What a Dad I Had

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

You know the expression, “You can take the boy out of the small town, but you can’t take the small town out of the boy”? That was my dad. He died last week, just 20 days shy of his 88th birthday.

Sylvester Patyk may have raised a tract-house-full of suburbanites (five of us) and lived in three different ‘burbs himself, but for my whole life he seemed like a fish out of water. He was a small town fellow through and through, born in tiny Wakefield, Michigan, among the lakes, forests, farms, and mines of the beautiful Upper Peninsula. (Picture Bedford Falls from that old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)

Paula Spencer's father

I’m still processing his being gone – it was amazingly sudden, even though he’d been in decline – but his passing has me thinking a lot about a person’s legacy. And how that legacy is tied to place…

My dad never met a stranger. He chatted up *everybody.* He’d jump start your car, help dig you out of the snow, fix your broken anything, share tomato growing tips (or tomatoes), tell a tall tale, or just shoot the breeze. Jimmy Stewart would have played him in a movie version of his life. (Same lanky build, with a genuine aw-shucks manner. And yep, Frank Capra would have directed.) Dad was honest, modest, hardworking, optimistic, quietly devout, apolitical, provincial – classic small-town adjectives and all meant in a good way. He possessed a blind faith in the goodness of man that seemed almost naive. He was a meat-and-potatoes, have-a-beer kind of guy.

As a girl, I loved our once-or twice-a-year trips to Wakefield. I marveled at how we’d pick up Grandma’s groceries by just giving our names so they’d go on her “tab.” The whole town was ours to roam: the lake, the fishing dock, the raspberry patch, “uptown” with its soda fountain, stately bank (where Dad never needed to show ID to cash a check) and wonderful old library (thick with 1920s Nancy Drew books that we were allowed to check out without a card because we were “Sally” Patyk’s kids). No cell phones, no adult escorts – my sister and I just had to be home at the 12 o’clock whistle for lunch. Then we’d split again!

Partly that’s the sensibility of another era, partly the comfort of being in a place where half the people are related to you and the other half have known your daddy since he was this high.

Here’s my parents there, back in 1949 (long before I arrived on the planet), and me there in 2002:

Mom and Dad by the Wakefield sign

Paula at the Wakefield sign

Dad left this bucolic hometown straightaway. He headed to Michigan Tech to study engineering, enlisted in the Army Air Corps (World War II) and then took a job in the big city, Detroit. Always drawn to cars, he crested the whole Automobile Capital of America era. (When GM went bankrupt he refused to believe it: “Nobody needed a new car anymore because they were so good, I guess!”) He married a city girl, too.

Yet nobody would ever mistake him for a city slicker.

His enduring small-town psyche reminds me of our farmgirl-is-a-state-of-mind notion. Your essence –how you think and act, what you’re drawn to – isn’t about where you are. It’s *who* you are. So you can be an engineer in a white shirt with a pocket protector — but still walk and talk like a guy loping up Sunday Lake Street with your dog. You can be a suburban mom typing in the bluish glow of her iMac – but still pretend your morning sidewalks are dirt paths along the falls, still plan to plant raspberries like the ones you picked by a lake as a girl.

Thanks for passing on that piece of yourself, Dad.

Miss you.

Vintage pic of Paula's dad running with the dog

  1. Brenda says:

    I am very sorry for your loss. I am a Hoosier at heart having grew up there as a child, although I have lived in Michigan for the last 30 years. My children’s great-grandparents were from the U.P. and my 2nd husbands family are from the Charlevoix area. Enjoy your memories they will always be there for you.

  2. karen says:

    Good Morning Paula,

    I enjoyed reading your story about your Father and the reflection you carry on his life. Now you are thinking of your own legacy and what that looks like. I too am missing my Father this holiday season. I know that the lessons and memories he shared with me will keep me close to him the rest of my life. I am going to a wonderful group called Grief Share to help me work through all that is going on inside of me. I don’t know if that is a place you would like to explore, yet I just had to share my heart with you today.
    One step at a time and may the memories of your Father keep a song in your heart today.

  3. Sue says:

    I am sorry for your loss.
    Gentle hugs and healing prayers,

  4. Pioneer Pat in Sunny California says:

    Paula what a wonderful tribute to your father’s legacy you have expressed. His life was filled with goodness and that goodness has been imparted into you for sure. What a blessing.
    Now carve your own memories with that cutie of a daughter and press on knowing that love got you this far and will take you the rest of the way ….just trust that! God’s speed unto you.

