The Man of My Dreams

Ruskin Cunningham 1961

This man, this lovely, happy man, is my father. The man of my dreams, except that he certainly wasn’t a dream, but real.

I can hardly describe my father, today, 20 years and some odd months after his death.  I only know that each day that comes, I think of something my dad would say or think and I laugh. My father made me laugh.

Dad was born in 1916, the fourth of five boys. My grandparents were as unlike as any two people could be. Grandpa Carey was loud, cussed all the time, scared the heck out of most people and thought he was super funny. He was super funny, actually, unless you were my mother and were offended by extraneous cuss words. Grandma Hattie was a mild woman, quiet, and now I know she tended to be depressed most of the time. I know where depression started in our family, and it was with her. I’m sure she got it from someone else, farther down the line. 

My father’s three older brothers were all capable men, when I knew them. I guess they were pretty ornery in the general scope of things. Dad would tell stories of how they threw him in a lake because he couldn’t swim and told him to swim or die. He learned how to swim. There were stories of them all taking guns and going out looking for prairie dogs, squirrels, or rabbits. They needed the food. All the boys were tired of eating beans and cornbread.

Dad attended school until the end of 8th grade, which was in 1929. That was it. There was little food for what was then 5 boys. My grandparents, somehow, chose my father to send to Corydon, Indiana to live with his grandmother, Minnie, and to help her on the farm. I assumed that Dad was a pain in the ass at home and that’s why he got to go. I have no basis for this assumption, just a general idea. I would have thought the oldest child would go but there were three older than Dad. Maybe they worked with Grandpa in some manner and so Dad was chosen. They’re all dead now, so I won’t ever know why.

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There they are, at least two of the five boys and Grandpa. That’s my Uncle Arlon in between Grandpa and Dad. He was the eldest son. My uncles, all four of them, were fine men. I was particularly close to Uncle Coot, named Kenneth but always called Coot. He was a dear human being, a great deal like my father.

Dad had stories of his time with his Grandma Minnie. She grew tobacco on her farm in Indiana and he always said he started smoking at the age of 13. I’m sure he did. Although, Dad always exaggerated. At any rate, he did help her and they had food to eat, something that most people in that period did not. He spoke of the slaughter of a pig every year and the joy of seeing a ham smoking in the old smokehouse.

He went back to Illinois in 1939, upon Grandma Minnie’s death. He worked at various jobs then, road work, which must have been horrible and some carpentry work. All of the boys knew their way around wood, thanks to Grandpa who was also a carpenter. 

In 1945 he met my mother, a 15-year-old. He was 28. My husband thinks this is somewhat scandalous, but then he didn’t ever meet my parents. I honestly didn’t think anything about the age difference, except to get immensely excited when my first husband told me he was 13 years older than me. I married him, for that reason.

Mom was striking in appearance. She was also extremely mature for her age, her whole life. I imagine my father had no idea how young she was the first time they met. And I know that after he met her, it didn’t matter to him. This man loved my mother up to and including the day of his death. My mother was not an easy woman, but since this is about the man my father was, I will leave that for another day.

They weren’t allowed to marry until Mom turned 16. On June 28, 1946, they married and began their life together which would last almost 50 more years. They spent their honeymoon in Decatur, Illinois, at the home of Mom’s Aunt Linie and Uncle Cass. 

Their first home was an apartment in Foosland, Illinois, not far from Grandma and Grandpa. My mom always said she heard Carey every morning at 6:30, along with the rest of Foosland, screaming “Hattie! Where the fuck are you?” LOL, I loved my grandpa.

At one point, my parents moved into an apartment in Tolono, Illinois. From what I heard, it was nothing to brag about and Mom hated it. I am unsure when they moved there,  but in August, 1947, at the age of 17, they welcomed my sister, Nancy Kay. She was to be the only child for 4 years and 5 months until I made my appearance.

 

My Grandmothers Nannie and Hattie and Nancy and I

By the time I came along, my parents had just finished building their first house, next door to my mother’s parents, Grandpa Henry and Grandma Nannie. My mother’s Uncle Jack lived with them too and had ever since his sister, Nancy, had passed away, leaving him with no one to keep house for him.

