My dad, William Tenney, whom I called “Saint Bill,” was wonderful. I love him very much.
Dad passed away almost two years ago. He was 86, but still had swatches of brown hair amidst the grey. He never had a bald spot, and he walked a mile each day until the day of his last stroke.
Simply speaking, my dad lived a full life; a life filled with challenges, yet simple joys.
As a kid, he grew up in Superior, Wisconsin. His mother had been married before with other children. My dad’s dad, whom I never met, moved from Missouri to Wisconsin and met my dad’s mom. She was Norwegian; my grandfather – my dad’s father – was Irish. Dad moved to Buffalo after having been there with the Merchant Marines – when I asked him why in the world he would move from Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, he said, “It was warmer!”
My dad was raised a Christian Scientist. He always had a positive attitude. Although my three younger sisters, my mom and I, were night owls, he’d religiously call to us on weekends very early in the morning, whistling and singing, “Rise and shine, it’s a beautiful morning! The birds are singing, the sun is shining.” Then he’d be in the kitchen flipping pancakes and making scrambled eggs. He always had a full glass of milk with all his meals.
I came along first. My dad was 21 when I was born in Buffalo, New York. I have photos of him holding me as a baby. He always loved children. There was a delightful part of him that could become child-like in appreciation – the “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” when shown a new computer device that he knew nothing about, yet knew this was one of those “ooooh” moments. At the time of my birth we lived in the City of Buffalo on the Westside of town. It was a huge turn-of-the century brick building near Bryant Street and Elmwood Avenue. Huge oak trees lined the streets, and it was a vibrant neighborhood. I had a wonderful old woman as a neighbor, and she played a grand piano. I remember going to her apartment often to listen to her play.
When I was seven, my first sister was born. I immediately learned how to change diapers and make formula and heat baby bottles. At first it was fun.
With the coming birth of my first sister, my parents decided to move to the suburbs in Cheektowaga, New York. To me, it was very sad, as I loved the city, and the tree-lined streets, and my friends. It was then that the wheels began turning in the opposite direction. It was the 1950s and families were expected to have about four children. That’s what my parents had – only they couldn’t afford them, and I think we all suffered for it. With the age difference between me and my three sisters, there was an invisible barrier that stood between us – they had their circle together, I had just me.
Our family moved to the suburban projects into a row-house that had a coal-heated furnace. The coal man would come and the truck dumped all those black cubes of coal into our coal bin. Dad would shovel it into the roaring furnace during those long, long cold winters. I’d pull a chair into the furnace room and sit in front of the furnace as if it were a fireplace. Living in an apartment in the city was one thing because lots of families did that. But renting in the projects in the suburbs and not owning a home was looked down upon. Obviously, it was the poor people who lived in the projects – ours was called Tiorunda.
When I was ten, my next baby sister was born. I remember my little sister, the next after me, breaking the arm of the baby – she had tried to pull her over in the crib and that was it – poor little baby had a big cast on her arm. When I was 14, my last sister was born. By then I remember that we were still in the projects, and our neighbors across the way had six boys — my mom just had our fourth girl. I remember Dad carrying my youngest sister in his arms while he went to visit with the dad and his sixth son. Dad and his sense of humor, held out my youngest sister and said, “Want to switch?” They both laughed, but I guess dad did want that son. With each sibling, the responsibilities grew. I learned all aspects of mothering. I had numerous responsibilities.
My dad worked at the Bethlehem Steel Plant as a foreman. It was grueling work and grueling hours. He worked shift-work, which meant one week he worked from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m., the next week from 3 p.m. – 11 p.m., and the next week 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I don’t know how he did it. He was known to only sleep a few hours a night, yet he thought that we who slept normal hours, slept too much. Because we had moved into the projects with the birth of my first sister, there were still two other sisters to be born. With each new daughter, my dad began working double shifts to cover costs. When he was 53, he had an accident at the Steel Plant and one of his fingers was cut off. I remember saying to him, “Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry about you losing that finger.” And with his typical positive attitude he said, “Don’t worry about it. I had it for 53 good years!” That’s how he turned things around.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had a big farm in Alden, New York. Fifty-six acres of farmland. She and our “grampa” raised Black Angus and gladiolas. That was my time of respite. We’d get to go to the farm and I could wander on my own out to the back of the acreage down to a creek with Johnny Appleseed apples. I would see red fox in the distance, hear the cheep of birds, and the whistle of the breeze as it cooled my face in the humid summer. My sisters stayed back at the house because they were much younger — I just walked and walked for hours in perfect silence.