  5. Bonnie Story says:

    This was wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing the essence of this dear man. I know that I will think about this for a long time. What a gift he was to your whole family. I really appreciate what you wrote about state of mind – that’s something to keep in my heart. Thanks again. Bonnie

  6. traceyg says:

    Paula,I am so sorry for your loss.

    You have given your father a beautiful tribute. Because of your wonderful gift for writing, you, and your father, will continue to touch the lives of others.

    (a Michigan Farmgirl)

  7. Marilyn says:

    Paula, I am so sorry to hear of your loss. I hope you can take comfort in your loving memories of your father.
    Marilyn and Family

  8. Reba says:

    Paula, I certainly understand exactly how you feel. Today 30 years ago my Mother passed and was buried. The holidays seemed harder that first year with it happening so close to Thanksgiving and Christmas. I do know that focusing on the good memories and the amazing heritage given to me along with strength from the Lord always carried me through. Even though I wish I could talk with Mom and be in her presence, I can smile, just to think of her and her goodness at Thanksgiving and how she made Christmas so-o-o special! That is family, the holidays, and how they live on…in your heart. Blessings to you and your family.

  9. Susan says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your wonderful dad. Reading it made me think of my own father who passed away 8 years ago. We were both very lucky to have been given the gift of such special men in our lives. I’m very sorry for your loss. Sincerely, Susan

  10. Paula, I’m sorry to hear of your father’s passing. What a wonderful vault full of memories you have to cherish and refer to. Good memories are not just sentimental…they can be lived over and over in new ways in our own lives…and then handed down again.

  11. Anita says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father! He sounds like a real treasure, and I know you will miss him deeply. He reminds me of many of the men that lived in my little town where I grew up. They are the cornerstones that built this great country… that were part of their communities… that raised good families. How blessed you are to have the gift of those precious memories! Thank you for sharing him with us.

  12. carol branum says:

    hi,I am so very sorry,he is a very handsome man.Tom Brocow stated that that generation was the greatest generation,and I do believe it is true.When we loose that generation,we are the next generation,and I believe we have let spirit down,but,maybe,its not to late,for us farmgirls to make a comeback for future generations,just look who our parents were.hugs,carol branum,lamar mo.

  13. Erin says:

    I’m in tears after reading this. First let me say that I’m so very sorry for your loss. I am truly happy, though, to know that there are other Dads out there with the same spirit as my Dad. We are lucky girls to have been blessed with such wonderful fathers.
    Like your dad, I left the small town life as soon as I was 18. Now, being a mom and living in suburbia, I long for that lifestyle.
    I just keep telling myself – someday.
    Hang in there. As my little girl likes to say, "I’m hugging you with my heart."

  14. Bonnie says:

    I am finally catching up on my Farmgirl blogs. You have provided a wonderful tribute to your father! I so enjoyed reading about him and the essence of small town America. What a storehouse of memories you must have. I know they will help carry you through this most difficult time. Prayers for you and your family.

  15. Denise says:

    I’ve only just starting catching up on my Farmgirl blog. Thanks so much for sharing the wonderful father that he was. I know what you are going through. I lost my father 15 yrs ago – although it doesn’t seem that long ago, in a tree felling accident. I miss him dearly but remind myself of having the gift of his life in mine.
    Much love, hugs and prayers go out to you and your family. It is so wonderful to realise that we each carry a legacy of our parents into our own lives.
    Take care and allow yourself to grieve it does you good as well as your family.
    love Dee xx

  16. Heather says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. My Dad, another ‘greatest generation’ guy passed away unexpectedly 18 months ago, so I understand the "processing" you are going through. Part of that involves a lot of thinking about who the person we lost, really was. Your writing about legacy and how ‘where we come from’ effects us, was touching. Through all of this, I too, am trying to find out just exactly who I am, and your writings have helped confirm some of my own thoughts.
    Thank you and take care.

  17. Brenda says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about you losing your dad and enjoyed your wonderful memories you shared. My dad has been gone 5 yrs. this 17 of January. Yet it seems like just yesterday at times. But mom and I have come to talking about the great things he did and the fun we had with him. Keep those’s memories with you and share them. Daddy’s are special people. My heart and prayer’s are with you at this time. Brenda

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *