It’s a sad time at the Dannemiller house. A wonderful man passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was 97. So I’ll beg your forgiveness in advance if I reminisce a bit on the man I knew as Grandpa Charlie.
* 2006: From L-R My brother, Jeff, Me and Jake, Grandpa, and my dad.
Charlie Dannemiller and his wife Bernetta had twelve children. You read that right. Twelve. Enough to fill an entire football team with one left over to serve as water boy. As the father of two kids, I have no idea why someone would do that to himself. There isn’t a single thing my children do that I believe would be better when multiplied by a factor of six.
You could blame such fertility excess on reality television, but back in Charlie’s day, reality TV was simply “reality.” The Catholic church was his muse. Every child is a blessing, and you tend to get a lot of them when you’re using the Pope-endorsed “Rhythm Method” for contraception. In fact, that’s how I got here.
“Yeah, I think we had the radio on when you were conceived,” my father used to say.
My dad was the third of Charlie’s dozen. He grew up in a crowded house. To this day, he has never had a room to himself. Everything was shared, including food, beds, clothes, sporting goods, and of course, chores.
There weren’t shelves overflowing with toys to be picked up, but there was plenty of mess. In order to keep a lid on things, Charlie and Bernetta had some pretty strict cleaning requirements. Beds had to be made every day. Floors washed and waxed by hand every single weekend. Laundry was non-stop.
Bernetta kept the house humming, enlisting the help of any children who had mastered their opposable thumbs. From what I understand, the girls took the brunt of the work. Meanwhile, Charlie worked three or more jobs, so he wasn’t around much. He would start his day before dawn working at the post office, then work a series of odd jobs. Maybe drive a bus, fix cars, paint houses, sew canvas aprons, or do some basic janitorial work. He might come home for a fifteen minute nap and dinner somewhere in between.
He wasn’t the playful, teddy bear father. Charlie didn’t entertain his kids. He never attended their sporting events or music concerts. He showed his love by waking up before the sun, working like a madman, providing for his family, and collapsing shortly before midnight. It was a no frills existence. There was barely enough money for food, much less anything else. My dad often sums up his childhood in a single sentence.
“You knew it was getting close to payday when you found a baked bean sandwich in your lunchbox.”
When Charlie would have a day off, it was spent taking care of other duties around the house. Cutting the grass. Keeping cars running. Fixing squeaky doors and broken latches. There wasn’t any extra money to pay people to take care of honey-do’s and other projects. Luckily, Charlie was a highly intelligent guy and could fix anything, usually with one of his sons at his side. Though I didn’t know him very well as a kid, I witnessed his brilliance first-hand when he came to visit one summer.
I had started a lawn care business with my friend Cory Schroeder when I was twelve. The neighborhood was pretty big, so Cory would “borrow” his dad’s beat up old golf cart to get us from job-to-job. We would tie my dad’s beat-up TG&Y mower to the back, and drag the rattling mass of metal all the way to our destination. One day, the cart pooped out not long after we left my house. We pushed it back to my driveway.
Sweating from the heat, we walked inside. Charlie asked, “What seems to be the problem?”
“The golf cart won’t run. Looks like we’re going to have to push the mower almost a mile to our next job.”
Charlie looked at us and said, “You’re giving up already?”
He walked outside to where the cart was parked and lifted up the seat. Inside the dark belly of the machine was a battery so corroded that it looked like it was covered in stalactites. Charlie quickly diagnosed the patient and blurted, “Gimme a minute,” and turned toward the house.
We helped him by eating popsicles.
A few minutes later, Charlie erupted from the garage holding a screwdriver, a wire hanger, and some pliers. Undistracted by our sixth-grade snacks, he immediately went to work. Even though there were only three items in the tool inventory, he had me keep track of each one and pass him what he needed. As he toiled under the seat, he held a complete conversation with himself using his personal language soup. It was a delicate mix of muttering and heavy sighing, with a dash of English sentence fragments.
Before we knew it, he was dropping the seat back into place. The screwdriver wore signs of green and white corrosion. The wire hanger had disappeared. So confident in his ability to fix what was broken, he didn’t test the work himself. Instead, he motioned to Cory and commanded,
“Hop in there and see if she drives!”
Cory gripped the key with his sticky fingers, turned it in the ignition, and stepped on the gas. The cart sprung to life! We didn’t know how he fixed it, and didn’t ask a lot of questions. I’m sure that his repair job would not have passed safety inspection, but S&C Lawn Care wasn’t bringing in the kind of revenues that might trigger such an audit, so we kept our mouths shut.
I didn’t see a lot of Grandpa Charlie after that. My grandmother was in poor health, so they rarely made any more trips outside of Ohio. I would see him at family gatherings, which, given the sheer size, looked more like a benefit concert than a reunion. As you might imagine, there isn’t a lot of quality time to be had when you’re competing for attention with twelve kids plus a hundred more grandkids and other assorted relatives.
All that changed when Bernetta passed away.
My grandmother had heart trouble. There were numerous times they gave her only months to live. Bolstered by faith and force of will, she hung on to life for years and years. Grandpa Charlie took care of her until her body finally gave out. I am convinced that had the doctors chosen to perform an autopsy when she left this world, they would have found strands of wire, coat hangers and other homemade parts that Charlie had used to hold her together. She was a wonderful woman who had raised twelve kids without raising her voice. A beautiful life, well-lived and well-loved.
