lives we should always celebrate.  If your father is still living, be present for him in any way that you can.  Every good father harbors the same prayer for his children:  to grow up happy, fulfilled…and to be present for their families, too.  

I pray that your “Father’s Day” is filled with unbridled love for your fathers, living and departed.  As one whose own path now sees less distance through the windshield than in the rearview mirror, I wish you all – loving daughters, loving sons, loving fathers – an eternally blest HAPPY Father’s Day.

Peace.  Shalom.

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1 comment

Thanks, Carl. Beautiful

Vivian Shaw

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