With one exception, I wouldn't have missed a minute of the life we shared.
| I have two static items in my port with titles beginning with “I Miss You Dad…”. Those are tributes to the man that stepped up to be my father beginning when I was 17, my late wife Linda’s father, and my Masonic brother, George D. Hart.
Early this month I lost my biological father, Jim Sr. Hence the distinguishing term ‘Biological’ in the title of this piece. Yep, I’m a Jr., and proud of it. Please bear with me. I need to “set the stage” for you to fully appreciate how close we were, especially in the later years.
Dad was a Marine in WWII. Served four years stationed at Quantico. 1943-46, I think (I was born in 1948). I have a photo showing him and my mom standing together at the counter in the base PX. I looked up to him throughout my younger years, and we got along great. I even helped him remodel the attic space in our brown, shingle, 2-apartment home into a 3rd apartment. And, we had a huge Lionel 027-guage model train set (two freight trains with cast iron steam engine locomotives, a passenger train, and a railyard work train with a switch engine, all totaling over 100 cars), set up in the basement. It really helps when your dad owns the building and the second apartment is also occupied by relatives (my maternal grandmother and aunt). I can still, today, draw that massive track layout from memory.
We moved into a ranch style home in a different part of town prior to my starting 6th grade. Dad and mom wanted my two sisters and me to experience a bit of rural and farm life, so for three years (1961-63) they leased a 40-acre farm located only about 15 minutes from our house, which they rented out for that same time period. Each of us three kids took horseback riding lessons – English style, not Western, and had a horse of our own to ride and to care for. We definitely got the rural education in that sense. Brushing down the horses after long rides in the pasture to cool them off, shoveling the manure out of their stalls each week, feeding them, watering them, and all the rest. Dad and I would go pick up about a month’s worth of hay and alfalfa bales at a time, then stack them up on the platform above the horses’ stalls in the old garage on the property. In the winter months, dad and I put up a shortcut path of barbed wire through one of the fields that were still farmed by the farm’s original owner in the summer. That path gave the horses direct access to their stalls to get out of the winter weather on their own without having to wait for us to round them up. They made extensive use of that path during the winter months every year, especially the winter the temperature reached 20 degrees below zero. We also raised chickens, ducks and a litter of a dozen pure bred German Shepherd puppies.
We had a very interesting time with those puppies, and their mother, named Princess, when they were first born. She had the first one just before I left for school that morning, and the 12th one shortly before supper that evening, roughly 11 hours from start to finish. And mama Princess seemed to know from the outset that she had a problem: how to feed 12 puppies with only 8 nipples. She trusted each and every one of us totally here, allowing us to rotate the pups a number of times a day. They all survived.
All of us totally enjoyed that farm life experience and were always glad that dad had decided to give us that opportunity, despite the cost. He said giving us the educational experience was worth the cost. We loved him for that. When the lease on the farm ran out in 1963, we returned to the ranch style house. All three of us kids agreed that we now missed the opportunity for those extended rides through the 40 acres of pasture on horseback. It was hard to lose that “cold turkey’ after spending entire weekends in that pasture, sleeping in tents on Friday and Saturday nights.
Starting when I was a freshman in high school, dad and I shared a large-scale hobby for almost 20 years, rebuilding the old roll-driven player pianos and reproducing player pianos (1963-1980). Virtually every evening and weekend you could find us in the basement, working on our latest upright player, or laying on our backs underneath a reproducing baby grand player. At the highpoint of those years, we had 35 of them in the basement at one time; 29 uprights and 6 reproducing baby grands. And we loved every minute of it. Thankfully for us, that house was built with an outside entrance to the basement that was a concrete ramp. It made getting them in and out of the basement obviously much easier.
But, dad had one “problem” that I didn’t find out about or at least realize until I turned 17 and fell in love with Linda Hart. a junior, in 1966, my senior year in high school. Dad’s “problem”? He found it difficult to stand up to my mother. She was the “family matriarch” type, and made no apologies for it. And her plan for my life didn’t include any relationship at all until after college.
I had started college in the fall of 1966, but mom’s refusal to allow me to even see Linda until after college quickly backfired. She didn’t count on the strength of the love the Lord had quickly blossomed between Linda and I, and the courage that my love for Linda had given me.
I dropped out of college (going back later on my own), got a $50-a-week job, a $50-a-month apartment, and left my family behind. I was 18, and with the legal age in Ohio then still 21, this was the only way I could legally get control of my own life. Linda and I could be together at will, and we couldn’t be happier. It was at that time that Linda’s family basically became mine as well, including Holidays, and that’s when George became my ‘father’. After a ‘date’ of sorts, the night I took her to see the Junior Class Play at the high school, she found the courage to tell me she was an epileptic. Considering the ‘friends’ she’d lost through all those years, it should be no surprise that it took me almost two hours of conversation that evening, ending on her front porch, to get Linda to realize I really had told her that it made absolutely no difference in how I felt about her; that I loved her too much to let it make a difference. When she did finally realize I’d actually said those wonderful words, she melted in my arms. Linda was now the most important part of my life, and protecting her was now my top priority. Linda had been an epileptic since she was eight years old, and this was at a time when very little was known about it, so the general public was afraid of anyone that had the grand mal seizures around them, and unfortunately that included Linda. She was something of an outcast throughout school. And I knew she couldn’t emotionally withstand being kept apart after we’d confessed our love, especially when she had finally found someone willing to look beyond the seizures and love her as herself, when she never thought that would happen. To her, my loving her was a dream come true. I knew she couldn’t emotionally survive a separation that soon, and as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t either, and didn’t even want to try.
