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Old Men

January 2009

Who knew?  For my dad, “orange” was another way of saying  

I Love You
By Sheila Hopkins

         Men of my old dads’ generation aren’t big on emotion.  A hug for a daughter, a handshake and a pat on the back for a son is about as close as many of them get to saying “I love you.”  That was (and is) certainly true of my dad.  He’s an actions-speak-louder-than-words type of guy, and the orange room incident is a good example of how he lived that maxim.
         When my sister turned 14, all she wanted for her birthday was her room redone to match her new teenagehood.  This was around 1970, so that meant she wanted an orange color scheme.  This might not have been that big a request for many families, but we lived in a house on Lake Michigan in the northshore suburbs of Chicago that was often part of the Christmas and spring-time charity walks (i.e., walks were organized by various charities, and people paid big money to walk through our home and other lakefront mansions
during the Christmas holidays and the spring gardening time).  My parents had worked with an architect to build a contemporary brick, wood and glass showplace that sparkled among the older, more staid homes in the neighborhood.  
         Needless to say, orange walls were not part of the décor.  But for my dad and many of his generation, the chance to show a daughter you loved her didn’t come around that often.  So, on the day before her birthday, my sister and dad drove to the hardware store, got bright orange paint and proceeded to paint the room the orange she always dreamed of.  My mother wasn’t thrilled (nor was our decorator) but this was Dad’s way of showing he listened to his children and was willing to give them whatever he could.  Who knew another word for “orange” is “I love you”?

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December 2008

In my dads’ generation, religion wasn’t what you did, it was what you were, if you were

Irish Catholic
By Sheila Hopkins

         Being an Irish Catholic in my old dads’ generation wasn’t just specifying where you stood on the religion spectrum
it specified where you stood, period.  Religion wasn’t what you did, it was what you were.
         Being an Irish Catholic meant being part of a shared culture.  There were lots of children, and life revolved around the neighborhood church.  You hated the English; you loved Notre Dame.  My father-in-law’s Irish Catholic maternal grandparents were beyond shocked when his mother rebelled and married an English Protestant.  When F-I-L’s dad died young, leaving his mother with six kids under the age of 12, it only confirmed his grandparents’ belief that you can never trust an Englishman.
         My dad grew up in a small Pennsylvania railroad town.  I’d say his neighborhood was a poverty-stricken Irish immigrant ghetto.  He’d say it was friends, family and home.  Everyone knew each other.  The kids all went to the same parochial school down the hill; they played on the Catholic baseball team; they celebrated holy days and holidays together; they were certain in their beliefs; and they rarely let the outside in.  Truth be told, the outside really didn’t want to come in.  This was a time when the more blueblood parts of society looked down on the Irish as lazy, not-too-bright drunks who owed their allegiance to the Pope in Rome rather than to the United States.  You might want to have an Irish maid or gardener, but you certainly didn’t want your son or daughter to marry one.
         But the Irish neighborhood had a pride of its own.  Like all immigrant enclaves, they wanted more for their children.  When it became obvious that my dad was one of the brightest students ever to come out of the local Catholic high school, the neighbors gathered a collection to send him to Notre Dame.  They managed to find the pennies and nickels to pull together $300 to send him off to a better future.  I don’t think it ever occurred to them that it would be much cheaper to go to Penn State.  Notre Dame was Catholic.  It was theirs.
         The community was right to fear the outside.  After my dad left, he really didn’t go back, even though the aunts lit candles in the lace-curtained windows every night for years to draw him home safely.  Admittedly, travel was difficult in the late 1930s but, in reality, his life was leading him to bigger things than a small mining and railroad town in the Pennsylvania hills could offer.  His parents stayed.  His sisters stayed.  But his dreams and ambitions took him away.
         Yet, he has remained an Irish Catholic through and through.  Irish Catholics don’t proselytize or wear their religion on their sleeve.  They simply live it because it’s who they are.  He married an Irish Catholic girl.  He sent his four children to parochial schools, private Catholic high schools, then on to Notre Dame.  Although we certainly had a wider field to choose from, all four of his children married Irish Catholics (okay, mine is half Italian and a quarter English, but the quarter Irish is pretty dominant and he’s an ND grad, so he passes).  My father was humbled when Al Smith lost the election because he was Catholic; he was filled with pride when Kennedy won.
         Both of my old dads still get up early to go to Mass each Sunday – mine because, when you’re 93, you don’t want many other people on the road when you’re driving, F-I-L simply because he’s always been an early riser and he likes starting his Sunday with Mass.  I’ve never heard either one beg off simply because they were tired or wanted to do something else.  If you are an Irish Catholic, you go to Mass on Sunday.  That’s just what you do.

