Grampa Van Aken
I have read stories of negligent fathers in the past and one again this morning. Its heart-wrenching. I’ve read about the love sons and daughters sought but did not find. I had known of the hurt of a father’s lack of…well let’s just call it constancy. My dad was a human and (like me) beset with frail traits amidst the good ones. It is Father’s Day and last year and most years on this day so filled with memory and hope I think first of him. But this year I’m also thinking about the father that came before him; my grandfather.
I am not sure where I first heard that my father was not the natural father of our ‘grandfather’. But Dad first heard about it when a family member nonchalantly said something at a family gathering as if it were a fact known by all. He was about 16 years young at the time and the shock and confusion it caused him shook him deeply. I know he adored his mother and he loved the man who he’d always thought of as his flesh and blood father but he lost a kind of trust that I’m not sure he ever regained after that marked-in-black day. From the safer circumstances of my life I am at a loss for why it mattered so much to him. But it did and therein lies the gulf.
My father’s mother Dorothy Circle was born in January, 1900 and my dad was born in late October of 1915. Of course she knew who impregnated her but her shame was great and she kept the secret to herself. I’m not sure her own parents knew. The family heard stories through time as to who my dad’s biological father was but it was only a guessing game. Whoever it was left the unwed young woman to fend for herself. The world changed for all of us when Carl Van Aken came along from up in Michigan to rural Ohio and fell deeply in love with her, and her child Harold. This was at a time when many men of that generation would have shunned the young mother. But Grampa was a gentle and wonderful man.
We became a small family living in the woods-rich land of North-Eastern Illinois, just 15 miles south of Wisconsin. We felt the skin, metrics, sounds and seasonal changes of Mother Nature very closely. Summer was hot and we kids ran over a tar-blistered road to plunge into the mile-wide lake while winters were windy-cold and, after playing in the snow for hours, we dropped by the crackling fireplace of Gra and Grampa’s home and gurgled with rapture at the smell of my Grandfather cooking. Yes! He cooked. It was rare for a man to do ‘indoor cooking’ then. Looking back now I think it was his heritage coming out of the country of Belgium. van Auken, Van Aachen, Van Aiken and more were all possibilities of our older name. Some came from Holland. Some came from Belgium like his family did. He might have been born in America. I don’t really know but the ways of his forbears from that European bastion of fine cuisine were alive in his American life. He didn’t cook like a chef. He cooked like a man cooking at home for his family and himself. I think my grandmother could cook and it was not out of self-defense that he did it. He made food, I think, because his father did. I remember the “Swiss Steak” he prepared and set on the long dining table that consumed the better part of their cozy living room. He would stand near his casserole and cut the steak right in the cooking vessel. He’d ladle out potatoes, carrots and a deeply colored sauce, (glorious braising juices all sweet from caramelized vegetables and good midwestern beef!) He wore a white dress shirt and good pants. He laid his Chesterfield behind him in an ashtray while he did this and smoke rose from before and behind him as he served us. His white hair was full and neatly combed back. His eyes were blue-gray and kindness poured out with confidence and humor. He loved us and let us feel it. God invented generations for a good reason. With Father’s Day here I stand just past midway between him, my dad and my son and I am full and happy with it. And yes, I am a Van Aken; if not by blood-to-blood then by the more volitional power of choice.