(this is rather long, but you might find it worth the read)
Memories of Papa
Papa always claimed he could remember the celebrations that heralded the end of WWI. He was only a little tyke at the time, but he swore it was true. And he claimed that it was during those celebrations that he saw his very first automobile. It began a life-long fascination with mechanical things.
Many decades later, after his children were mostly grown, Papa started buying very old vehicles and fixing them up. His first was a 1911 Maxwell touring car, with a large back seat. He fixed it so the motor was humming, the lights were shinning and the paint job? Well, he painted it a lovely blue. It ran like a dream. Next, he purchased a 1923 Ford and fixed that up. The old car bug had gotten to him. So he went on to purchase a 1909 Maxwell with a mother-in-law seat in the back, and another ford and finally he got a hold of a 1902 Oldsmobile, complete with a place for the buggy whip on the front of the chasis.
He would spend many happy hours back in the old garage fixing up the cars til they worked like a charm.
But that was not enough for Papa. He was also a bit of a showman. He loved to grab one of us kids – along with our friends - and put us in the front seat. Then he would crank up the car, jump in, and we would ride out onto the country roads. He would honk the horn and children would come running out as we passed. Women who were outside hanging up their laundry would stand there, open-mouthed watching us. Dogs would go crazy because they could almost catch the vehicle which was running at the dizzying speed of 15 miles per hour! Papa loved it.
After a while, word got around and Papa got invites to parades for his marvelous cars, and he eagerly took them up on it. When the first Milwaukee Fourth of July Parade happened, they put four of Papa’s cars right up front. There was only one car ahead of him, an 1898 Olds. Only, the Oldsmobile broke down half-way through the Parade, but all of Papa’s cars made it for the entire length of the Parade.
Word continued to spread about Papa’s genius with old-time mechanics.
One day, someone showed up at our door and asked for Papa. He and Papa started talking and they walked out together to the old garage to look at his old cars. Some time later, Papa came back alone, his face bright with a grin that threatened to stay. “Avis, Avis,” He excited called to Mother, “You’ll never guess what!” No, we could not have guessed.
It seems that Papa’s visitor was from the circus, and the circus Calliope needed fixing. Now a Calliope is the really loud instrument you always associate with the magic of a circus. It has a keyboard like a piano but has pipes like an organ. You would pump it up and shove up the lever. Then you could either play it by hand, or you could set up the rollers to have it play itself. It had been very popular to call folks to come and see the wondering circuses as they passed through small Midwestern towns during the Great Depression. But decades later, by the time Papa got a hold of it, not a lot of folks knew much about Calliopes.
Sure enough, it was delivered a short time later, a beautiful Calliope that lived on an open-air brightly-colored circus wagon. This one had several different rollers to play a ton of different songs. But just then, it couldn’t make a peep.
Papa got to work on it. He spent hours figuring out the mechanics and all the details that went into making it run smoothly. Every once in a while, he would test it, turning on the player rolls. When he did, the noise was deafening. We got reports that you could hear it all the way across the lake.
There was only one problem with the Calliope, the fellow who left it forgot to leave his name or address, or maybe, as a true circus person, he did not have a permanent address. Whatever the reason, Papa had the calliope for years to come and it was added to the list of vehicles that we put in all the various parades and celebrations.
But Papa had other interests as well. He and Mother were very interested in other cultures. They travel quite a bit, but they were also very interested in having folks from other countries come into their home so they could share American culture with them. One Christmas, Itsoko Katsubi came to our home and showed us how to do Origami, another Thanksgiving, someone from Israel came and spent a lot of time with Mother, going over little-know details about the understanding of the Torah. We had guests from Mexico to Japan who were welcomed to join us for many major Holidays. So it was not surprising that eventually we ended up with a foreign exchange student from Turkey.
His name was Suleymon and he was a devout Muslim. Mother, who was a devout Christian, used to get together with him and they would compare notes about their various religions. But instead of trying to convert one another, Mother and Suleymon both used the experience to teach one another about the beauties and intricacies of their respective religions. They loved it and really enjoyed their time together.
