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In My Father’s Footsteps: An Introduction

“The goal isn’t to live forever. The goal is to create something that will.”

​My father was a great teacher. He taught me how to tie my shoes and how to climb a tree. He taught me the words to some of his favorite songs, and how to savor the last bite of ice cream in bottom of the bowl.

And while I am grateful for the lessons, what I cherish most, are the stories he left behind.

My dad died Sept. 6, 2008, and donated his body to the University of Iowa Hospitals, his way of paying them back for saving his life after a car accident in 1967.

He went peacefully, but unexpected, and we all grieved in our own way. I kept busy, helping my mom go through his things and decide what to give to Goodwill.

As I was cleaning the storage room out one day, I opened a box full of computer paper. As I started reading it, I realize it was his life story. He started writing it when he had his knee replaced in 1991 and became obsessed with it.

“I think it was really good therapy for him,” my mom told me later. “Unfortunately, he never finished it.”

I thumbed through the pages, stopping on a memory from his childhood.

“Another sound recorded on my relatively unblemished memory was the old Jewish junk man who made frequent trips down our alley with his horse and wagon in the summertime. His horse wore an old hat with holes cut out for its ears.

Long before I could hear the creak of groaning wheels and soft clomp-clump of hooves in soft alley ashes, the warm summer air carried to me Mr. Golad’s sad, low litany of monotony: ‘Rags? Old rags,’ Old Golad intoned. ‘Rags…old rags…’ And I waited for the magnificent parade to lurch slowly past our place.

Sometimes the trio paused-horse, wagon, and Mr. Golad-and I could see both horse and human were in state of semi-siesta. The junk man comfortable in the shade of the umbrella, horse content to occasionally startle a fly with that fantastic control of its skin muscles, until the old man clucked gently and the wagon creaked along down the alley toward 16th Street, until the warm summer air covered up his unforgettable song:

‘Rags. Rags? Old raaa-a-a-a-ags.’

I would listen for a long time before it would evaporate into silence. Or perhaps it would simply blend with the burr of a bee and my attention would turn to this busy bug invading some unsuspecting blossom.”

As I read the words, I envisioned myself there with him, experiencing the sounds and smell of the glorious summer day. I read the next page, and the next, and before I knew it, an hour had passed.

His story was too good to just leave in a box. It needed to be shared, if only with his family.  I gathered up all the pages I could find and took them upstairs.

My mother told me my brother had more of Dad’s story, and once he brought them over, I began the task of transcribing them onto my computer, so it would be easier to share with my family.

As I typed, I read his story, and I soon realized I was experiencing my father’s life as he lived it, from his point of view; his innermost thoughts, his dreams and aspirations, and even his darkest fears. Some of the stories were familiar, but many I was reading about for the first time.

My father made a few mistakes during his lifetime, but he was honest, sincere, and genuine. And when he said he was going to do something, you could be certain he’d do it. He was a true friend to anyone who needed one.  He did his best to be a good person, and taught his children good values.

Like most children, I didn’t always appreciate my father, and suddenly it was too late. But I have been given a great gift. I was able to know my father as a man, and to appreciate him for who he was.

Chapter 1

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Three Things I Learned from my Dad

Father’s Day is the perfect day to share why our dads are special. And though mine can no longer be with us, he is no exception.  

My dad taught me many things, but there are 3 lessons that I know has shaped me into the person I am today:

  1. Treat others as you would like to be treated. I was still fairly young when he told me this. Years later I would realize it’s what is referred to as the “Golden Rule.” And though I now know that you can treat people with kindness and respect, but that doesn’t mean they will reciprocate. I had my ego tarnished more than a few times with that one, but the lesson is still valid. Having a positive attitude is still so much better than going through life negative and unhappy.
  2. It’s better to give than to receive. This one was tough because I loved getting presents as a kid. Suddenly, I’m supposed to like giving them instead of getting them? It wasn’t long before I understood why my dad believed this. Once I got passed the “What did you get me?” phase, I was able to see how happy it makes other when they receive a gift, kind word, or a good deed. It brings me joy to see others happy. And if I can bring a bright spot to someone’s day, I will do it, and like doing it. And I do.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. My dad liked to have fun and he didn’t care what other people thought about him. I guess that’s why he was such a good actor. My dad enjoyed life. He liked to laugh and to make other laugh. And he was good at it. This is one lesson that I’m still learning, but remembering my dad, and how he lived his life, makes me want to follow in his footsteps.

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Chapter 86: A New Generation

Isabelle (middle), Roosevelt Middle School

My granddaughter, Isabelle, was recently in a play at Roosevelt Middle School.

I mention this for two reasons: Her great-grandpa, Tom, worked at the school as a substitute teacher in the mid-’70s. He didn’t work there very long, as I recall, but  since both Isabelle and my son, Sean, attended Roosevelt, I think it’s worth mentioning. The other is that my dad was such an admirer of the theater. I know he was always hoping someone would follow in his footsteps.

I didn’t catch the bug. I was too afraid to perform in front of people. I still am.

And if you’re like me, you’re always looking for signs of mortality, that our children and grandchildren are “like” us, or that certain traits have been passed down. I know every child is different, but as I have said before, I can see traits that I received from my mom and dad that I have passed to my children and grandchildren.

And it just blows my mind. The miracle of life. A part of us continues long after we are gone.

I know Isabelle doesn’t understand the significance right now, but I hope she continues acting. She has my father’s enthusiasm.

As I sat in the fourth row last week looking up at the 6-8 graders performing “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” I couldn’t help but think of how proud my dad would have been of his great-granddaughter.

Aside from sound system problems, the Roosevelt Middle School version of the story went off without a hitch, right down to snippy Violet blowing up like a blueberry!

There were only two boys in the entire play, so the girls had to step up and perform most of the male parts. The boys who played Mike TeeVee and Augustus Gloop did a great job, and didn’t seem to mind being out-numbered.

Isabelle played an Oompa Loompa, a variation of one, anyway. The girls didn’t have orange skin or green hair, but they all did a marvelous job singing the traditional (and new) songs.

Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka had female roles, so the story had to be adapted to fit the change, but I think it was even better than the original.

The actress who stole the show, though, was the student who played Veruca Salt.  She fit the part as the spoiled rich brat, who got everything she demanded. That is, until she ticked off Mrs. Wonka and was taken away by the Squirrels to be incinerated for impersonating a nut!

Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t, but I seem to recall that in the end, Mrs. Wonka told Charlie, they would all be returned to their original bad selves, a lesson we can all learn from:

“Honesty is always the best policy.”

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The Story Continues

I think I said it before, that I didn’t want my dad’s story to end, in every sense of the word.

But, if there is one thing I have learned during my lifetime, it is that everything has an ending. Unless you want to take the side of the eternal optimist who sees an ending as just a new beginning. Which, by the way, is the route I prefer to take.

I guess that means this is a new beginning, and where it will take me, I’m not exactly sure.

I have been busy editing my dad’s book, Legacy: An Autobiography, and though it’s not bad in its present state, there are a few typos and grammatical mistakes I’d like to correct.

The editing, I have learned, is the hardest part of publishing, because you don’t often see the mistakes until someone else points them out. You really need to hand it off to someone to look at it for you – “a new set of eyes,” so to speak. And while I did have someone else read it for me, they are the types of mistakes that even the best editor can miss.

Reading my dad’s story over again has brought back memories I had almost forgotten about. Maybe it’s because my family’s conversation seems to circle around to my dad and his book, or maybe just because we still miss him. It makes us feel closer to him when we include him in our conversations.

My mom recently reminded me how Dad always insisted on going to Fanny Farmer, the candy shop in the mall, for their Easter candy.

“A candy connoisseur …” I commented, remembering how he took such deliberate steps to wrap his chocolates in paper towels, so they wouldn’t get squished in his candy “canister.” He had his favorites, and would hide those for “special” moments.

