Arthur "Art" Thurman
1918 - 1972
My Dad, Tootie
Lots of people know about my mother and the debilitating mental illness that plagued her for most of her life, and I readily admit that growing up at my house was pretty crazy. So sooner or later almost everyone asks me how I turned out so normal − or at least sort of − and I always give the same answer. "My Dad."
When I first arrived on the scene, Dad wasn’t around because there was a war going on, and as much as my mother and I needed him, the country needed him more. But a little more than a year later, World War II ended and Tootie, as his brothers and sister fondly called him much to his annoyance, returned home to us.
Dad told me that he and I became good buddies right away, and by the time I was three, he was paramount in my life. One of my fondest memories of my father is listening to the old radio shows with him. Almost every night, the two of us - our faces cupped in our hands - laid side-by-side on the gray, floral carpet in our living room floor in front of our white, marble fireplace listening to shows like Gene Autry and the oh-so-scary, Shadow. And every night after the clock struck eight, signaling my bed time, I would beg, “Can I stay up for just one more show?”
His reply was always the same. “Alright. But just one more.”
On Saturday mornings, Dad and I could be found at Walgreen’s on Main Street in Galesburg, Ill. sitting on the cherry red stools in front of the soda fountain. Each week, Dad treated me to a Coke and a chocolate pastry. He never seemed to mind that I was only interested in the chocolate frosting and after I licked it off, I left the rest of the roll behind. And he never failed to find a nickel for me to put into the jukebox so we could hear the latest tunes like The Woody Woodpecker Song and Buttons & Bows.
But life got really tough after I turned eight. We had just moved back to Galesburg from California. Dad took a big gamble with his career and moved into sales instead of returning to plumbing, which he hated. He sold commercial heating and air-conditioning equipment. Not only did he have to learn some engineering − and that had to be daunting in itself − he had to travel weekly around central Illinois. At almost the same time, Mom’s mental illness exploded, and the fallout from the horrendous and baffling disease impacted every aspect of our lives including Steve’s, my two-year-old brother.
That meant Dad had to somehow cope with a wife who had paranoid schizophrenia, two young children, his job, a mortgage and all the other bills and responsibilities all by himself. There were no safety nets for families in those days, and for whatever reason, no one in his family or my mother’s helped us, so we were on our own. If Dad’s mother had lived, the story would probably be different, but we lost her to leukemia the previous year.
Back then, Dad was thirty-three, and as an adult I have often wondered how he coped. Amazingly, he was great at his new job and became one of the top salesmen in the company and eventually became a branch manager for several offices.
Life at home was hell. Mom screamed and fought and swore at the voices all day and night, and our house was a pigsty. I imagine Dad’s traveling gave him time to regroup and build up his strength so he could return and endure the bizarre life we led. But through it all, Dad was always my best friend. He was my Dad, my Mom and everything else wrapped up into one. He was there for my brother too.
He taught me to respect all creatures, great and small and that everything had a purpose whether I understood it or not. He taught me to judge people by their actions not by their net worth. “You’re to respect anyone who does an honest day’s work,” he would frequently say.
And way before it was fashionable Dad told me that women could do anything. He said he felt most people didn’t give females respect for all the hard work they do and that wasn’t idle talk on his part. He had a female accountant back in the 1950s.
Dad encouraged me not to be afraid and to tackle challenges and take chances. “Mary Kay, you can do and be what you want.” But he cautioned, “Always remember, you’re a lady.”
When I had a problem, he was always there. After a boy in high school broke my heart, Dad listened and gave me sage advice. When my best friend’s four-year-old niece died, Dad went with me to the funeral home to say good-bye to the sweet, little girl. And when I screwed up, like the time I made one-hundred-dollars in long distance phone calls − and that was a huge amount of money in the ‘60s − or when I smashed up the car he was so proud of, he was still there for me. Of course he was angry, but he never belittled, berated or carried anger with him.
Dad was six-feet-tall, lanky and topped off with black hair and deep, blue eyes. He was movie star handsome, and everyone noticed. I was so proud of him. But he was just as beautiful inside, and he was and still is my hero.
One day after an especially difficult night with my mother, my late husband, John and I sat down and talked to him. “Dad, why don’t you leave her?” I asked. She’s never going to get better.”
My heart ached for him to have some personal happiness. “I can’t,” he said. “Your mother would be homeless in no time.”
And I knew that was the end of the discussion.
My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was darned close. He died young, at fifty-three, well over forty years ago, but I will always miss him and occasionally, I pretend that he is still alive to comfort myself.
Thank you, Dad for all the things you did for Steve and me and for being the person that you were. Selfishly, I wish you were still here with me although I know God made a very special place for you in heaven and nothing I did would even begin to compare.
If I could have chosen a father, it would have been you. You were the best, and I will love you forever. When it is my time, I know you will come for me and once again, we will rock back and forth on the cherry red stools and listen to music while we drink a Coke and I lick the chocolate off a pastry. The only difference is, we won’t be at Walgreen’s.
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