By that time, Papa’s boys were long grown and gone, so I suspect he was feeling a little sad that he had missed so much of their childhood, because he had been working so much. Now that he had a little more time, he loved to spend it with Suleymon, teaching him all sorts of American idiosyncrasies. Especially, they loved to learn the meaning of American phrases, such as “Low Man on the Totem Pole” or “Getting caught with your pants down”. Suleymon and Papa would laugh for hours together over the silliness of American language and culture. Then, Suleymon would share similar things with Papa about Turkish culture.
Over the months, Suleymon and my folks became very close and really enjoyed one another.
One day towards the end of Suleymon’s time with us, Suleymon walked into the living room to see Papa, sitting in the big chair, looking very sad. “What’s wrong, Papa?” Suleymon inquired. Papa looked up at him a sighed. Then he motioned for Suleymon to sit sit, and Papa told him a story.
It seems that Papa and Mother had a neighbor by the name of Alice. Now Alice and her husband were wonderful, gregarious people who loved to laugh. After a short time being neighbors, they found out that Alice and Papa shared a birthday. The first year after that discovery, Alice and Mother sent out invitations to all Papa’s friends, inviting them to celebrate his birthday, only they had signed the invitations with Papa’s name and added “P.S., please bring Expensive Gifts.”
Amazingly, not one of Papa’s friends said anything to him about it, so it came as a complete surprise to Papa when the party happened. He got all sorts of wonderful gifts, like a fur-lined (fake) toothbrush, and a diamond (also fake) studded toothpick. And Alice baked him a cake – made of mud – and sprinkled with little candies all over the frosting. (Papa mention how hard the cake was to cut, never suspecting why, because Mother had temporarily purloined his glasses for the event)
That began a practical Joke war between them. Every year on their mutual birthday, Papa and Alice would play jokes on one another and both families would get together to help in the fun.
But now, Alice and her husband had moved into town and Papa missed them. Their birthday was coming up and Papa was feeling sad. It would be their first year apart for the birthdays. Suleymon nodded and they talked for a long time about friends and how important friends are.
Then one of them, not sure which, came up with an idea.
Immediately, Papa got Mother to run into town to buy a roll of newsprint, then we all got together and rolled out the paper and began to paint wonderful things on it. As we were painting, Suleymon stopped for a moment and looked at Papa. “How old is Alice going to be this birthday” “Um, 49, I think.” Papa answered. “49. You sure?” Papa nodded and we all continued our paintings.
The next day was a Sunday, a beautiful clear crisp early spring day, perfect for a birthday celebration. As the sun was starting its climb, Papa went outside and hooked everything up, then we all climbed into the truck and Papa drove slowly into town. The sky was a lovely bright blue and the trees had frost delicately reflecting the pink of the early morning sun. It was so peaceful and calm.
Slowly, and with great care, Papa drove up to Alice’s new home. Gently, he backed up into the driveway. Then he unhooked the Calliope wagon from the back of the truck. He got into the circus wagon, cranked up the Calliope, then turned it at full volume and let it rip!
The sound shrieked throughout the neighborhood, waking up everyone within miles! The circus music filled the town, calling to children of all ages to come and see the spectacle. But before anyone could stop him, Papa jumped out of the wagon, ran to the truck, and drove off to the nearest pay phone, where he made a call to the police complaining about the noise.
The next day, on the front page of the Delavan Enterprise was a full color picture of Alice, standing in her driveway, pink curlers in her hair, fluffy slippers on her feet, helpless, looking at the circus wagon that blocked her driveway, complete with brightly painted banners that read
”Happy Birthday, Alice! 59 Today!”
(Final Note: When I used to tell this story as part of a sermon, I would always end it with a long pause, waiting for folks to stop laughing. Then I would say
“They are gone now, Papa, Mother and Alice. But they left behind them a legacy of love, friendship, and laughter. I invite you now to think of your legacy and what you leave in the way of memories to those who come after you.”
Then I would play the folk song “Where are our Dear Fathers?” It always ended up with a lot of watery eyes and a lot of smiles. Lots of sharing afterwards.)