When company came, he would pull the canister out from its hiding place  and pass it around, letting everyone take what they wanted.  I know now this was his way of showing people how he felt about them, always happy to share with friends and family, and especially his grandchildren. He wasn’t just giving out pieces of his favorite candy; he was handing out tiny pieces of his heart.

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 85

 

I found another story my dad wrote in 9th grade, which would have been in about 1939.

It must have been an assignment because there are little notes in the margins and some words have been crossed out and replaced with corrected spellings, ect…

I was amazed at how he must have really thought about what he was writing; the thought pattern he took to make his point was well beyond his years. “What the American Flag Means to Me,” reads like it was written by someone much older and wiser.

Reading his essay makes me think about my own views on our flag, and our country, in general.  Looking at this time in history, what he must have felt as he was writing this; it makes me a bit sad to think so many people have seem to forgotten what the American Flag stands for.

What the American Flag Means to Me
By Thomas P. Meis

By defining the phrase, “What the American Flag Means to Me,” I am not going to relate its glorious history of the past. Every red-blooded American knows that. Nor am I going to tell its adventures in reference to past wars or our fortunate evasion of the present foreign conflict. The former os the past. The latter is nothing in which we should interfere.
Every American flag, which has seven red stripes and six white ones, and 48 stars on a field of blue, represents liberty, equality, and justice; honors respected by the American government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
But something is there is the flag of the free that is not quoted in the government manuscripts or speeches. It need not be there. It cannot be there, because every individual American carries it within his heart. It is love-love of the flag that flies from the vast dome of our Capitol, to the humblest outpost of American civilization. Every American citizen cherishes this love that death itself cannot part.
The dearest spot on the American flag is the 29th star. It represents Iowa, a state wealthy in agriculture. It is the “corn state.” Patriotic groups of renown have found their way to her heart.
Yes, I love the American flag and the country it so proudly waves over. One Nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all, who love the “land of the free,” and the “home of the brave.”

 

In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 84

Tom, Jody, Mary and Ben

My Aunt Jody passed away  Feb. 21. Her health had declined that last few years, and at 88 years old, she was finally called home. No doubt she was greeted by her loved ones, who had already passed; her husband Jack, her mother and father, and big brothers, James and Tom, and sister Mary and her husband Arthur, and her little brothers, Ben and Fran, among others.

I have so many fond memories of my aunt; the way her eyes sparkled, her beautiful smile, her hugs (which told you she was genuinely happy to see you), and the immense love she had for her family.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are connected to the family reunions we attended at their house in Rock Island. Jody and Jack opened their home to us all and always made us feel welcome. And there was so much for a kid to do! (It probably helped that she had 11 children of her own!)  These are memories that will stay in my heart forever.

As I was working on my dad’s book, I came across a passage in which he wrote about the day Bertha Joan (Jody) was born:

“The day my sister Bertha Joan was born was a red-letter day at 1620 E. Jody was born at home and I knew something big was happening, too big to take time to explain to a kid what the doctor AND gramma AND mama were so engrossed inside the house behind the drawn drapes.

So, I just fooled around on the sidewalk in front of the house waiting for word of whatever it was taking place. Finally, after waiting for what seemed like endless hours, Grandma Larson called me up on the porch. “Tom,” she said. “Go tell your sister, Mary, she has a new baby sister.”

I didn’t need to know anymore. I took off up the street, as fast as fat legs can preamble, over the railroad tracks, past Iowa Manufacturing, to the foot of Mound Farm where Mary’s friends lived.  Finally, after I stopped wheezing and began to make sense, we all headed home to welcome Bertha Joan.”

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 83

The following is a story my dad wrote in school. It doesn’t say how old he was, but if I had to venture a guess (telling by his neat handwriting), I would have to say he was in junior high or early high school.