Linda and I eloped to Newport, Ky. in 1968, both of us 19. My mother’s reply when I called them on our return to Cincinnati after the wedding to tell them we were married? “Well, you just remember: I don’t want her in this house.” From the moment I had moved out on my own, Linda and I would remain much closer to her family than mine.
It would be about 3 years or so later, and take my older cousin Buster reading my parents the “riot act” about their treatment of Linda and I, but about 3 months after that, Linda was allowed in my parents’ home. Mom never did allow Linda to call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ which disappointed her. Her parents, from the beginning, had insisted I address them that way, and it felt great, bringing us a lot closer; but other than that, things between us and my parents grew slowly better over time. Linda loved the players as much as dad and I did, and often helped us with the restorations. Which was great not only for bringing Linda and dad closer over time, but she was a major help when we were working on a baby grand. Dad and I had to lay on our backs, then lean upward to reach the player mechanism. Linda, at barely five feet tall, could sit bolt upright under them and work in a comfortable position.
Linda had a seizure in our bathroom at 9:45 PM on Monday, March 3, 1980, striking her head on the tile wall. She died instantly. Our all-too-short 11 ½ years as man and wife was over.
At Linda’s visitation that Thursday, mom walked up to me as I stood by the casket, and said, “Jimmie, I just want to tell you that I might have been wrong about Linda.” I said only “Thanks, mom.” I was thinking “Too little too late”, and “why couldn’t you have said that when she was alive to hear it?” But I was not about to tarnish Linda’s memory by getting into a heated discussion over it with mom at that moment. On another occasion, mom said she never realized how much Linda and I meant to each other. I didn't say it, but my thought at that moment was, "You would have known that, and more, if you had been willing to listen to me."
It was a long time before I could get back to the players; about 6-8 months. Through that time, whenever I looked at one of them I’d see Linda sitting up and working underneath a baby grand, or see – and hear – her playing the Beatles’ Michelle on the antique pump reed organ I bought her as a high school graduation present in 1967. She loved it, too. I still have it today, and it still plays very well. And for me, the sound of that song on that 1905 reed organ is still the best rendition I’ve ever heard other than the Beatles’ original version.
My mother died from lung cancer in late January, 1998.
Dad sold his house sometime in the next few years because maintaining it at his age was more and more difficult. I stored many of the items I inherited from him in a storage unit, moving the rest, including 5 of the players (2 of them baby grands) into my house.
Dad and I spent more time together after that then we had in those 3 years or so right after I left home at 18. But that brought us closer than we’d been in a long time. After my cousin had read him and mom that ‘riot act’, he had realized the relationship with me that he’d lost by not standing up to mom from the start.
For the next few years, he lived with a new lady friend and former coworker of his, on the west side of town. Following that, he lived in an assisted living complex for a few years, on the east side, just minutes from my home. And we had regular time together through all that time, and both of us cherished every minute of it. There was one moment that tugged at my heart, though. Dad had taken a couple pieces of one of the players from my house to his room to work on a few weeks prior to my latest visit. At one point when we were talking about that piece, I could tell his memories had momentarily taken him back to his former house, where we’d had a fairly good-sized workroom, with a workbench he’d built by hand running the full length of one of the 15-foot-long walls, with a pegboard on the wall above it, running the full length of the workbench, from right above it all the way to the ceiling. He paused a moment in our discussion, got up, and walked toward his hall closet. He opened the door of it, and pointed to one of the shelves built into the door on the inside. On that shelf was one of the player pieces, held in place by two C-clamps. He said, “Look what I’ve been reduced to for a workbench.” My heart went out to him at that moment; there was nothing I could say to take away that pain. Because I knew full well, were I in that same position, that I would feel exactly the same way after all those years in the basement.
Even after he broke his left hip in a fall in the parking lot of that assisted living complex and had to move to a nursing home because he never regained his balance, we were never closer. In addition to other activities, such as having dinner at local restaurants, or making trips to the store for him to get his favorite snacks so he could also get more time outside, we went through countless photos of older family generations I never had the chance to meet, which I absolutely loved, learning a lot about my family’s history at the same time. We also went through photos of his years at Quantico, photos of the highlight pieces of our player collection, and many more. And we often relived those ‘glory years’ of our player restoration large scale “hobby” through lively conversations along with those photos.
A few years ago, in his early 90’s, dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Thankfully, he didn’t slide downhill nearly as rapidly as some patients do. He’d occasionally ask me the same question twice in an hour, but for a long time that was the only consistent major symptom. In the last couple years, he’d doze off in the middle of a conversation, then pick right up with it again when he awoke minutes later. That could just have been age doing that – he was 93, 94, 95. Only rarely did he “stare into space” like many Alzheimer’s patients do, or fail to recognize a visitor. 99% of the time he was perfectly normal, and lucid. Even that last morning.
On Monday morning, October 3, 2016, the nursing home attendant gave him his breakfast, and his medication, and put his breathing treatment in place. When she returned less than 10 minutes later, he’d taken the breathing treatment off, and had tried to put his oxygen mask on. It was half on, half off. And he was gone.
I’m thankful to the Lord that he didn’t linger for weeks or months, not recognizing people or knowing where he was. I have to believe that would have been terrifying for him. I could not be more thankful to the Lord for the way He called dad Home. And I’ll always be thankful for that.
Rest in peace, dad. Thanks from the bottom of my heart for all those years when I was younger, especially the years I helped you remodel the attic, and the years we had the huge model train set, which I still have, set up in that basement. And, of course, those 18-20 fantastic years rebuilding the players before I had to leave home because of mom controlling my life, not considering my feelings, and forcing me to make a choice. And thanks, just as importantly, for those wonderful later years of our relationship, including what you taught me about my ancestors. I will always cherish those years as well. I love you.