Handy Handkerchiefs and a Goodnight Kiss


Is it just me or is there something about the way some people say your name that makes your heart hum?

“Debbie,” he said.

I looked up from my meatloaf and mashed potatoes to meet his eyes and smiled. I love hearing Dad say my name.

“I lay on my back when I take a nap. That’s how I sleep.” Where’s he going with this I wonder and nod.

“I realized the seam of my jeans and my belt really bother the bone in my back.”

Dad’s losing quite a bit of weight these days. He can’t seem to keep it on.

“But I figured out that I can put a handkerchief in each pocket and then I’m fine!”

Red or blue I wonder but don’t ask.

“It lifts you up,” my husband says. “That would never work for me.” We laugh.

Don’t ask me how we can make a conversation about a sore back bone funny but we do.

Hellos from neighbors who love Dad make a perfect ending to supper and then we drive back to Dad’s condo together–Sam and me with Dad in his Honda and Todd following in the little convertible  Dad takes it slow getting out of the car and holds my hand as we walk down the carpeted corridor leading to his door.

Once inside, I fill his water glasses, lay out his PJs–just because I want to not because he wants me to–and put a piece of cheesecake by his chair, as he dresses for bed.

It was hard to say goodbye but I noticed Todd and Sam from the kitchen window sitting on the curb in the parking lot so gave Dad a hug and a kiss goodbye  “Do you have something warm to wear In the car?” He asked.

“I’ll be fine,” I said as I thought how much I loved him still worrying about me catching cold in a convertible. “I can wear Todd’s jacket if I need something,” and I leaned in to give him one more kiss.

As I slid into the car, Sam climbed onto my lap and Todd put the jacket he had brought along for me over my shoulders  “Dad was worried if I’d be warm enough,” I said looking across the parking lot into the condo window he and mom used to stand at together, waving goodbye.  I wanted to see him there now. I knew it would take too long for him to walk from his bedroom to the kitchen. Todd revved the engine then and as he backed up I saw Dad’s figure appear. He was waving.

I held up my jacket so he could see it and blew him a goodnight kiss.

It’s the little things I treasure now–my dad’s bandana handkerchiefs, shared smiles and nods, the outline of a hand waving to me from a window across a parking lot, a jacket thrown over my shoulders unexpectedly and especially the sound of my name spoken with sweet familiarity and with love.

 

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This past weekend, Dad and I commented on how grateful we were that we made it through the winter without either of us getting sick.  We’re both vulnerable to catching pneumonia, him more than me.

 

This past Thursday, the nonprofit that I work at was holding its first ever gala fundraiser.  It’s a long story but several months back the board had suggested we cancel it after a couple challenges came up at the office. But, undaunted, my new development director supported me and together, with the board, we forged on.

 

Well, Dad came down with pneumonia on Wednesday afternoon and I had to take him from urgent care then to ER on Wednesdsy night.

 

It all worked out. He came home from the hospital yesterday and the event was great.

 

I made his dinner tray tonight and knowing the bacon wrapped around the ham loaf may not be  the easiest to eat, I unwrapped it and set it on the side of the plate as a sort of garnish…well, more to fill out the plate because his servings are so small. He has no appetite. I told him he could eat the soft part. (More calories.)

 

“I hate bacon”, he said as I set the tray down on the foot rest in front of his favorite chair. Bacon removed from plate. I know someone who will like it. (My dog Sam)

 

Dad sits messing with his phone.
“Dad, your food is getting cold.”
He looks at me, “I can’t get the mute off.”
“Give it here, you’re too hard on the phone, gentle swipe, see there?”
He nods and smiles. “You’re so patient with me, Debbie.”

 

“I know…and that’s why there’s wine…”
“I still can’t get the mute off.” He continues fiddling with it and says, “It’s still there.”
“Where?”
“In the lower left.”
“I don’t see it.”
“There.”
“Where?”
“In the lower left.”
“I don’t see it, Dad.”
“Look on the TV.”
“The TV?” I close my book. “Oh, I see it there.

 

Dad…your phone is smart but not that smart. You need your remote.”
He picks up remote and turns off mute. Takes bite of ham loaf.
“Is it cold, Dad?”
“Uh-huh, it needs a minute or two.”
I carry my glass of wine with me to the kitchen, refill and heat meat.

 

Saturday night with Dad!

 

Fridays with Dad

Every Friday at 5:15, I call to order Dad’s favorite fish fry. All I need to tell the hostess is my name and she knows: 1 fried cod, extra tarter, extra slaw to go. When I take it to Dad’s, I pour him an O’doul’s and we sit and talk and catch up on the week.

On this particular Friday, I had had a remarkable meeting that week and when I told Dad about it he told me that he had spent the day praying for me.

I asked him how you spend a day praying for someone and he said, “It’s hard…things come to mind and I let the Lord inspire me.” When I asked what I will ever do without his prayers he said, “Why you’ll do the same thing I do, pray for the next generation. And you’ll do a great job.”

A Cat and a Career

Tomorrow morning I’ll sit in the chair looking out over the trees on the street below my bedroom window and think how I used to balance my books on its arms as I read and wrote because our cat would lay in my lap—stretched out, paws crossed, eyes closed and purring to the quiet sound of my prayers.

Rose is a stinker, feisty and free, able to outsmart the den of foxes that used to live next door. Undaunted by them, she’d lie sleekly across the sidewalk, flaunting her bravery. Bunnies, birds and mice her prey, without front claws she’d scale a tree if necessary.

But she didn’t come home this week. She may have been outsmarted.  I’m sure she put up a fight and if she went down it was on her own terms—free to roam, to explore, experience life’s beauty. It’s interesting that she chose this week to depart—the same time of year as my mom and brother. I’m conscious of my heart, its size, its weight. Our pets come in and go out like our accomplishments—a gift so present one day and suddenly gone the next.

Love your pets. Enjoy your accomplishments when they’re there. I’m working hard to replace the hole in my heart.  We’ll be looking at a couple cats this week that need a home.

I know this doesn’t sound related but stay with me. I’ve spent a couple years trying to preserve and document Dad’s life and accomplishments as a way to hold on to him if the time came when he, like Rose, would not be knocking, (or mewing) at the back door. And just when I thought we’d finished those stories, we were outsmarted, so to speak.

We were on Washington Island together recently when he told me this:

“Well, after fifty-five years as an architect, I’ve done some reflection.  When I graduated from college I thought I would design worship spaces that would help bring people to Jesus.  St. Edmund’s congregation has moved on and the building is for sale.  The Chrystal Cathedral in California, perhaps the grandest scale of church architecture stands empty and is also for sale.  Whereas, there are church ministries worshiping in remodeled warehouses all over, and are very effective. The conclusion I’ve reached therefore is, it’s not about architecture.  So what does that mean?  My life as a church architect was a waste?

“My journey as an architect taught me a lot and gave me many opportunities to witness for the Lord.  But did the spaces I create accomplish this?  No.  I believe the answer is no because that which I pursued could never be attained.  And yet perhaps, there were aspects of that journey that were beneficial to the purpose I pursued.  In the end, I realized that it can never be architecture that draws people to Jesus, it’s only the Word.”

I was moved.  I thought that was the end of the story. Then I got a call from Scott Sprout. He oversees missions at Crimson Way which is the new church, he said, inside the old St. Edmond’s which was just recently sold.  Scott didn’t know the architect was still living but found out he was when he came across Sundays with Dad. It looks like St. Edmond’s will once again be filled with music, and children and worship and, most importantly, the Word. You can imagine Dad’s joy when he heard.

They invited Dad to come and share the story of his design at the service tomorrow.  If you’re free, stop by at 10:30, 14625 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove. We’d love to see you.

So, just when I thought it was the end, I discovered it was only another new beginning.

God bless you Rosie.

