Courage on the 4th of July

By: Kathleen Ries-Jubenville   |    Read time: 4 minutes


My earliest memories are of my dad educating me. He believed knowledge is a superpower you can use to defeat fear. He sat patiently with me while I practiced reading “Red Fish, Blue Fish.” He showed me a movie where people in a spaceship were shrunk and injected into someone’s body to destroy a tumor. I was probably too young for those images because the memory of my shock remains. However, I am not squeamish about blood or invasive procedures today, so there are no hard feelings.

Dad also lectured me about American history. George Washington and World War II were his favorite subjects. Once, as a teen, I told him to stop talking about it…I just wasn’t in the mood. Later, I felt bad I hurt his feelings, so I never said that to him again. I’m grateful now because I miss hearing him discuss the details of every battle strategy I never cared about.

I think his life was much harder than he even realized. He talked about growing up on a farm on the outskirts of Cincinnati during the 1940s. Not a sophisticated farm with cow milking machines or John Deere tractors the size of a building. But a farm with a few chickens trying to keep their heads attached, and a goat whose milk saved him from allergic reactions as a baby, and a garden of flowers who won some prizes at the local fair. The homestead was one of several owned by cousins and other family members in the area. Together, they raised enough beef and harvested enough vegetables and canned enough fruit to share meals and survive without a McDonald’s on the corner.

Misfortune struck a few times. An accident in an early Ford automobile killed a couple of relatives. But my dad felt a bigger impact when his dad contracted polio and was quarantined for an extended amount of time. It might have been years. Or at least, it must have been the formative months of my dad’s young life because he didn’t talk about his dad much otherwise. However, he frequently talked about following his grandpa around like a puppy, observing ways the old, crusty-minded man went about his day. His floppy hat couldn’t conceal his sun-ripened neck or time-worn face lines. His gnarled hands had a permanent layer of dirt under the nails. His companions were a rifle, an ax, and a shovel. I’m not sure how much conversation was had or how much wisdom was shared, but the message was clear in how my dad lived his life: work hard. There wasn’t pretentiousness or silliness or grace.

He also talked about his mom a little. How her exuberant piano playing and singing irritated him. Perhaps her joy felt inappropriate to him. He also didn’t talk about his sister much. Eventually, he didn’t talk to her either. We didn’t have family reunions. I have felt jealous, from time to time, when I have heard about other families’ big picnics and birthday parties. I also dislike parties, so maybe it’s for the best.

But dad did have one surprising quality that may be his greatest legacy. He was a disciplined optimist. He believed you could learn, you could grow, you could do something in the world to make it a better place. “You”, meaning me. Not “you” in the general sense of all people. And not “you” as in what he wanted to do with his life. No. He meant specifically me, his daughter. I’m not sure why I deserved his belief in me. But it significantly and positively shaped my identity. Any daughter who has the support from her daddy like I had cannot help but develop some level of self-esteem and confidence.

I drove down to visit him at least once a month. Sometimes more if he needed someone to be his emotional support during and ride home after a medical procedure. But mostly, he drove himself to and from his cancer treatments. Fifteen years of being told he had less than one year to live. How does a person handle that? How do you struggle to sleep, deal with nausea and constipation and diarrhea, and headaches, and aches and pains, and constant poking and prodding? How do you walk around the block several times a day and smile at the neighbors? How do you express kindness to your caregivers so that they cry on the day you die? How do you not complain when your family visits?

Perhaps that was his greatest legacy. He showed me how to have courage under pressure.

I think I’ll complain a little less today. I’ll try to remember my kids are watching me and my reactions to the stressors of life. I’ll be more aware I am creating my legacy in their memories.

Dad was a patriotic veteran who was born and died in the month of July. It seemed fitting to honor him on this day we remember the courage it took to forge - and takes to defend - our American independence.

            I love you and miss you dad.  Happy 4th of July!


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