Sunday, June 21, 2009


Donald Webster Gilbert

A father is a gift from life. When you are given life, you have been given a father.

A good Father is a gift from God.

My Father was a good man. I have told you before, that I am one of the most fortunate of all people having been born into a family with parents who wanted me. They were surprised by me, I’ll give you that, but they wanted me and they loved me. My home was solid and stable and my parents loved each other. Our household was run with rules and expectations and I was showered with affection. And in this mix was my Father, Donald Webster Gilbert.

My Dad was a home builder by trade – Don Gilbert Homes, Inc. In fact, the year I was born he was awarded the Home Builder of the Year award by the American Home Builders Association. I still have the tie clip from that honor. And when my Dad built a home, he did just that. He dug the hole for the basement and he laid the cement block. He wired and he plumbed. He built the walls out of straight 2x4’s and he laid the hardwood floors. He did the painting and laid the tile and he even made the cupboards. He did the landscaping and I remember laying sod with him. My Dad literally built the home.

One of the complaints I remember from my Mom was that everyone else got to live in Dad’s houses. We had to live “in somebody else’s crap”. My Mom didn’t hold too much stock in anyone else’s houses, as you could tell.

I remember visiting Mrs. Brintz, a grade school teacher from Homecroft Elementary. She lived in one of Dad’s houses. Even as a child, I could recognize a well built structure. I could sense the solid walls and heard the lack of creaks. I saw how everything operated well and there were no shims under any furniture legs. I saw wood everywhere – floors, trim, walls, cupboards, shelves, knick-knack cubbies. I felt safe and was in awe of one of his finished houses even as a child.

My Dad’s health failed the year I was born. We called it a “nervous breakdown” back then. Mayo Clinic was where he went and when he came home he was quiet. I suspect he was worried and disappointed in himself. The medical bills meant we had to sell stuff and so my Dad’s equipment started leaving the yard.

His new job was a construction job with Ulland Brothers out of Duluth. This job meant that he would have health benefits and less stress, they thought. This job meant that he would leave home on Sundays and come home late on Friday nights. He would work new highways or dams or bridges off in Minnesota or the Dakotas somewhere. Our home life changed without Dad around every day but Mom stuck it out and when he did come home, it was like Christmas every weekend!

Friday was the day to clean and cook. Mom made sure there was food ready to send with him for the following week and the house was spotless. As a grown woman now, I can only imagine the butterflies she felt as she awaited the arrival of the man she loved. And I feel a bit sorry for her that those brief hours had to be shared with two girls who, likewise, wanted time with this man. But as a child, I never felt that I was intruding or that my Dad wasn’t eager to see me. My Mom never ever sent me outside or to my room. There always seemed to be plenty of love to go around.

Sundays brought a full little house trailer freshly cleaned and stocked with clean clothes, clean linens, and food. My Dad would haul his trailer home so we could work our magic and then haul it back again. Even as a child, I would leave notes for him that he would find throughout the week. In the towels, in his socks, in his slippers. The notes would be silly but they would, I hoped, bring a smile to him and keep him close.

My Dad’s health faltered again when I was ten years old. This time Mayo Clinic couldn’t help us. It was cancer. And it was everywhere. Soon the man I knew as my Father was replaced by a man who bent the hospital bed rails in pain. A man who was quiet and swollen. A man who smelled way too much like antiseptic to be my Dad. A man that I clung to and played with as his cognitive abilities were eaten by the disease. A man that I loved even though it really wasn’t my Dad in there.

The medical bills meant we had to sell stuff and so my Dad’s equipment started leaving the yard again. This time we cried to see the bulldozer leave. And the shovel and his dump trucks. This time we cried. His funeral I try to forget. I know it was enormous. The funeral director was living in one of Dad’s houses and so all the stops were pulled out for this memorial. But we literally had people standing on the sidewalk outside listening to the service. The Johnson Mortuary in Duluth, Minnesota was filled with people who also loved my Dad.

When they closed the casket, I remember feeling a block of ice form in my chest. The man I adored was leaving and I would never hug him or hold his big work hands again. My Dad left big shoes for some other man to fill . . . .

And so on this Father’s Day, I remember my Dad. A man who had suffered from polio as a child and so walked with a bit of a “swagger”, as my Mom called it. A man who worked hard with his hands his entire life. A man who never had a signed contract for any of the houses he built. What good would that do? “If you can’t trust a man’s handshake and his word, then nothing written on paper will be any good” he would say. A man who was true and trustworthy. A man who had a ready laugh and a twinkle in those eyes. He taught me good life skills, this man.

Fathers are a gift of life. Good Fathers are a gift from God. And the Lord sure outdid himself on my Dad.

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd and Donald Webster Gilbert

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