A New Era: Architect’s Memoir

“HELLO, Wenzler ARCHitects!” Leslie Schott answered the phone at my dad’s office the same way for over thirty years. She was a great office manager and kept everyone and everything in order. The conversation that followed was always the same too…

“Hey, Leslie! How you doin’?”

“OH, Hi!! “I’m FINE, how are YOU?” She had a way of really punching her syllables.

“I’m good. Is Dad there?”

“Oh, sure! He’s here. Just a minute, I’ll get him for you.”

Dad always took our calls. He never let on that he was busy—you’d think it would have occurred to me to ask, but it didn’t. There was something about Dad’s office that made me want to work in an office. It was friendly and exciting. I’m sure it had something to do with his secretaries because I started playing office in our attic on the farm before I turned ten.

Wenzler Architects moved from Wilson Drive to Brookfield in the early 1960s when Dad’s secretary, Doris Flugstaf, saw a For Rent sign above a law office on Brookfield Drive on her way home from work one day. Dad had been making the commute from the farm to Milwaukee for years and she was looking out for him. Doris’s husband had died, leaving her with two daughters to raise when Dad hired her part-time. She had a big impact on the office.

While Dad was on his fellowship in Europe, Doris and John Wallerius, a friend from school, kept his office running. Doris also fell in love during that time with an F.W. Dodge Corp. representative named Sam Severson. Sam would stop by the office to get the latest news on Dad’s work. Learning that he would be best man for Doris and Sam’s wedding didn’t make Dad feel any better when he found out that Doris would be leaving the firm not long after they moved into the building she had found for him.

Next came Betty, with the red hair and painted eyebrows. She wasn’t too thrilled that there wasn’t any hot water in the sink under the steps, near the bathroom, next to the law office on the first floor. “Bill, can’t you talk to the landlord about turning on the hot water? I have to go downstairs, out the door of the lawyers’ office, wash my hands in the sink under the steps in cold water and they are so cold I can’t type!”

Dad talked to the landlord, who turned on the hot water and raised his rent. After a while, he moved again to the lower unit of a two family complex several blocks away. It was owned by the same landlord, Fred Gerlach, who was the husband of our third grade teacher at Brookfield Elementary.

The office moved one more time.

“The firm continued to grow,” Dad said. “We were hired by the Kohl family, represented by Bill Orenstein, to design the Northridge Lakes housing on 76th and Brown Deer. One Sunday morning after church, Dolores and I were shopping around for an office space downtown and came across the unfinished second floor in the Steinmeyer building on 3rd and Highland, above Usinger’s. I talked to the Landlord and struck a deal. Early on in the Northridge Lakes planning, Bill Orenstein took me to San Francisco to meet with the landscape architect. I was very impressed with the exposed architecture which the architect had sandblasted and cleaned up and made into a striking office. After we returned, that thought stayed in my head and the Steinmeyer building was a perfect opportunity to create a loft space in Milwaukee. I struck a deal of $1.00 a square foot a year with the landlord.

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“Our office staff and friends came and tore out the two spaces and stripped them down to their structure. I remember Gerry McKinney helped. We had a huge pile of lumber right at the window overlooking Highland Avenue, ready to load into a dumpster. I vividly remember Gerry, who you may remember played fullback for the University of Wisconsin, tackling the pile of lumber. He grabbed a long 4 x 4 out of the pile to throw into the dumpster but didn’t know that the window was closed. It flew right through that window and we were off and running with the renovations.

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“Ed, who was in his early teens, and I did all the sandblasting. It took us a few months and we moved in in the early 60s. When the family moved back to the city in 1970, we finally ended the long commute from home, to our church on 4th and Meineke, and our office.

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“Dolores liked the loft concept and wanted it for our home. After we had bought Shepard we were all down after church looking it over, trying to figure out what to do with it. It was Dolores’ idea to tear down the walls and ceilings and make it into a loft space like the office. We bought it on January 1, 1970 and moved in on April 1, which was important because after that we would have had to pay tuition to the Milwaukee schools. We got the occupancy permit even though the building inspector didn’t think it was finished because everything was exposed.