Dad loved the farm, too. During harvest season, we’d all ride up the silo while it was being filled with cut corn for the cows. I remember the day that Dad was out in the pasture and the bull happened to be there. Oh, boy, that bull caught sight of him and it started charging. Even while hoping Dad would make it out of there, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the sight of him tearing through the pasture as fast as he could go and then “BOOM!” he leaped over the electric wire fence, and dropped on the wet ground just beyond the bull! What a sight to see! That was my dad.
Our mom had become ill and was in and out of hospitals for years. She had nine surgeries in ten years. As mother’s little helper, I took over with the kids, and after school, I cooked meals each night for six people, did the laundry, cleaned the house and did the dishes (no dishwashers then). I made my dad’s lunch each day. He loved cold baked bean sandwiches with a slice of onion on top and some ketchup. I kid you not. Although he ate them every day, I never did eat a baked bean sandwich.
On the day I graduated high school with a Regent’s Diploma (meaning I had done additional work to get a “higher” diploma granted by New York State), my dad immediately said I must go with him to the Steel Plant to get a job! I was horrified. As a poor kid and a girl, I was not expected to go to college, although I desperately wanted to go. It was decided, though, that I would work, not attend college. I could not imagine working at the Steel Plant and I was panicked. Serendipitously, I had (apparently) taken a civil service test during my typing class in high school. That week I received a letter stating that I was number one on the job list, and to come to the State University of New York at Buffalo for a job interview. Thank goodness I was hired, and became a Clerk Typist. I no longer had to worry about working at the Steel Plant. My first job was in the Harriman Library at the old Main Street campus in Buffalo. It was while working full-time that I took college classes at night.
It was a difficult time for me then, but also for my dad. He had many trials and tribulations, and these are just a few.
Now working, I finally moved out of the house. Ironically, I saved more money living on my own, because I had to pay half of my salary to stay at my parents while still caring for the kids after work, cooking for six, doing the housekeeping, and having little rest. I was able to save enough money to go to Europe for three months. I landed in London and traveled through all the countries down to Spain and then back up again to London. It was my dream to go to Europe, and I did it.
I would tell Dad of my travels around the world. He had traveled the world as a Merchant Marine. Because of poor medical testing in those days, he was denied the regular military because of “sugar” in his urine – but he never had diabetes. He still wanted to be part of the coalition that fought during World War II. He traveled all over with the Merchant Marines. He especially loved Italy, the scenery, the food, its people, and, of course, the beautiful women.
Each time I moved to another state, especially after my mother died, he would always make a trip out to visit me. He did not visit me in Arizona, and that was the year my mother died. When I later moved to Boulder, Colorado, he was there. He loved Boulder! Never had he been in a town where they had actual leather on the bus seats and they weren’t all knifed up (kid you not). When partiers would walk around with bottles of beer at night, they didn’t toss them on lawns, or smash them on streets, they would line them up carefully in a row at the edge of a sidewalk, ready to be picked up by the garbage men. As we walked through the local mall with all the cars, he marveled that there was no rust on the cars! After all, he was used to Wisconsin and Buffalo – winter reigned and so did rust. With the amazing Flatiron mountains rising above the town where the Rocky Mountains began he was in total awe.
When my daughter was born, he immediately flew to Seattle to see her. I was so happy. He was such a proud Grampa. I was touched that he would come all that way to see Celene.
When I divorced my husband in Seattle, I came back “home” to Dad. He was a surrogate father to my daughter – we both adored him. I realize now that he was about 67 when we arrived on the doorstep needing help. He welcomed us and my daughter, Celene, now had her Granddaddy. I went back to school to finish my college degrees. During those cold winters with ten feet of snow, and me at school, my dad would fetch Celene from the school bus after kindergarten. Although the house was only 3 houses from the bus stop, he drove with the car heated up, lifted Celene off the big yellow bus so she wouldn’t be buried in the snow, and shuttled her into the warm cozy car – then drove up to the drive way, three houses away.
At my college graduation, earning a degree in Communications, I had a plaque made up for my dad. He was unaware of it. During the ceremony, I had permission to ask my dad up to the podium. He had that child-like look of glee and surprise, and as he approached me, I spoke to the audience and handed him the plaque. I publicly thanked my dad for being supportive and loving and told him how much I appreciated him. The plaque read: To my Dad, Saint Bill, Thank you for all your support. Love, Sharon.” Everyone applauded and I swear I saw a tear in his eye.
When Celene was six-years-old, I tried to get a job that paid enough for us to live on, but could not find one in Buffalo. I couldn’t manage as a single parent there. I had a friend in Santa Cruz who said I could stay with his mother and get set up there. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, so why not? I took a Greyhound Bus out while my dad watched Celene, and I checked out Santa Cruz. It was quite the contrast from drab, cold, snowy, rainy, windy Buffalo. Santa Cruz was a California beach town. So, I decided to move.
