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Wisdom From My Father — Or, How to Sweep the Kitchen Floor

the barn on the farm where my father was born outside scottville michigan. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Falconer barn near Scottville, Michigan, where my father, David Bishop Falconer, learned the work habits he passed on to me. The silo was built the year my father was born on the family farm, 1912. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My father’s voice came to me the other day as I was sweeping the kitchen floor. To his friends my father was Dave Falconer, to business associates, D.B. Falconer. He died in 1991, but there he was the other day, coaching me as I worked. Per his instructions, I made short, firm, methodical  sweeps, working my way around and around the room until I ended up in the middle, with all the kitchen debris corralled in a tidy mess at its center.

Years and years ago, in a little three-room cottage within breathing distance of Lake Michigan, my father assigned me the job of sweeping up the white beach sand our family had tracked in from the lake. I began the job aimlessly, pushing some sand around over here, creating a pile of sand over there. At the rate I was going, the job would never get done; that was clear to my father.

My Father Shows Me How

My dad took the broom from me and showed me how to go about a task — this task and the thousands and thousands of tasks, menial and mental, I would undertake in the decades to come.

“Think about what you are doing,” he told me. “Use your head. Think.”

Think. My father was telling me that I had a competent brain; I could use it. I could use it on that day to get the beach sand swept up from a cottage floor. I could use it

My father Dave Falconer and me Barbara dance the Virginia Reel in Pentwater, Michigan, in the 1940s. Barbara Newhall photo

That’s my father, in the striped shirt, dancing the Virginia Reel with me, in the scuffed saddle shoes. Barbara Newhall photo

years later to navigate the complicated, globalized, digitized, twenty-first-century world neither of us could have imagined on that long-ago summer day.

I wrote this piece for the Oakland Tribune back in 1991; I was thinking about my father on that day as well.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, April 7, 1991

“It’s too bad,” said Reena, my sister-in-law. “You learn all this, and then you die.”

It is too bad. You get a few things figured out. You come to terms with the humiliations and the victories. Then, pow, your time is up.

Reena and I had our discussion at the edge of the dance floor at  Furnace Creek in Death Valley. We were catching our breath as a handful of other Newhalls — the 7-year-olds, the 10-year-old and the 80-year-old — rocked and rolled and laughed across the floor.

If I look at that pleasant evening at Furnace Creek Inn just right, if I squint at it out of one eye, I can make myself see that that one evening alone was worth the price of admission. It was worth getting born for.

So was my 16th birthday. My parents’ 50th anniversary dinner in Grand Rapids. The day my old friend Trudy flew in from Connecticut and we stayed up all night talking.

Surely a single evening, if it is in the company of a loyal friend or an intact, good-natured family, is enough to constitute a complete human life. One night under the moon and stars is enough to stun the mortal eye, to knock your socks off with the glory of it all.

But that isn’t the way things work. Usually we get much more than an evening. We get years — 12 years, 78 years, 99 years. And, of course, even years are not enough for most of us.

The decades stretch out interminably. We get bored. We get irritable. We kvetch at our spouses. Our lives are long and so laden with experiences that we can’t even remember most of them. Yet we want more.

D.B. Falconer of Arizona and Michigan, but Especially Michigan

I want more. I want more of my father, for one thing. But that is not to be. My father died suddenly last month. He died at home in Ahwatukee, Arizona, probably of a stroke. My mother was with him.

My father left no debts behind, no unfinished business — material or emotional. To me, his daughter he left a steadfast presence that will be with me until I die.

He was born David Bishop Falconer on June 11, 1912, on the family farm outside Scottville, Michigan. His mother was a second-generation school teacher. His father, a Scottish immigrant with an aptitude for practical jokes.

Hard Work, and More Hard Work

Like so many of his generation, my father believed in hard work, honesty, loyalty and moderation. He was heir to the Puritan work ethic and, in time, history would reward him for that.

He was in college during the Depression, studying agriculture at Michigan State and Ohio State. When he returned home one Christmas, it was to find strangers at the kitchen table. His family had lost the farm, he was told. They had moved into town. My father walked into Scottville, in tears.

