Jack Gillard, August 21, 1928–July 27, 2012
Today is National Father-In-Law Day. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my father-in-law’s memorial service. Jack passed away four years ago this week. His absence can catch you off guard and startle you with the intensity of the loss. We still have his craggy voice in our saved voice
messages, saying very formally, “This is PaJack. Calling for Jason. Thank you.” Then in the background, casually and a bit put out, “They weren’t home,” obviously talking to Oma before he put down the receiver.
When Jason and I married, I asked Jason’s dad what I should call him. He said, “Well,” he thought a second, “how about Jack?” That was good for me. The kids at first called him “Grandpa Jack,” but they didn’t really have control of their tongues yet, so it came out something maybe like “Jack Pa Jack.” Eventually, they dropped the first “Jack” and went with PaJack.
Jack had a lot of personality, and always on the lookout for new people to talk to, he could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. He told us stories all day long, and discussed many subjects with insight and intellect. He even let me in on the secret of how to write a successful novel. “Make sure it has plenty of crime, violence, and sex.”
I’d guess he was probably Jason’s best friend. They went trapshooting together whenever possible. They discussed history, politics, and economics way beyond my understanding. While apart, they spoke on the phone often, visiting for hours. When together, they talked and talked and talked. Jack was fiercely loyal to his own, and did whatever was needed to make sure we were all taken care of. He made us feel like we were part of something special, the family that was inside his circle of care, recipients of his exclusive attention and acceptance.
With a love for road trips, and always taking the long way around in order to meet new people and see new places, Jack drove out to see us in Colorado at least once or twice a year, enjoying the comfortable, solid ride that his older model Cadillacs gave him. When he came through the door unloading his belongings for the stay, he’d ask me if I was admiring his matching new suitcases—usually two paper shopping bags. Before he’d arrived, the kids had set up dioramas of giant military conflicts in the basement using their “Linking Logs” and Guys and army men. They knew PaJack would be down on the floor with them helping to construct wonderful new additions to their log forts. But not before the Magic Pocket. Often the shirt he wore suddenly was bestowed with the Magic Pocket. Sometimes though, the Magic Pocket was not on the shirt he was wearing, and he’d need to go check his luggage to see if the Magic Pocket had materialized on his other shirt. (All those different shirts looked remarkably like the same one.) When the Magic Pocket did happen to be on the shirt he was wearing, the kids gathered around to see what might come out of it. The ritual was done with great ceremony and delight every visit. “Let’s see what’s in my Magic Pocket,” he would say. The Magic Pocket could deliver up matchbox cars, army guys, or envelopes from Oma with money. And if there was a car in the Magic Pocket, then usually there was also a bucket filled with more of them in his “suitcase.” And his visits always included a box or two of Russell Stover chocolates for me. Maybe for Jason too.
The punch lines to his stories sometimes were crass. He’d deliver a final line, then enjoy a hearty laugh, even if he’d already told the story to plenty of other folks, say, down to the truck stop, or maybe over to the Legion, where he’d have his daily cup of coffee. And sometimes a bowl of oatmeal. (He cleaned up the punch lines a bit—well mostly—when younger ears, and sometimes women, were around.) When he didn’t like something, it was clear. And when he did, you knew that too. Applebee’s—a restaurant that came to town even though Jack hated it—somehow was chosen for dinner one time. Jack was standing with the grandkids waiting to be seated beneath walls decorated with collectables that matched the plethora of items (Jack might call “junk”) in the barn from past eons—except Applebee’s decor had the bird poo (not what Jack called it) cleaned off and a nice coat of paint added. PaJack studied the relics with a bit of mockery and said to the kids, “Suppose if I put a bunch of goofy sh*t up on my walls, people will want to come over and eat at my place too?” Every visit to the farm, we always caravanned into town to Jake’s Pizza for Friday night dinner. Jack knew at least half of the people in the dark paneled lounge-like pizzeria. And he was related through someone’s cousin’s sister or such to Jake himself. On the way back to the farm, we picked up ice cream, just because everyone knows you’re supposed to have ice cream.
Besides a tire swing in the giant walnut tree in the Minnesota farmyard—grassy acreage filled with fireflies at night and family baseball games by day—PaJack provided a go-cart for the grandkids, always having the maintenance done on it before we all descended for a weeklong visit, getting the chain adjusted, the tires replaced, the oil checked. He even supplied a helmet for the offspring of the two uptight moms in the family. (Yes, I was one of them.) Plenty of gasoline, new tires, and replacement chains kept that cart running summer after summer. It was a total winner with everyone. Even us grown-ups folded up to get into it to enjoy a go ’round on the farm’s huge circular drive.
One day, driving through Glenville, the village of 700 residents near the farm, PaJack had several of the kids in the car with him. We were on a trip to go buy new shoes for everyone, an annual tradition that grew out of the Christmas in July we did every year when all the kids were little. Oma wanted each of the grandkids to have good shoes, something she didn’t have herself as a child, Jack told us in private. On this particular shoe run, PaJack drove into Glenville, laid on the horn, and kept it blaring all the way through the four blocks of buildings and houses. When they exited the town, he let off the horn and said, “That’s the most excitement they’re going to have all week."
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