All of the sudden, Grandpa Charlie had all the time in the world. He had long since retired, and no longer had anyone to care for. My dad, accustomed to calling home every Sunday to check in, now found himself talking with his father.
In conversations, their talk drifted to the familiar.
“Kenny. I bought myself a car.”
“No kidding, Dad. What did you buy?”
They talked about the value of American-made automobiles. Horsepower. Reliability. Transmissions and trim packages. Tools. Storm doors. Vinyl siding. It was all safe territory. That is, until Grandpa Charlie decided to go off script.
“I am planning on taking my new car on the road. I’m going to visit every one of my kids. From California to North Carolina.”
“Really?” Dad said, followed by silence.
“Yeah. I figure I should make up for lost time. I plan on spending a few weeks with each one of you.”
A few weeks?
This was exciting news to my father. The kind of excitement you might feel upon being told that you possess the largest, most intricately cut diamond on earth.
In your bladder.
You see, my dad didn’t really know Charlie. Sure, he had learned a lot from Charlie growing up. He knew how to fix things. He understood the value of self-sufficiency and helping the less fortunate. He developed a strong German work ethic. But he didn’t learn much about Charlie the man. So this visit was going to be a treasure, but the thought of extracting the value made my dad a bit nervous.
So Charlie came to Oklahoma. My dad was just starting his own home repair and remodeling business. They spent a lot of time in the garage working on projects together. They talked for hours about carpentry and electricity. They bonded over belt sanders and biscuit joints. On the surface, these are hardly the kinds of conversations that form lasting emotional bonds. But you gotta’ start somewhere.
Over the next twenty-plus years, through regular weekend phone calls and periodic pop-ins, my dad slowly came to know his father. And it made him happy. But it wasn’t everything.
A couple of years ago, my dad and I were alone in my car together. He was in the passenger seat. I asked him about his recent visit to see Grandpa Charlie. As was the norm for our discussions, Dad talked about Charlie’s health. He relayed the story about how, on this most recent trip, a lot of his brothers and sisters had gathered at my Aunt Rose’s house for a get-together. It went a little something like this:
Grandpa was getting tired. But he’s 95. What do you expect? Cartwheels?
So I offered to take him back to his apartment. Your Grandpa agreed on the condition he could be the navigator. You know how his mind is still sharp and he loves to test it.
So, we walked out to the car. I carried a box of peanut brittle that someone had given him as a gift and set it in the back seat. Your grandpa rode shotgun.
Once we were on the road, Grandpa began to navigate. He nailed the first couple of turns, but a few miles and some minutes later, I could tell we weren’t going the right way. So I said,
“Are you sure this is the right way, Dad?”
“Yeah, Kenny. Keep going. We’ll see the next turn in a minute.”
So we drove on for quite a while longer. Fifteen or twenty minutes. Talking about a lot of nonsense. I didn’t ask him about the directions again. They he says,
“I think we may be lost.”
The words came out of his mouth more like resignation than conversation. Tough for him to admit he wasn’t the same guy he used to be. So I tried my best to make light of the situation.
“That’s OK. Happens to me all the time.”
I called to get directions and got back on track. A trip which should have lasted 25 minutes ran over an hour. When we pulled into the lot at the assisted living center, I told him I was glad we had a bit of extra time together. So we both get out of the car…
There was a pause in the story. I looked to my right and my dad was staring straight ahead. Silent. What was he looking at? Did I make a wrong turn?
Just when I was about to ask a question, my dad’s broken voice came out. Barely holding it together.
“And he said he was proud of me. My dad said he was proud of me. I’m sixty-seven years old, and it’s the first time I have ever heard those words come out of his mouth.”
That’s right. Sixty-seven years. Let me play them back for you. Solid food. First steps. Learning to ride a bike. Acting in school plays. Playing sports. Working your way through Catholic school. Graduating. Getting a job. Buying your first car. Getting married. Owning a home. Promotions. Having kids. Coaching little league. Being a dad. Starting a business. Selling it. Building your dream home with your own two hands. Finding a life’s work that drives your passion. All the while. Wondering…
Did he notice?
And there they were. Four little words.
“I’m proud of you.”
Imprisoned in the heart of a father, finally set free 67 years later. Fixing what was broken.
It’s true. Charlie isn’t the same guy he used to be.
And neither am I. And neither are you. We are all shaped by our experience. We grow. We learn. We choose. And we are all patching together a life with duct tape and bare wire.
It’s an imperfect artform. Not a month goes by when I don’t hear my own father say the words, “I’m proud of you.” Now those words mean more to me than ever before. It’s preventive maintenance. Putting into words what had only been said in silent, selfless sacrifice by his own father. Because sometimes daily toil doesn’t speak clearly enough. The words we say become the gift we give and the legacy we leave. Made real through action and love.
* Mom n dad’s legacy. I love these people!
This is our life’s work. We must commit to holding together the things we hold most dear. And we do it by building upon the beautifully flawed legacy that has been passed own to us. Learning from our own mistakes, yet allowing our own children to make their own. Taking the best we have and making it stronger for those who come next.
Fixing what was broken.