In 1974 at the age of 15, I started working for 75 cents an hour grading papers for a high school teacher.
“Be a secretary, you’ll always have something to fall back on,” my father told me. His advice bit me in the butt a few years later when as an Army Reservist 1976, I applied to be in the first class of women to be admitted to West Point. I missed the age cut-off by one year because I needed a year of prep school.
I’ve lost track of the number of jobs I’ve had over the years: medical clerk typist, pharmacy tech, “Officer Friendly” in military police community relations, C-130 cargo plane loader, publishing manager, small business owner, production control analyst, realtor…and secretary.
Sometimes I felt sentenced to being a secretary because I’d boomerang back yet again. Now, after all these years and perspective, it was an awesome way to get my foot in the door of some solid, well-respected companies. I’ve made the most of that opportunity the last 11 years and am grateful to have been able to bookend my career with the Army, first as a 19-year-old reservist and now as a retired civil servant.
I retired from my day job today. It’s going to take some time for that reality to sink in…but it definitely feels good.
We are inextricably linked to our parents on our birthdays: they brought us into the world and are our first teachers.
On this 66th birthday, I’m thinking about my Pa…the dice game 6-5-4, the double-six boxcars he loved to roll, and the life lessons he taught me.
How to be a good parent. He raised me to be independent, yet I knew I could always count on him to be a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, or a soft place to land.
Be less judgmental and more accepting. Rather than passing judgment on something, he would keep an open mind and say, “Well, that’s different.”
Focus on the positive. Pa had had been through a lot in his life plus he had medical problems, which you never knew because his focus was on you and making the best of the situation.
Cherish friends and family, giving them your full attention. There was nothing more that Pa loved to do than sit and visit with family and friends.
Stay curious about people. Pa loved to meet new people and hear their stories. Being an introvert myself, I challenged myself to be more Pa-like during my 2020 pre-Pandemic Portland trip. The rich, memory-filled trip was one I’ll never forget.
It’s never a bad day for a drive. Pa loved to drive and said, “There’s always something new to see.” After he retired, he worked for car dealers and Enterprise, driving and shuttling clients while chatting them up. He racked up some serious miles, and I definitely get my sense of adventure and love of the open road from from him.
So my 6-5-4 take-away on this day is: 1) life is like a dice roll, you never what’s coming; 2) don’t be greedy and squander a decent score because the next roll might be worse; and 3) sometimes, when you least expect it, you roll boxcars and win the pot.
Today marks the one year anniversary of my Father’s passing. It’s been a year of firsts in what I’ve come to call my grief hibernation. I lost my Mother when I was 30 but that was different. I lost her to mental illness long before she walked out of a North Dakota state hospital on a frigid February day and died of hypothermia.
Pa was my rock, my go-to guy through out-of-state moves, joining the military, marriages, a miscarriage, the birth of my daughter, divorces, coming out, and finally marrying my partner. My Father fought for and won custody of my brother and I during the era where children were assumed to be the mother’s responsibility, regardless of mental state.
“Guess what I did Pa?”
He was never quite sure what I would say next, and inevitably, he would respond, “You did what?!”
Whether it was joining the Marines, skydiving, signing up to run a marathon, or getting a promotion, he was always my biggest fan and cheerleader. This was the guy who water-skied in the Missouri River for 12 straight months without a wet suit so clearly I was my Father’s daughter.
My Pa had prepared for his passing by writing his own funeral service and obituary in 2008. After writing them, he called each person he listed as pallbearers, asked them permission to include them, and then proudly read them his newly written obituary. To say my father was a character is an understatement. He ended his obit with “P.S. If you want to put in that he loved to gamble at Prairie Knights you can, also he loved to dance in his younger days.”
My Father also planned for his granddaughter and I to deliver eulogies. How on earth would I be able to stand in front of an audience of friends and family and talk about his life without sounding like a blubbering fool?
I listened to the song “Dance With My Father” on repeat and boo-hoo’d my way through the days until “the day” arrived. I really wanted the eulogy to talk about what he meant to me as my Father, but I knew everyone in the room had lost someone very special to them, for so many different reasons. So this is the eulogy I wrote and read:
On behalf of the family, thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of our Father, Don D. Sinness (as he liked to call himself).
My Pa impacted and touched the lives of so many people and a stranger was a friend he just hadn’t met and talked to yet. He had a great sense of humor and he loved to make people laugh.
He had this uncanny ability to uplift a person’s spirit just by being present and listening. The next time he saw you, he’d focus on how you were and what was going on in your life, even though he himself was often fighting a medical battle.
My Pa had charm, character, and compassion. He was many things to so many people…a fatherly figure with support and advice, a shoulder to cry on when you needed it, a brother and uncle who loved his extended family, a compassionate ally to transgender co-worker, a fun dancing partner to kick up your heels with, the old Goat roper you loved to party and smoke cigars with, a Grandpa who loved to play 6-5-4 and made you feel like the center of his universe, a best bud you looked forward to catching up with every day, a fellow MDU retiree you could reminisce with, a guy you knew you could count on to do what he could to help if you were having trouble, a loving partner and caregiver to his wife of nearly 45 years.
To us, his wife, kids and grandkids, he was our Rock of Gibraltar and we will miss him terribly.
One of the last things Pa said to me was “It’s time for you to be a brave Marine now.” Pa, it sucks that you’re not here anymore but I’ve got this. Thanks for being my Pa.
Father. Grandfather. Rare Gem.
My Rock. Confidante.
Love You Much. Miss You Always.
I’m not going to lie, 2018 has been a year filled with challenges. Between my grief hibernation and my partner’s job chaos, there were no adventures or camping in 2018. We vow to change in the new year.
So cheers to new dreams, careers, and side hustles…bring on 2019!
It hit me like a gut-punch this week. In a year of firsts since my father passed, this would be the first Christmas without him. I crumbled at the thought, but sucked it up, stuffed my emotions, and went to work.
“Guess what I did Pa? I joined the Marines.”
“Guess where I am Pa? I’m in Vegas and I just got married.”
Yup, I was that kid that would turn a parent’s hair prematurely gray. My father was my Rock. No matter what I did or where I was, he’d respond, “You did what?!” and then want to know all the details. He was always a shoulder to cry on and a soft place to land through two divorces and the death of my mother, his first wife.
The cycle of life is inevitable but getting older sucks. I know I’m lucky he was in my life for 63 years but it doesn’t ease the pain of the gaping hole his passing left.
I’m fortunate to have had a lifetime of loving memories with the man I’m proud to call my father. This weekend, I’m taking a stroll down memory lane looking through pictures and watching all the 8mm movies my father took that I had digitized. It will be another first, watching our younger years without being able to call and reminisce with him. Please pass the tissues.