June 23, 2013

Essay: "Living On" by Judy Willman

The Boys in the Boat THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown has made the recommended summer reads list for the New York Times and Parade.  I'm too far behind in my own summer reading to consider reviewing, but today I have an essay from Judy Willman, daughter of  crew team member Joe Rantz and inspiration for the book, that I think ya'll will enjoy.  "Living On" is about carrying on our parents' tradition and I meant to post it on Father's Day.  I didn't, probably for the same reason I forgot to buy wrapping for my Father's Day gift.

by Judy Willman

We all, to some extent, carry on in our parents’ tradition. I think of myself as my own person—and yet there are times that stop me short and bring tears to my eyes. These are the times when something I learned from my dad or something I did with him is suddenly and sharply drawn back into my memory. And, abruptly, there I am with him again—learning how to back braid a snap onto a rope, when to cut the hay field, how to windrow and stack it, how to rebuild a carburetor, or how to hand split cedar shakes. Or I find myself working with him to haul cedar logs down out of the mountains.

The funny thing is that I never questioned how he knew all that stuff…that odd, broad assorted set of skills. I just accepted, as a child, that it was natural that one’s father knew about pretty much everything. It wasn’t until a lot later that I began to piece together where all that knowledge came from.

My dad came of age during the Great Depression. His family abandoned him—left him utterly alone—when he was 15, and he had to learn to fend for himself to survive. And so he learned skills, he struggled, and he persevered. But somewhere along the way he also learned to see the beauty in doing things that he first learned simply as survival skills.

There was the personal pride he took in doing something well. There was an appreciation of the intoxicating smell of curing hay and the delicate rustling as it was hand raked into windrows. There was the sense of peace in the solitude and majesty of the forest where he sought out the fragrant western red cedar wood he loved so well. There was the thrill of finding rejected pieces that previous loggers had left behind as useless. There was the satisfaction of creating new uses for them.

 But where had it all come from? The pride in craftsmanship he learned from George Pocock—the English shell builder at the University of Washington where he had rowed in his college years. He applied it—as Pocock had—to his love of working with cedar. His extensive knowledge of car repair came from his dad. His knowledge of haying and cedar shake making and rope splicing came from the farmers he worked for in high school. His knowledge of the way things worked in the world came from his university chemistry and engineering and geology classes. And his knowledge of how to treat other people—how to trust and value those around you, came from the life lessons he learned during those years in crew.

And so now, as I approach 70, I sometimes find myself sitting on the porch looking out at our barn, roofed in hand split cedar shakes that I made and applied myself. Sometimes, when I let the horses into the barn, I pass the hand scythe with which I used to cut hay, still hanging on the tack room wall. Sometimes, my eye falls on one of the ropes dad taught me how to back braid a snap into. And each time I miss him…

But in many ways he is with me still. He is with me in the skills he taught me. He is with me when our kids come to visit, and the first thing they do is flop down in front of the woodstove, which he so dearly loved. He is with me when my grandson sends me a Facebook page on a new way to split firewood. He is with me when my daughter takes her oars in hand and climbs into her racing shell. All of us who owe our existence to him have a love of the things that take us back to him. All of us have learned the lessons he learned and taken them to heart. They breathe in all of us. We all are my dad living on.

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