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Dad ordered pizza from Lisa’s on Oakland this night and we celebrated the new fireplace.

“The outside of the house was four inch cedar siding that had been painted green. Everything was loose so we scraped it off and stained it. All of the original homes of this period, 1890s, were built out of four inch lapped cedar siding. My standard approach to design was to make the exterior and interior out of the same materials. We pulled off the interior plaster, put in new wiring, insulated the stud space and put on 1 x 4 inch lapped siding. The significance of this to me was that, as with an individual, what’s on the outside should reflect what is on the inside.

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“On the third floor we put insulation and drywall over the attic space. We had to do that because if we exposed the structure, there wouldn’t have been any insulation!”

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*****

When Wenzler Architects and Associates closed in 2011, an era ended for our family. But the smell of the inks and paper, cedar walls and exposed wood, the track lights and Leslie’s voice will stay forever with me. The architects at their drafting boards, busy designing and creating beautiful spaces for the rest of us to enjoy was the excitement in the air—to name a few: Mike Johnson, Dave Brandt and Jim McClintock. Then later, Neil Kruger, Brian Spencer, Keith Anderson…and eventually, three generations of Wenzler architects working alongside each other—Dad, my brother Ed and my nephew Chris.

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I guess it’s no wonder that when Mom and Dad decided to downsize and leave the house on Shepard I cried for three days. I had never owned a house. It hadn’t been important to me but when Todd looked into my heartbroken eyes and told me we could buy it, I knew that had changed. A new era had begun.

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Lunch at Dad’s

I called him this morning and his phone was turned off. I’ve told him a dozen times he doesn’t have to turn it off when it’s charging but he doesn’t listen. It makes me crazy when I can’t get through to him. He didn’t answer his landline either so I was heading for my shoes—he never leaves the house before 9:00 a.m. I called his neighbor to see if he’d mind checking on him as I was one half making the bed and brushing my teeth, and one half telling myself I was overreacting.

“No problem,” Terry said. “I have a key.”

The phone rang as I was grabbing for my coat. It was Terry. “Debbie, his car is gone.”

“Oh….(Car accident on the way home last night? I ponder.) “….maybe he had an appointment this morning….thanks for checking Terry, I really appreciate it.” I texted dad, Call me.

“Dad! ” I say twenty minutes later into my phone.

“Hi, sweetheart, I had an appointment with the foot doctor this morning, then I stopped at the grocery store.”

“……..” Gosh, thank goodness, phew. “Wow, well you were busy! Charlie and I wanted to take you out to lunch but we can come there if that’s easier.”

“Great, I have lots of food to eat up.” He hates having extra food in the house as much as having extra money. We hang up and the phone rings again before I can put it down. “Debbie, can you stop and pick up two buns? I have Sloppy Joes but only one bun.”

Charlie and I walk in with a bag of buns just as Dad is lifting a cookie sheet with three pottery bowls of soup out of the oven. Keeping the soup warm?

“I called Kay (his cook) to tell her I was having guests for lunch and asked her how to turn my icemaker back on. She was the one who turned it off. She didn’t remember and told me to serve cold water.”

Charlie opens the freezer door and pushes a button. “You gotta hit the ‘on’ button, Grandpa.”

The table was set at the little bistro table in the kitchen with a third chair pulled in from the dining room. “Look at my dining room table and you’ll see why we’re eating in the kitchen.”

I know why but look anyway—one half taxes, the other half stacks of donation requests which make me crazy. “Doing your taxes? “I ask ignoring the requests for money. ‘All these good causes, how can I say no?’ Always his answer.

Have a seat,” he says. “If I was organized like you, Charlie, everything would be ready.”

“We’re ten minutes early, Dad.” I watch him lift one hot bowl at a time with hot pads off the cookie sheet then precariously place each one unto a placemat.

“What else do we need..?”

“Butter, pickles?” I ask.

