A Swell Guy

Perhaps because he was a sickly child, Norman spent his adult years dedicated not only to intellectual pursuits, but also committed to exercise and fitness. And he encouraged these things in his children. In me and in my siblings. He taught us to swim in the ice-cold waters of Livingston Swimming Pool, a community pool just a short walk down Red Coat Lane and across a major road where he’d sign us up for 6am swimming lessons. 6am in New Hampshire in June is like Noon in Alaska in December. Once he was satisfied that we were proficient swimmers, we got to swim in the bitter cold waters of the Atlantic, pulled from the waves only when our lips showed a faint tint of blue. Dad taught my brother and I the basics of skiing on wooden sticks in the woods of his childhood home, followed by years of lessons on Thursday nights an hour’s bus ride from our elementary school on the slopes of Pat’s Peak. He strapped black and white skates on us and sent us off to Dorrs Pond, our reward a cup of watery cocoa once every one of our limbs was frozen and our hats, mittens and scarves had icicles adorning their threads. My Dad insisted we learn to ride bikes, taking the neighborhood kids on rides throughout town. He put up a basketball hoop in the back yard, filled a skating rink for us one year (abruptly ended by my sister losing a front tooth). He left team sports like baseball up to Little League, and I’m not sure any of us learned much about golf or tennis from him, though he played both as long as he was able.

My father was born the 6th child (possibly the 7th) into a French-Canadian farming family in Southern New Hampshire. His parents, Dora and Elphege, were young when they married, but by the time Norman was born in 1922, his mother was already 39, and he lost her when he was just 12 years old. As was the case with so many children back then, my father fell victim to Scarlet Fever and was thereby excused from the labor of farm life for years. He was a beautiful curly-haired fair boy, and his sisters doted on him likely both for his cuteness and his frailty. What I find amazing is that his siblings (at least as adults) didn’t hold this against him. They actually cherished his intellect, found him funny and charming, and his sisters waited on him hand and foot, an expectation my mother tried in vain to quell.

The photos of Norman as a child show a grinning, fair-haired boy surrounded by his sisters and his big brother Richard. Norm’s grin in the photos was the same one I remembered even as he climbed into his seventies and his features became partly paralyzed by facial dystonia . His was a grin that graced his face often throughout his life, alternating equally with a fierce temper that dissipated as he aged.

Norman was a smart guy. Though I’ve no idea how he did in grade school, after high school, he joined the Navy and spent his time during World War II on an Aircraft Carrier in the Pacific. Like many WWII veterans, my father rarely if ever spoke of his time in the Navy. He came back, went to school on the GI Bill, and attended law school at George Washington University in DC. When the time came to take his exams, Norman was the one guy who could type. He asked if he could use a typewriter instead of handwriting the exam and ended up in a nice air-conditioned room with the proctors while the rest of the exam-takers sweltered in the DC heat. One of his many lessons to us was to learn every skill you could as you never knew when one might come in handy, just as typing did for him.

When I was high school, my father drove car pool so we didn’t have to take the bus, inevitably waiting until we’d picked up Nancy O’Conner and Jimmy Samalis before letting rip one of his bizarre burps, much to my horror and dismay. My brother still imitates him just as a reminder of the embarrassment I withstood as a teenager. And, ironically, I find I now make that sound myself, though I try to keep it on the down low, rather than as a point of pride.

A successful civil attorney and an avid sailor, Norman raised five kids in his hometown of Manchester. He came home for lunch once a week and went to his sisters at least once a week. He had friends, a really cheesy sense of humor, and, when he was younger than I am now, his whole life changed with a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. Back then, treatments weren’t great for PD. He retired early and spent more than 20 years battling the devastating effects of his illness, never giving in to it. When he lived with my saint-like husband and me in Maryland, my father spent time learning to navigate the bus system, inviting neighbors we’d never met into our house, walking our Norwegian Elkhound Ollie (only to have Ollie drag him face first down the street), finding his way through field and stream to the nearest grocery story so that he could stock up on M&Ms, Twinkies, ice cream and HoHos (his four food groups). He wanted to waterski at one point when walking had already become a struggle. Through it all, he retained his sense of humor and the twinkle in his eye, only occasionally allowing melancholy to take over. In this regard, my father was my hero. For all of his faults (and, like all of us, he had many), he was driven to succeed, to never give in. He was a product of his generation.

From very humble beginnings, my father made a remarkable life, like so many individuals who are born to first generation parents. He fought tyranny in World War II, worked through the battleground of the 1960s and 70s, struggled with parenting headstrong children and coping with family mental illness when mental illness was not to be discussed.

At his funeral, a high school acquaintance (perhaps more than that) whom I’d never met or heard of, referred to my Dad in high school as a ‘swell guy’. In truth, what better way to be remembered? Even today, more than 20 years after he died, I still think of that woman and that description, and I think, yup, he was a swell guy.

Norman would have been 100 years old tomorrow, and he would have wanted cake and ice cream and M&Ms. Happy birthday, Dad!

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