I was intrigued by the title, and as I went on to read it, I realized he never finished it, although he had what I would consider a very good start. He has a folder full of stories; some of them I can read, and some I can’t. But my mother, who is good at deciphering Dad’s handwriting, said she would help me read it.

I noticed his handwriting became worse as he got older. I’m so glad he had the good sense to type his life story. I can say that, because mine can be just as bad.

I Never Was A Boy
By Thomas Patrick

I’m a case – no kidding. When I should be completely satisfied with life, I go around day after day moonin’ like a sick calf. Some people might call it a complex, I mean, the “abused” attitude I take toward things; but no matter how old I live to be, I’ll always feel lonely.

I was born a Catholic of parents with good blood and was always treated with love and gentle care by them. I had a happy childhood, for the most part, but there were times when I had to stop, scratch my head, and really think about things.

When I was but 4 years old, death took my only playmate, a little neighbor boy, who had eaten some bread and milk from the feeding dish of “Rex,” the family dog. As I reflect back on the incident, I think about how unmoved and unconcerned I was toward the tragedy. I acted as a dog on the death of a fellow dog, quite puzzled by his silence and unmoving form; yet, interested enough for him to wake up and live.

So, I ventured across the alley to find another playmate, who was quite wicked in his vocabulary for such a tender age. The reason for this being a careless father, who used whatever form of profanity he desired, and didn’t care who heard him.

I think when we are little, we tend to see the world as it is, without discrimination, and take it as it comes.  It’s when we begin to grow up that we see how much we have to lose, and it scares us. It makes us vulnerable. But maybe that’s what God intended.

Chapter 84

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 82

My memory is already fading. I’m going to be 55 soon and I’m afraid if I don’t write my memories down,  they’ll soon be figments of my imagination. “Is it real, or is it Memorex?”

(Sigh) … my dad’s humor, popping up when you least expect it.

I still have a great memory, but now and then I can see where old-ageitis is creeping in, robbing me of one of my most-prized attributes.

I posted a “This Day in History” post last week on Tribute, which stated that on that particular day, John Steinbeck published “Of Mice and Men.”

My dad was in that play, I thought, and made a mental note to ask my mom about it later. I remembered vaguely attending a production at the Long Branch supper club, a dinner theater, I think.

Mom thought Dad played the feeble-minded Lenny, but remembered his dentist calling him Candy, which was the role of an older man who’d lost an arm and had a dog.

“Oh! But I think you’re thinking of ‘The Sunshine Boys;’ your dad and Irv Hickey were the only ones in the play ….”

So, there you have it. I remember going to Long Branch. I remember the play, but I don’t really remember the play. And why do I remember “Of Mice and Men?” Maybe I did see it and don’t remember the details. I think I saw a picture of him one time while he was in character, but I can’t find it.

With that being said, I am currently editing my dad’s stories so I can publish it. I want my grandkids to know who Thomas Patrick Meis really was. He  spent so much time on his stories, he deserves to have it shared with the world. Maybe that wasn’t his intention when he wrote it, but I think others enjoy it as much as I do.

By publishing the book, it’s my hope that it will inspire others to write their stories, so future generations will know what life was like in the past, even if it’s just the recent past.

I think we become more interested in history when we have history ourselves. And as I search through my ancestry tree, I get names and dates,  and maybe where they were born, but not a lot of background. I wish I did.

It occurs to me that you can search your roots, but if there’s not a story to go along with it, there’s something missing. We can use our imaginations to fill in the gaps, but you don’t know for sure what our great-grandparents lives were really like. Not really.

First-hand accounts make it more real, solid, and might answer a few questions, such as, “Why am I the way I am?

Oh, yes, “I get my goofy sense of humor from my dad,” or  “I get my desire to own a business from my grandfather.”

But most of all, being able to read about someone’s life enables us to share in the experience, even if it’s after the fact. And if you have a great imagination and love to read, it’s true what they say – a story can take you to a different world, and then some.

“Books aren’t just filled words, you know … they’re also filled with places to visit & people to meet.”

 

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