Milk & Legacies

Every family has its quirks. There are the families that drink a lot and yell at each other during holidays,  families that sing songs in the car during a road trip (I refuse to believe this happens, but the TV tells me it does, so…), and the families where the dad doesn’t drink milk, among others. Mine is the last type of family.

I’ve never seen my dad drink a glass of milk. Or eat a bowl of cereal with it. Or, well, anything else with it, save a few tablespoons in his delicious homemade meatballs or to bread chicken for his parmesan recipe. I want to hedge and say that I’m probably not remembering things the right way, things are different when you’re kids, etc. But I don’t think I need to.

“Milk is for babies.” My dad said this – naturally, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice — a lot when my brothers and I were growing up.

(Coincidentally, this coincided with what may very well be the best milk-related commercial of all time:)

I don’t remember asking why he never drank milk; I just knew he didn’t like it. Sometime after the joke out-lived its ability to make us laugh (which was right around the eye-rolling teenage years), we found out why he didn’t like it: it reminded him of the milk he drank when he was a kid.

But the milk he drank as a kid wasn’t the milk that we drank as kids; it came powdered, and had to be reconstituted with water. The decision to reconstitute powder into a milk-like liquid was one made of necessity: powdered milk was way cheaper than liquid milk in those days, so to stretch a few dollars it wasn’t an unreasonable swap. And my dad has six brothers and sisters, so pinching pennies was important. Unfortunately, it evidently tastes awful — and very different from liquid milk when you drink it straight-up.

All of which is an extremely long explanation for why he never drinks milk.

Here’s where I bury the lede: my dad’s father, my grandfather, passed away in early August after a short stint with inoperable lung cancer. Before he died, he was able to see most of his sons and daughters, and I think he passed peacefully. In addition to being extremely proud of my dad after constantly hearing how supportive and wonderful he with my grandfather and grandmother during that very difficult time, it got me thinking of how a family passes down a legacy.

(Here’s where I recognize that some of what’s below has already been written about by my brother, Tom – naturally, we have similar memories. He’s a better writer, so you will probably gain more from just jumping to that link; if you’re already this far, though…)

There are a few hobbies that my grandfather passed down to my dad – golf and hunting more than anything else. My dad is an avid duck, goose, grouse, and pheasant hunter, which means that the Fall in Minnesota is filled with 4:00 AM Saturdays and Sundays, the sight of beautiful sunrises over early-morning lake fog, the smell of gunpowder and marsh, and the sound of shots ringing out across the lake. For my dad, it truly is a family affair, whether by blood or bond – my dad and two of his brothers hunt pretty often together, and a group of his friends get out and hunt a few times each Fall, usually with a pheasant-hunting trip to South Dakota near the end of the season. He’d always bring back stories, smells, and occasionally a few birds (which my brothers and I would gleefully play with or hold up for pictures we clearly didn’t deserve).

My first experience hunting was also the only time I ever hunted with my grandfather, as far as I can remember. And saying that I remember isn’t really accurate – I was five, and the only evidence it happened is a picture that sits on a mantle in our home. But I do remember late Friday nights driving up to McGregor, Minnesota, to a cabin that was our base for a weekend of hunting. I remember sitting next to the roaring fire, learning to gamble, and watching the adults laugh and drink bad beer. I remember plucking the feathers off the birds we managed to get, helping prepare the night’s meal, and being careful not to break a tooth on a steel shot during dinner.  More than anything, I remember feeling grown-up during those trips – just one of the men. At that age, it was a revelation.

I haven’t hunted in a few years – college made it tough to get back for a weekend, but really it just isn’t my thing. But from those hunting trips I developed a love for the outdoors that will never go away, and that I’m very grateful for – not everyone enjoys the beauty of a shining blue lake, or walking through a forest of evergreens. Not everyone enjoys sitting around a campfire, with nothing but the stars and good company. I do, and I’m increasingly kicking myself for not making it out into the beautiful mountains of Colorado more in the few months I’ve lived here.

More than hobbies though, I think my grandfather showed my dad a way of living that holds high the values of hard work, respect, frugality, fun, and doing the hard, right things – even if it’s as simple as getting out to do yard work on Saturday after a busy week.

If I’m lucky, I’ll hold high those same values. Thanks to my dad, and to his. What’s a better legacy than that?

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