I have fond memories of that house and being so close to Grandma. She was a great deal of good, clean fun and much easier to get along with than Mom. Mom took after my grandfather, and he wasn’t an easy man anymore than she was an easy woman. When my mother was dying in 1996, I spoke to her eldest sister, Katherine. Aunt Kay told me that Mom always loved her Aunt Libby, one of grandpa’s sisters. Aunt Libby was not happy unless she was giving someone hell. And that explains Mom.

In 1948, my father was hired as a carpenter by the University of Illinois. When the job came open, Grandpa Carey, who also could have taken the job, told Dad to go for it since he was young, had a family and more years to work. At that time, they weren’t hiring relatives. I remember seeing the books my dad used to learn the math and practical aspects of the job. Grandpa had taught him early on how to hold a hammer and make most things.

Dad worked at the U of I for 29 years. That was back in the day when you got a good job and stayed there. From the time I can remember, he also worked every night from 5:00 until 9:30 remodeling homes and doing additions – anything that needed doing. He worked with his friend, John. They were always busy. I remember Mom threatening him with all sorts of hell if he didn’t take at least one day off. She was not happy, being left at home with the kids (and eventually his mother) all day and all night.

For some reason, Dad was the one that took care of Grandpa and Grandma when they needed anything. We used to go to “Foose” to visit them and I spent a few days there with my sister in the summer. Grandma had a porch swing which I will never forget. After being raised as a city kid, staying in the country with Grandma and Grandpa was a treat.

Foosland was a village of about 90 people when my grandparents were there. Grandpa passed away in 1960. After that, Grandma Hattie lived with us off and on for as long as I can remember. She finally moved to a small, one bedroom home close to Uncle Coot and Aunt Lou, in Fisher, Illinois. That’s another small village about a half an hour drive from Champaign. Grandma stayed there until she had a heart attack and had to go to a nursing home.

All the while, taking care of bringing in enough money for food and housing and his daughters and wife, Dad took care of his mom and dad. I remember him giving me $800 in cash to put in my bank account for when I went down to college. I had a scholarship for tuition, but my parents covered my room and board and spending money until I started earning my own.

I dropped out of school as a junior in 1972. I wasn’t interested. I was studying a subject that gave me no joy and I could not imagine teaching German the rest of my life. I left.

I moved back home. This was not a good idea as I had been on my own for three plus years and Mom ruled the roost. I resented her, she resented me and eventually in 1976, I left home, not of my own free will. LOL. Dad helped me move and was always there for me to talk to. Mom wouldn’t talk to me for over a year, I think. As I said, she was not an easy woman.

My mother passed away in 1996. It was startling when I learned she was dying, as we had always assumed my father would go first, being 13 years her senior. Instead, I was left with my dad. And it was lovely. Now, instead of always talking to Mom on my Saturday phone calls, I spoke with Dad daily. We had plenty to talk about, but mostly he just needed someone to talk to. He hadn’t been alone for almost 50 years and it was a change for him. He started traveling around to fairs and garage sales and estate sales. I was selling antique quilts and textiles at the time and Dad would tell me where I could find them. He even paid for them for me. I called him the Vice President in charge of finance!

In 1999, after a particularly traumatic time, Dad came to live with my family. We were in the process of moving to Prince Edward Island, Canada and Dad was coming with us. The immigration process was arduous. We had thought that we could go in 1999 but it wasn’t until July of 2000 that we finally made the move. I bought a home on an 8-acre pond, hoping Dad would feel at home. He had built a home on a lake in Illinois in 1980 and they had lived there for 19 years.

I’m not sure he ever became used to the fact that he left his home and his friends. He was close to a young carpenter from Champaign, Mark, and I know Dad missed seeing him. He had many friends that would come visit him from time to time and just being a “free” agent was different for him than living with me. I am not an easy woman.

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Dad passed away on Christmas Eve, 2000. Before he did, he learned that his friend, Mark, named his first child after him. He was so pleased. I wish that he could have met his namesake and seen Mark one more time.

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