But my father’s generation was a fortunate one. History was on its side. The Depression of the ’20s and ’30s gave way to the affluence of the ’40s and ’50s. The post-World War II corporate world was prepared to reward loyalty and hard work. A vast mid-century migration from farm to city to suburb took place and my father was part of it.

After college he took a job as a warehouse supervisor for a dairy in Flint, Michigan. He also married my mother, a Chicago girl whom he had courted, mostly long-distance, since she was 16. My brothers, David and Jim, and I were born.

My father, D.B. Falconer, building a tree house on Lake Michigan for his grandchildren. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My father, D.B. Falconer, building a tree house for his grandchildren on the shores of Lake Michigan. Photo by Barbara Falconer Newhall

In time, he was transferred to Detroit, where he moved steadily up the management ladder to become vice president of a large corporation. He joined clubs like the Detroit Athletic Club and the Oakland Hills Country Club. He played a lot of golf.

Family lore has it that my father was on the stubborn side. In fact, he must have been enormously trusting of his environment to allow himself to be propelled from a horse-and-buggy existence to the executive offices and lush fairways of corporate America.

My father worked a lot. He spent large amounts of time at the office and on the telephone. He commuted long distances through arduous, pre-freeway street traffic from our house in the suburbs to his office in downtown Detroit.

A Daughter Asks a Personal Question

I sometimes wondered, as a teenager, whether a man who so loved his work could also love his family. I needed an answer, so I put it to him. “What’s more important?” I asked. “Your job or your family?”

The question took my father by surprise. “I never thought about it,” he laughed. “I can’t do without either one.” That, of course, was the answer I needed.

Intimate conversation did not come easily to my father. When he did overcome his reticence, the exchange was often memorable. He once stopped me in my tracks to say, “You should develop your mind as well as your beauty. That way, when you are old and your beauty is gone, you’ll still have your intelligence.”

Again, the message was not lost on me. I could only conclude that, in my father’s eyes, I was not only smart, I was beautiful.

Friends tell me that it will take time to get used to this loss. At times I feel peaceful — my father was my father. He knew it and I knew it. It is a fact that nothing can change.

At other times I am bereft. My father has been torn from me. The moon has fallen from my sky. I want my dad.

Reprinted by permission of the  Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, where I was a regular columnist.

More about Dads at “A Dad, a Mom and and an Eight-Year-Old With a Bashed Lip.”  Also, “The Poet of Mason County.”

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Comments

  1. Emily Newhall says:

    This was lovely. Thanks. It’s so nice to hear more about your father.

  2. Wow, you have “Michigan roots” — and Detroit roots! I really enjoyed reading about your father and his work ethic along with these local connections. I live in the Detroit area, so your piece made me smile. Cheers to the memory of your dad!

  3. Barbara’s first cousin once removed, Jim Budzynski of Carmel, Indiana, sent along this comment.

    “Thanks for sharing the article about your dad. It made me think about my daughter at Indiana University….and send her a note telling her how I feel about her. I can’t help but feel she is also living that same “being in college during the depression” experience your father had.

    “It’s funny how human beings seem destined to repeat the mistakes of the past and about every 80 years (not coincidentally two generations’ collective memory span) we seem to have an epidemic of acute stupidity where everyone seems to believe the historical rules for success of hard work, thrift, kindness, and sacrifice seem to no longer be relevant and we can all truly “get rich quick” with no pain whatsoever.

    “I am embarrassed to say that it was my generation that seemed to have participated most vigorously in this fiscal and monetary insanity and it is my daughter’s generation who will have that “lesson” seared indelibly into their brains.

    “I can only hope that she gets to experience a genuine revival as your dad did where those virtues again are the prescription for success rather than merely an invitation to pay the bills for those whose greed and shortsightedness got us in this mess in the first place.

    “Have a great day. Jim”

Trackbacks

  1. […] Read more about my Aunt Grace at “How to Be a Glamorous Gal at Age 98.”  If you’d like to read more about my Scottville family, check out  “A Case of the Human Condition: Watching My Grown-Up Kids Disappear.”  For a story about my father, go to “How Much Life Is Enough?” […]

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