Eventually, we ended up living in the middle of the redwoods in Felton, just outside of Santa Cruz in the mountains nearby. My dad came out numerous times to visit. He always delighted in the little things. The ocean – the ocean on which he was a Merchant Marine, and was so beautiful to gaze upon. The majestic redwoods, tall and gigantic, overlooking all who stood beneath the towering forest. My dad loved it here. He adored it. He loved that all the houses were different, that each had its personal mark. How he loved nature! I think he was a natural-born Californian, but only discovered that in his late 70s.
As old age crouched on him, he began to lose his memories. Eventually, he was in an assisted living home. One of my sisters sent me a “letter” he was trying to write to me. I would send letters and post cards each week, always attaching a photo of me when I was about five-years old, because he no longer remembered the present. He had written on one of my envelopes in which I had sent a letter, and it said, “Dear Sharon, How are things in California?” By then, he didn’t know how to send a letter, but he certainly knew how to send a thought. I am very grateful to my sister who had the sensitivity to send that envelope to me to let me know that Dad was thinking about me – in the present. I still treasure that simple white envelope with my Dad’s writing on it.
The last time I visited him in Buffalo I brought Celene – unfortunately, he did not remember visiting us in California and when he saw her he exclaimed, “The baby?!” “Yes, the baby, Dad. She’s all grown up.” Such a sad moment it was to realize that twenty years were gone from his memory. I managed to “sneak” a video recorder into the home, and took a good twenty-minute movie of him talking about his life. By then, I knew he did not remember more recent events, so I had created a photo book for him that had old photos of our mom, his sister, other passed relatives whom he would remember, and even managed to get photos of Superior, Wisconsin, and put those in. I got a great photo of one of the “Meteor” whaleback ships from the 1800s there still perched in Superior! My dad regaled us with stories about the ships, and the Merchant Marines, his time on the boats. He told stories of “riding the rails” of trains while he was a teenager. We talked as far back as I could remember.
With his last stroke, he collapsed during one of his daily walks. It was madness after that. The hospital, the various homes until one was found next to an old monastery. Infections, paralysis, sadness. By then, he had lost his house (which he finally bought when I was 18 years-old) and he had nothing. Just as he came into this world with nothing, he was going out with nothing.
It was a conscious decision for him to die when he did. It seemed that the closer he came to death, the more his mind became intact. I will never forget the moment that I feel he decided to starve himself. My sister who had lovingly sent me that envelope on which my dad was trying to write a letter to me, took me around to some yard sales and we bought some pretty hand crocheted afghan blankets. We took them back to my dad, and he looked at them, and now being paralyzed on one side and no longer able to walk, he said, “They look like they would work for a wheelchair.” I knew then – I just felt it – that he knew he would never have his beloved walks. This was the turning point.
The next day he refused to eat. As my sister and I tried to hand feed my dad, he pursed his lips together and shook his head “NO!” We tried to get him to drink. He refused. He rarely said anything at that point, but as one of the nurses came to give him a shot, he screamed out, “No more needles!” He had made his decision.
A week later, family and friends gathered around him in the nursing home bed. We took turns sitting next to him and holding his hand. My dad was deaf since he was a teenager and he read lips. Although I was not as close to the bed as the others, I still could reach his hand and I had a good view of his face and he of mine. Knowing he read lips, I “talked” to him silently. I kept clearly mouthing, “I love you,” and “You’re doing a good job.” He continued to stare at me – we were talking while all around us others were talking, but not to him. We were in silent conversation.
At 12:28 a.m. on November 19th, 2012, my dad passed. He was awake until the very last breath. He wanted to be present for his own death. No matter how much morphine they gave him, he did not close his eyes. He knew this was a pivotal moment of his life, and he wanted to be conscious for it.
With the passing of my dad, came the passing of our family. We were not a perfect family. Me being the oldest and in a different generation from my siblings, it was hard to communicate. I don’t think my sisters actually understood me, except for the one who sent the envelope to me – she knows I’m different but she accepts me. I was always the square peg in the round hole.
Joyfully, I end this on a happy note. My dad came to me several months after he died!! Yes! I saw him in my house! I was in my bedroom and looked into my hallway during the morning. I saw my dad leaning against the wall of the hallway, with a smile. He was dressed in his favorite white cable knit sweater with the leather trim, he had on his khakis, and his brown tied shoes. He held but did not smoke a pipe in his right hand. He looked at least thirty years younger. His hair was full and brown again. My dad had vitality. He was happy. I couldn’t believe that I saw him! He was there for about ten seconds and then gone. Oh, but I saw him from top to bottom and the smile of love on his face.
Dad, I miss you so much. I love you.