By Marilyn Crockett
My single word description of my father is “distant.” And I don’t really know much about him. The early history comes through my mother. It seems he was born in Superior Wisconsin of immigrant parents from Norway. There was, and still is as far as I know, an immigrant route through the St. Lawrence seaway and the Great Lakes, that helped populate the Midwest. Nick and Lena Hansen traveled that route in about 1900 to Superior, Wisconsin, once described to me as the armpit of Duluth. My father was born on March 31, 1905, prematurely, in a Catholic hospital. The birth, Lena’s second as far as I know, was too fast and they didn’t make it to the municipal hospital. He was swaddled and laid in a drawer and baptized St. Joseph as the Catholic nuns thought he would surely die. He didn’t and was re-baptized Lutheran without the saint but retaining the single name Joseph.
At the age of six, he faced the tasks of learning English, writing with his right hand, and the death of his mother. His left-handedness as well as his Norwegian language was not permitted. As an adult he would not speak a word of Norwegian. Mother said he understood it, but he would only speak in entirely unaccented English. His sister Nora was older and I assume took over. Nick moved his children West in search of rough carpentry work. My father talked of having a horse or pony and riding to school at some point. They eventually ended up on the West coast in Bellingham, Washington.
In high school my father met my mother and they dated seven years while my father completed high school and his college engineering degree. My mother completed high school and a single year of college. It’s a toss up who married up and who married down. My father was a good-looking immigrant at the time of his marriage, with a valuable professional engineering degree. My mother was a DAR, but her father was a barber. Mother worked in a dress shop for three years, saving money for school and paying off her father. At that time a young person until the age of 21 or even 25 had to turn over his or her earnings to the head of the family; her father, in her case. Young Joseph worked, fortunately keeping his own money for school, by logging and painting a bridge in the summers. During the school year he lived on a farm and milked cows before and after classes for his room and board.
On graduation, in 1928, he and a couple of friends of his, got a job with Commonwealth Edison, the electrical company serving the city of Chicago and surrounding areas. My father as an electrical engineer worked on the underground. Chicago, like New York City, keeps a lot of it’s wiring underground. These friends were Uncle Harold, married to Athena and Uncle Harry married to Ruth. These people figured strongly in my childhood although they were long-term close friends, not actual relatives.
My parents had my brother in about a year and moved to a house in Elmwood Park. They lost the first house to a foreclosure. During the depression, my father was dropped to half time and they had an agreement with the developer that wasn’t honored, or so the story goes, and they lost the deposit and all the equity in that first house. They lived in an apartment until he was reinstated as full time and then bought the house at 7931 Birchdale in which I grew up. I didn’t know about the foreclosure and only learned about it from my brother when I was an adult.
My father was very handy and built small desks for me and my sister. He also built a bookcase, a sandbox, easels and painting boxes for me and my mother. He had a darkroom in the basement, fully equipped, and used it at about the time I was in kindergarten. There are photos he took, developed, and printed from that time. He also worked on the cars, and bought oil wholesale by the case to be shared out with other men from the office. This came about since we had a two-car garage.
There must have been a golden time that he read to us. I cannot remember it directly. I remember him telling me I was too big to sit on his lap and be read to. I do remember two books with wonderful illustrations, Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. There must have been stories read from them at some point. The books were kept near my father’s chair and we were not permitted to play with them.
My mother protected him as in “Don’t bother your father.” or “Be quiet. Your father’s home.” He was home at exactly 5:30 walking from the commuter train station. He expected dinner exactly at 6:00, reading the newspaper and smoking Camel cigarettes, until it was ready. If my mother got home late in the afternoon she scurried around setting the table before she started cooking, so it looked like he would eat at exactly six.
My sister and I could approach him with report cards with good grades and got a dime for each A. We got an allowance, every other week, when he got paid. But this money really wasn’t ours to spend. It was to be saved for college, in small plastic banks when we were small and then in a bank in Oak Park when we were old enough to have an account. In high school when I babysat I added money to this college fund. At one point I took some of the money and bought two blouses for myself. I was very anxious about this as the money was only to be saved, but my mother who surely noticed, said nothing.
I try to remember what my father told me, advice he may have given me. There was a little bit about numbers. Never to use the closed four that can look like a nine and to be careful to line up columns of numbers, so they would be added accurately. He also had advice about driving. Five miles per hour over the speed limit is permissible. (My husband says ten, but the Midwest is conservative.) Also never ride in a convertible. They don’t even have roll bars and you won’t survive an accident.
When I went to college, he showed me how to write a check. The word “and” represents a decimal point – so write, one hundred, thirty one “and” sixty-four slash over one hundredth of a dollar. When I got married while still in college, his money management went to my new husband. He sent checks to Dick regularly for the equivalent room and board…as long as I remained in school. When I once brought the baby home on the train, on the return he gave the porter five dollars to take care of me and ‘the babe.’ I remember looking at that five dollar bill wishing it was in my own hands, but the porter did, in fact, take the baby’s bottle and had it washed and refilled with milk from the dining car during the trip.
In spite of his health regimen, walking regularly no matter what the weather to the commuter train, eating no deep fried foods, munching on fig newtons, putting us under a sun lamp in the winter, and at a certain point quitting smoking, he had his first heart attack at sixty-two and died at seventy-two, leaving my mother to survive him by twenty-three years. He had worked for Commonwealth Edison for forty-five and a half years, all his working life.