Dreams really do come true. Keep dreaming!
In June of 1918, my Polish immigrant grandparents, Joseph and Anna Szepieniec welcomed their first of 7 children (5 boys and 2 girls) into the world. They named him Henry Francis. To share the wonderful news, my grandfather wrote a letter to his parents in Poland. He wrote, “I’m richer than any Rockefeller, for I have a son.”
That son would later become my dad. Dad grew up on a farm in Lublin, Wisconsin, and learned to read from the Sunday comics before he started school. He and his siblings would all become fluent in both English and Polish.
In the 1930’s, when the United States was trying to come back following the Great Depression, my dad had to quit school to go to work planting trees in the Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) in Northern Wisconsin. My aunt has told us stories of his visits home and how that program helped not only their family, but families all across the United States. And although Dad was a lifelong learner and reader, his quitting school and not having a high school education or diploma was something he regretted his whole life.
During World War II, Dad joined the army, making it to the rank of Staff Sargent. He served in France and England, and for a period of time was stationed at Warrenpoint in County Down Northern Ireland. That is where he met and fell in love with my mom, Julia Lucy O’Hagan. They had a whirlwind courtship and were married in April of 1945. It took almost a year before my mom was able to join my dad in America. During that time they wrote almost daily love letters and poetry to each other.
Many years later during a trip to Ireland, my mother’s sister shared how during my parents’ first Christmas apart, my grandmother couldn’t find any room on the fireplace hearth to put the traditional Christmas holly, not with all the photos of Henry, lovingly placed there by my mom.
My parents’ love brought 11 children into the world: Mary, Patricia, Barbara, Michael, Penny, Arlene, Robert, Susan, Richard, John, and Ann. I am grateful for that love every single day.
Dad was great with directions and finding his way places. He could also fall asleep driving in a car loaded with noisy kids, something that always amazed and perplexed our mom. Not surprisingly, I remember a lot of noise in our car and in our house, but there was also a lot of singing and laughter too.
On our regular Sunday visits to Granny and Grandpa’s farm in Lublin, Dad would give us the ride of our lives driving on what we had affectionately nicknamed, The Wee Road. It was a hilly gravel country road that was the back way to our grandparent’s farm, and it was more fun than most carnival rides. At least we thought so. Dad would answer our pleas to GO FASTER! Now this was before cars had seatbelts, so the faster Dad went, the more we’d bounce on the seats, giggling and laughing, while holding our stomachs the whole time. And as the gravel would be assailing the back of the car, Dad would call out asking, “Who’s throwing rocks at the car?” Of course, this only resulted in more giggles and laughter.
Dad had a rich deep voice and I have fond memories of his telling and reading us stories. One particular family favorite was, Casey at the Bat.
Dad also had several favorite TV Shows that he watched regularly; Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, and the one that has a vivid memory attached to it, Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke was on Saturday nights. That also happened to be bath night at our house, at least for us little kids. With large pots of water heating on the stove to compensate for a water heater that just couldn’t keep up with our family, Dad would help my mom when it came to the drying or toweling off part. I had to be REALLY little, because I can vividly remember sitting on the counter or sometimes the table (whichever I’m guessing gave a better vantage point to the TV) as my dad dried me off and continued watching his TV show at the same time. One thing is for sure, whenever Dad dried us off, our pajamas always stuck to us.
Dad went deer hunting every year. My mom would pack his lunch of Sheboygan Summer Sausage sandwiches in a large paper grocery bag. I was one of the kids who anxiously waited for him to get home. It would usually be dark by the time he’d come home, sometimes with a deer, sometimes not. But always without fail, he’d sit down on the chair and we’d help pull off his boots. Then we’d descend onto his leftover lunch bag. It always smelled of the woods and fall, with a hint of the sandwiches that still lingered too. Sometimes to our delight, we’d find inside an uneaten sandwich (or two) either forgotten or maybe left on purpose for us to share.
He wore Old Spice cologne.
When I was little, Dad had a number of part time jobs in order to support our large family, sometimes he had as many as five at a time. The five I remember:
In December of 1969, when Dad was 51, my mom died. There were still 8 of us kids at home. He would later remarry and that’s when he and the five youngest kids moved to Wausau. Not surprisingly with Mom gone, our family lost our way for a while.
Prior to my dad dying at 64 from lung and bone cancer, he had still been working at Murray Machinery in Wausau as a machinist. At his wake, some of his co-workers shared that he had been nicknamed Hammering Hank, because if anything needed fixing, he would grab his tools and go fix it. I always remember Dad fixing things too: chains that had fallen off of one of the bikes, limbs that had fallen off of a doll, and kitchen chairs that needed to be re-cushioned. He is buried next to my mom.
Years after his death, one of my aunts shared that she remembered going to see him for his birthday one year. Since their birthdays were only a day apart, I’m guessing they were celebrating together. What stood out in her mind was how proud my dad was to show her the 11 birthday cards he had received in the mail, one from each of us kids. Now, I don’t know if that was always the case, but that year, we all had remembered him with a card. It makes me think (or hope) that he may have felt richer than any Rockefeller, at least on that particular birthday.
Of the 11 of us, three of my brothers look a lot like Dad, especially one of my brothers. Of the girls, I’m the only one who looks like him. I have his lips and his eyes and his thick wavy hair. And in a family where the vast majority still calls me Susie, he always called me Sue.
I remember a few years after I had left home, I asked Dad how tall he was and he told me he was 5’8”. I told him that really surprised me, since I had been telling people he was 6 feet tall for years. He laughed. We both did.
My dad wasn’t one to tell us that he loved us. While in my junior year of college I wrote him a letter. I thanked him for all the sacrifices that he and my mom had made in raising us, and for saying yes 11 times, no matter how difficult it must have been for them. I reflected on our growing up and shared some of my fondest memories with him. I also told him that I loved him, and I asked him if he loved me.
The letter I received in reply, written in my dad’s signature handwriting is one that I have saved and still cherish all these years later. Tucked among the words about his work and his garden, he wrote, “Surely you must know that I love you…”
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Surely you must know that I love you too. I always will.