“Oh, right, butter and pickles. How’s the soup?”

“Cold,” I say giving it a taste.

“I was worried about that.”

We microwave the soup for exactly three minutes and after lunch divide a chocolate chip cookie three ways.

“Thanks for coming by.” He says giving my son a big hug. “It was so good to see you, Charlie. Give my love to Lauren. We have to get her up here.”

I look at the two of them and know I have just had a priceless lunch.

My dad and son

My Dad and Son

Charlie and I open the door to leave and see a seven inch stack of mail with a rubber band around it at our feet.

“That’s a lot of mail, Grandpa……you won’t get bored.”

“That’s right,” Dad says with a chuckle as he walks away. “I won’t get bored.”

Tater Tots on Tuesday

Anyone who’s lived in the Midwest knows how brutal the winters can be. Dad’s doctor started recommending he spend the cold months in Tucson with my sister. This is the second winter he’s gone and the trip was hard on him.

There are other things to consider besides cold weather and I was relieved when I heard he’d be coming home a week early. Two weeks ago, when I found out that he was in the hospital after his legs had given way and he’d fallen, I was afraid he wouldn’t make it home. I picked him up at Mitchell Field last Friday and the first thing he told me was how pleased he was with the airport wheelchair service. He thought he’d be able to travel anywhere in the world.

It’s good to have him back in his condo—just three blocks from my office and three miles from where my husband and I live. And it was special to be together again this past Sunday with Dad.

Today, when I was making his lunch, he was crushing his pills and said, “There will be no pills in heaven!”

“Or grief or anger,” I added as I put extra butter on the bread for his sandwich. He’s down to 130 pounds.

“I really don’t have any anger,” he said after a  moment’s thought. “When the Lord is ready to take me, I am ready to go.”

“What about patience?” I asked and he smiled. “You might want to focus on that or you’ll have to stick around until you get it right.” I smiled.

“You know, I’ve lost twenty pounds since my surgery in 2007.”

“You’ve also lost four inches of height, Dad.  You don’t need the weight.”

“Oh, right. I forgot about that. You always make me feel better.”

(No, Dad, you always make me feel better.)

I had called him on my way to work after a meeting this morning. He told me his congestion was back and had let his doctor know but they hadn’t yet called him back. “Are you taking your Mucinex?” I asked him.

“No, I stopped that.”

“Why?”

“Because I had put myself on it and then I took myself off it.”

“Well, put yourself back on it.”

“Can I talk to my doctor first?”

“Sure, if they call you back. If they don’t, take it.” He chuckled.

“Well…I left it in Tucson.

“I’ll pick some up.” Walgreen’s didn’t have any on the shelf so I went to CVS and picked up two bottles. I was leaving the store when I saw his text asking me if I could pick up his Warfarin prescription and turned around to head back to the pharmacy.

I get immense joy out of solving the little challenges my Dad faces these days. There is always an answer if you take the time to look—even if it might be that you’ve only found some distraction from the fact that you are facing your parent’s mortality. As with my mom, I try not to think about losing him.  He is full of life, in spite of the fact that he weighs 130 pounds, has no appetite, hobbles and coughs. He’s a fighter, a soldier, and carries around a copy of “Onward Christian Soldier” with him in his briefcase.

I love him.

Tonight after work I went by and made a Tater Tot casserole like my mom used to make for our family because he likes it. I made enough for our family because that’s the way Mom made it though it was just the two of us. I lit candles and he said the prayer. When we had finished and the dishes were done, the leftovers put away, he worked his way over to his chir with his new walking stick, slowly lowered himself into it and told me to sit down. “I have something serious to say to you.” I took a seat on the couch beside him. “I know I am getting weaker and won’t be able to stay here in the condo much longer.”

“Oh, I’ve thought about that, Dad. I think we can find someone to come in and help out a little more. They could prepare all your meals and just watch over things.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“One day at a time, Dad.”

“Okay. You always make me feel better.”

No, Dad, you always make me feel better.