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Each year on April 25 my mother calls to remind me that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death, so I should take a moment to think about him.
My father, George Francis Witte Sr., was born in 1933 on a farm just outside De Soto, Missouri, a small town south of St. Louis. He was the sixth of seven children. He never talked much about life on the farm. The stories that have stuck with me are about deprivation — such as the one about bath day, when his siblings and he shared the same hot water, and if he wasn’t among the first to bathe, the water would be cold by the time he got in. Or how his family’s toilet was in an outhouse full of spiders, and instead of toilet paper they had a stack of Sears, Roebuck catalogs: you ripped out a page, tore it in half, and rubbed it against itself to make it softer and more pliable.
We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but it’s hard to feel poor when your father has just told you how he wiped his ass with a catalog when he was your age.
After high school my father joined the Navy. He was stationed in Hawaii during the Korean War and saw no combat. He told few stories about his time in the military. I recall one about how he had to peel an unbelievable quantity of potatoes. He told this story in our kitchen as he used a utility knife to peel a bag of russet potatoes for his eight children. One by one he sliced off the skins, expertly stopping the blade against the meat of his thumb. The whole time I was afraid he was going to slice his finger.
Before he met my mother but after he left the Navy, my father earned an accounting degree from Saint Louis University and got a job in Chicago with Sears, Roebuck. At the age of thirty-four he was working the door at a Catholic singles’ dance when my mother walked in. He said he would let her in under one condition: that she save him a dance. My mother told me she was taken by his charm and good looks, but I’m sure his bullish confidence appealed to her, too.
They danced that night, and he took her phone number but never called. He was probably busy with his work as store comptroller for Sears and in his role as president of the Catholic Alumni Club of Greater Chicago. It’s also possible he was seeing other women. Years later he claimed that he had simply lost her number.
I have two children: a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. I often wonder how in the world my parents raised seven sons and a daughter.
The second time my father and mother met was at a picnic, also sponsored by the Catholic singles’ group. My mother says he ate twelve ears of corn in front of her, as though it were normal behavior.
My father took my mother’s number again at the picnic. This time he called.
Recently I made corn on the cob. “Yummy,” my daughter said, expressing rare enthusiasm for a vegetable. To encourage her, I told her about her grandfather’s impressive act of eating.
“Wow,” my daughter said. “That’s really silly. I bet Grandpa Witte could die from eating that much corn, just like he already died.”
Some of my father’s masculine characteristics:
He smelled of Old Spice aftershave.
He had a barrel chest and a hard, round belly.
He had long, thick fingers and muscular hands.
He had red hair everywhere: on his arms, legs, chest, and back.
He greeted everyone with a bearhug.
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