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June 2008

Beyond the basic meat and potatoes, these two old men think that

Food Is Fluff

By Sheila Hopkins

         When I think of my dad or my father-in-law (FIL), I don’t associate them with food.  They eat it, of course, or else they wouldn’t have lived to be old men.  And I suppose they prefer good food to bad, though you wouldn’t know that by some of their choices.
         FIL is of the school of thought that, to be safe, meat should be cooked until the juices run clear, then cooked a while longer until there are no juices.  My dad would be content with meatloaf and boloney every day, with maybe a hardboiled egg thrown in every once in awhile for variety.
         For them, food is a necessity of life.  Anything beyond the basic meat and potatoes is fluff.  There is no need to experiment (unless you irradiate a grapefruit, like my dad did about 40 years ago, and let it sit on the kitchen counter for months because you want to see how long it would stay fresh).  For these old men, dining is neither trend nor adventure. It is simply a break in the day that allows them to socialize with family and friends.  The food itself is unimportant.  Food is what’s on the plate in front of you.  The  important part of the meal is who is in the chairs around you.

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May 2008

When you reach the age of these old dads, life is for living.  You are 

Past Worrying
By Sheila Hopkins

         You would think worrying about health issues would be at the top of the list for my two old dads.  My 85-year-old father-in-law (Fil) had a major heart attack and, after that, several artery-clearing procedures.  My 93-year-old dad had a heart attack a couple of years ago caused by arrhythmia, which appears to have been a one-time event, and he just finished surgery and radiation treatment for salivary gland cancer, which appears to be cured.  Major health issues are certainly a part of their lives, as are significant out-of-pocket expenses for prescriptions and doctor appointments. But you would be wrong if you think they spend one extra moment fretting about theirs or anyone else’s health.
         When you reach my old dads’ ages, life is for living, not for worrying. What will happen will happen.  They both feel lucky to have their health.  Neither has the type of long-term debilitating illness that can destroy body and soul and bank accounts.  Fil plays 18 holes of golf a day – unless his shoulder is acting up, then he may skip a day or two.  My dad lives by himself in his own apartment, which he just renewed for two years to get a discount; “I’m an optimist,” he told the rental agent.  He people-watches, surfs the Internet and works on his next book.  While my husband and I count calories, cholesterol, omega 3s, trans fats and carbs, my dad has two eggs for breakfast, eats a boloney sandwich on white bread for lunch or maybe egg salad with lots of mayonnaise, and a slice of meat loaf for dinner.  Forget greens.  If someone is visiting, he’ll make the effort to put out an iceberg lettuce salad with Green Goddess dressing but, otherwise, bread and meat suffice.  Every evening he’ll put on his blue blazer, grab his Irish walking stick and walk down to the pub in the retail building below his apartment.  The bartender will have his double martini with three olives ready and waiting.  No red wine for him.  He knows he’s nearing the end of his more than nine-decade adventure, and he sees no reason to change his habits or give up things he enjoys in order to add a few days or hours to what has been a long-enough life.
         Health is as much a state of mind as a state of body.  Someday his health will give out.  When it does, he’s ready. “Dying is no big deal, I’ve done it before,” he says, referring to his heart attack.  He’s outlived his wife and all his siblings.  He’s accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish.  He’ll be ready to go whenever it’s his time.  But for now, he’s an active 93-year-old with skin and eyes better than mine, courtesy of eye-lid surgery to repair the drooping lid that removing the cancerous gland caused (and while they were tightening one eye they decided might as well do both) and seven weeks of skin-peeling radiation.  When I told him my husband and I were moving to Prague for three to five years, he wished us luck and said he’d see me when we got back.  I totally expect that to happen.

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I Am Sheila Hopkins
by Sheila Hopkins

         I live in Prague in the Czech Republic, and I have been a professional writer for almost 40 years.  I am one of the first female graduates of Notre Dame, the mother of three grown children, the wife of a man I fell in love with when I was 19, and something of a rolling stone.  But with all that background, writing a column about older dads for Dad is a bit of a stretch for me.  I’m obviously not an older dad.  But I have two of them in my life – my own dad, whom I’ve known forever, and my father-in-law, henceforth known as Fil, who has been in my life for more than 35 years.  I’m also married to a dad who is getting older by the minute. 

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