Happy 108th Birthday, Dad


agawa-4October 22, 1910. Clarksburg, West Virginia. My dad, Fernand Andris was born a first generation Belgian immigrant. March 9, 1909. New York City. My grandmother arrived in this country from Belgium with my dad’s two older brothers, Louie and Alphonse. She joined her husband, Arthur, already in Clarksburg. My grandfather, Arthur, came first in November of 1908 with his two young teenage sons, Arthur and Amie, from a previous marriage. He had found a job as a glassblower where his older sons could also assist and find employment. Arthur was to be, in fact, the last in a line of 10 generations of glassblowers. Finally, in June, 1911—with the arrival of Julia, the daughter by a previous marrage of grandmother, Victorine “Torienne”—the family had stretched itself from Europe through the black hole of the Atlantic Ocean and emerged still together on the other side in America.

Fernand spent a lot of his kid years on the streets of first Clarksburg and then Marietta, Ohio. The gang of immigrants that dad palled around with in his teenage years called themselves “the Greene Street dirty necks.” They were tough boys, working kids, they smoked, drank, screwed, and mainly they fished or played ball in their spare time. Eventually, they settled down with a family of their own. In dad’s case he was also the apple of his mother’s eye. Professional glassblowing was being slowly strangled by technological advances in glass mass production. 1916 was one key advance, and in 1923 the bells tolled on this centuries-old profession. Grandma Andris acquired a grocery store with the money she’d saved, and “Squee,” Fernand, became her right hand. Under her tutilege, dad became a shrewd business man, though his shenanigans sometimes caused a stir.

From age 12 on I chronicled the world around me; I have hundreds of photographs of my growing-up years. One thing that stands out about dad, he put up his own castle with the returns of his inherited business. His children grew up far removed from those dirty streets. They dressed well, they ate well, and they got properly schooled.

Because my dad had had to hustle to move up in the world, he always was restless. He worked hard at his business, and every so often, he’d come up with a new project to put his heart and soul into: build a new building, make the grocery into a superette market, get a walk-in cooler, put up a 75 foot TV antenna, put a line of vending machines around town, become a real estate broker, and later, after he retired, grow the best tomatoes and potatoes in the county.

The picture above of my dad looking back at me from the front seat, is one that I, my brother, Tom, and my sister, Vicki, came to know well. We spent many hours in the back seat of various vehicles. One of my dad’s escapes from his endless hustling was to pack the family into the car and whisk us off to some drive-in movie. That solved a lot of problems. Mom didn’t have to cook dinner. Kids got to eat hot dogs and hamburgers. Dad got to see another Western or two. Some space got created between dad and his mother-in-law. And hey, I used to look up at the stars a lot and identify the constellations. You could still see them back then. It sounds a bit strained, but I remember these times as moments of family closeness. We all sang three-part harmony to old standard songs on the way to the show.

Most of the time, dad was sober, and when he was sober, he was a fairly tolerant dad. We three kids were noisy in the back seat, and we bickered and goofed off and sometimes fought over silly stuff and teased. Dad would put up with it for quite a while. But at some point that things were obviously out of hand, he would turn and look back at us and say something like “Dry up, you kids.” Rarer still, he would raise the back of his hand to us and warn of an impending corporal solution to a parenting problem. When I look at that picture, I see that Squee might have just had a slight cud of tobacco on the left side. I’m not sure, but he did occasionally use chewing tobacco, and yes, he did spit out the window, even when we were moving.

Dad would have been glad to have me follow him into the grocery business. When he was first in the business as a youth, it read “Andris and Sons.” But that didn’t happen. I picked out an academic path through life. First in the family to graduate from college and probably the first professor in the family. Dad would have been glad to see my sons and daughters, too, but there were none. I had to separate myself from dad and the family before I could reunite with them. But as I gained my stride in my profession and in my own lifestyle, I found my dad coming right out through my hands and mouth time and again. It was uncanny. I gradually learned to accept it and finally embraced it.

April 3, 1993. Phone call from mom. “Jim, your daddy is no more.” Slowly the story came out. One of the rituals dad developed in his retirement was to go down to Krogers and fish the day-old bread out of the dumpsters. They were required by law to throw it away. Dad took it to needy neighbors down the street. On that particular day, he announced to mom and his niece, Heidi, that he would be back shortly. But his nephew found him lying on his back on the concrete in front of the dumpster with a loaf of bread gripped in each hand thrown back over his shoulders. “Mom, are you alright?” “Yes, Jim, Heidi’s here, and I’m ok.” I hung up the phone and walked back into the dining room. Tears came. Holding on to the back of the dining room chair, I found myself saying, “Well, if anyone is going to make it to heaven, dad is.”

A few months later, dad came to me in a dream. It may be the strangest, most wonderful dream I have ever had. I “woke up in my sleep.” I was aware of someone behind me, lightly embracing me. It felt warm and pleasant. Suddenly, the dream morphed, and I became aware that the someone embracing me was my father. At first, I was very embarrassed, but then I also became aware that this dream was only a dream about my emotional closeness with my dad. I said to him, “See, dad, we can be close and it’s ok.” And he said back to me, “I know, Jim. I know so much more than you do now.” That was the dream that healed my heart.

Happy Birthday, Squee. I love you.

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Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.

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