Enter Into Joy

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Few Good Men

Dad and me in our yard in Columbus, Nebraska

Ever since the MasterMind news, I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot. For most of my life, I’ve directed gratitude for the better part of me to Mom, and to the universe of women around her – my aunts, Mom’s friends.

But somehow the MasterMind competition and win took me directly to Dad. I mean, upon the news, I was happy. I thought – “This is cool. The Observer is cool.” Then I felt some disappointment that some get named, some don’t. Then I thought of how this might help us with 29 Pieces and Today Marks the Beginning. Then my mind settled on Dad, and the other men in my life who have encouraged me, pushed me, pushed me back sometimes, helped me, fed me, gave me confidence. 

But today it’s about Dad. Dad was from a very poor family of 11 brothers and sisters. (I have 53 first cousins.) His Mom spoke only German, gave birth to at least 13 children. 11 survived infancy. My grandparents had a hard time feeding this huge family and local stories say that Grandma would walk into town and beg for food for her children.

Dad was smart, capable and shrewd in many ways. But like my Mom, and many children in rural America in the early 20th century, he was not schooled past the eighth grade.

He worked first as a farm hand, and developed skills to be a talented finish carpenter.

He was 6 ft. 2 in., lean and had an angular, handsome quality. He served in the army in World War II and came back from the European and North African front with back injuries that bothered him for the rest of his life. He didn’t talk about the war, except to laugh about some of the funny stories of his buddies and grumble about the VA.

Though now I know that these experiences were visceral to him, to me – as a child, World War II seemed like another time, another place. I had no idea of what made him the man he was.

Dad came back from the war, worked for my Mom’s parents on their farm. By this time, Dad was in his late 30’s, Mom in her early 40’s. Mom was still living with her parents – working on their farm. They got together . . . I never heard any stories of their courtship or their wedding. Mom got pregnant with me. Five months later, they got married, and I was their only child.

Just like every family, this unfolded as a complicated story. Mom showered me with love and attention. Dad saw something in me, and had the initiative to go through a process of having me enrolled in school early. While Mom would’ve been ok with a passing report card, Dad would raise his eyebrows at an A-. He wasn’t pushing me beyond my capabilities, he was pushing me to them. He made it cool to be a brainy girl, cool to excel.

There were times that Dad could frighten me. His temper and sarcasm were sometimes close to the surface. But in regards to my grades and achievements, he guided me with a light touch.

He dove right into science projects with me. One year, my friend Karen Bembry and I were doing a model of a power plant and we had to lock him out of the room where we were working . . . he had become so involved in the project that he wanted to do it!

When it came time to go to college, I was waffling between being a math or art major. Dad could’ve reacted as a cautious parent – even as Mom did – encouraging me to stay in my small town, and find a secure future – working in a factory, or as a secretary. But he encouraged me to be an artist, to stick with it, to do what I loved.

Later, as fortunate things began to happen in my life and career, Dad carried the newspaper articles in his wallet, and showed them to people. When I went through his wallet when he was dying of lung cancer, I found one of the articles and thought – “there may never be another person who carries a story about me so closely.”

He would’ve been grinning ear to ear with the MasterMind competition, because after all that effort of checking my math problems and proofing my essays, it was his kid who earned that label.

Carl Blessen during World War II
He was a complicated man. Our relationship was good but not perfect. Dad taught me to ride a bike, he taught me to drive a car, and he taught me to fly.
— Karen Blessen, written Nov. 23, 2010


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