Reflections on my father’s life

What went on in the mind of your father? A recent memoir by novelist Richard Ford, coupled with a relevant birthday this month, prompted me to reflect on this question.

Each year I think about my father on his August birthday, but this year more so after reading Ford’s book about his father, written more than 50 years after his father died. (My father died 27 years ago.)

Ford’s memoir, “Between Them,” is a two-part account of memories of his father Parker and mother Edna. It took Ford a long while to get around to writing about his father. He had previously recounted some memories of his mother soon after she died in 1981.

Something compelled Ford in his 70s to write about his father, and now Ford’s book has compelled me (in my 70s) to write about mine. Beyond presenting some objective facts of his father’s life, Ford imagines what his father might have been thinking at various points. Like Ford, most of what I say is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, with words or phrases like “maybe” or “I’m not sure.”

Frank Spevak Sr., by the time I came along, was 36. I was the last of his four children. He seldom talked to me about his past. I don’t recall him ever saying anything about his father, Oldrich, who died the year before I was born. Frank looked ahead, not behind, and he was action oriented, thinking about what he should do next to get ahead.

Frank’s education ended in grade school, when he went to work to help support his parents. He relied on his body to make a living, especially his hands. He was a bright, strong guy with a mechanical aptitude (a trait I did not inherit, though my older brother did).

In his 20s, Frank met a girl from his Czech neighborhood in Chicago, Elsie Jirkovsky. The few remaining black-and-white photos present a strikingly attractive couple.

When they were both in their early 20s, Frank and Elsie married in 1932 – not the best time to start a family, with the country in the grip of the Great Depression. Early on, I’m guessing, Frank held as his highest priority providing for his wife and later his children, whom came along in 1934, ’35 and ’37.

Frank’s work ethic continued throughout his life. He kept busy, a trait he often reminded me of. If he saw me sitting during the day, he’d say, “I can give you plenty to do,” and he often did.

At some point, when Frank was young, he became determined to become a self-made man, fulfill the American dream and make a million dollars. He worked hard in that attempt (though he never came close to being a millionaire).

When I was about 8, I remember going to the Standard gas station he owned in Berwyn, Ill., just outside Chicago. He was by then a skilled, self-taught mechanic. The station was always humming with business.

Earlier, during World War II, he worked for Douglas Aircraft. At night, to make extra money, he rebuilt wrecked cars in his home garage and resold them when cars were hard to find. I’m sure he was proud to provide for his family while Elsie raised the kids.

But there’s the rub. Because he worked long hours every day, he seldom had time to be with his wife or kids. Elsie often was frustrated by this, and the two of them argued about his absence. I don’t think Frank empathized with Elsie. Empathy was not a quality most men of the era knew about, let alone had.

It wasn’t until my mother had a stroke when they were both in their mid-50s that my father spent much time with her. For the last 25 years of his life, before he died at age 81 of a blood disease, my father did almost all of the cooking and cleaning.

I’ve just scratched the surface of my father’s life and what I imagine were his thoughts. He was active involvement in politics and his treatment of my siblings was, well, eccentric.

I’m not sure how much of my personality is a result of my father’s or a reaction to it. However, this has been a useful exercise. And I recommend readers to reflect on the lives of their fathers.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.