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In praise of fathers, grandfathers

David Markusen's high school graduation photo. Courtesy Ann Markusen1 / 2
Oil painting of Ann Markusen's grandfather, Marinus Markusen. Courtesy Ann Markusen2 / 2

Father's Day is Sunday, June 17. I haven't had living fathers to thank on this day since 1981, but I always think of them: my father, David Markusen, and his father, Marinus Markusen.

Makers, nurturers, teachers, musicians and loving husbands. In a year when we've witnessed the serial bad behavior of many grown men, it's a good day to reflect on all a loving father can be.

My father disappeared from my life when I was 27. He fell while rock-climbing along the St. Croix River with my brothers. His sling broke while he was rappelling. His death created a huge hole in my life. But at least I wasn't 17, or 7.

David was a gentle, thoughtful man. A family man. He worked as an engineer at Honeywell in Minneapolis and later, Roseville, commuting against the sun both morning and evening with his carpool. He came to the dinner table full of stories about aircraft navigation systems and his childhood growing up in Stillwater and Cromwell. Afterward, we'd sometimes play music together — he on the flute, me at the piano.

He brought me — the oldest of three — Sam Lloyd's Mathematical Puzzles, and we worked the puzzles in Scientific American together. He helped me build science projects: a model water purification system one year that got my team of girls to state.

On weekends and those two-week summer vacations he earned, we went to the woods and waters; canoeing the St. Croix or the end of the Gunflint Trail; and camping in our state parks. In winter, we'd ski downhill at Theodore Wirth or trek off to Trollhaugen. During grade school, he coaxed me into cross-country skis. When we were teens, he bought a small used sailboat that we kept on Lake Calhoun. My brothers and I spent many summer days on that boat. Sailboat racing became my college sport. Later, Dad and I took up whitewater canoeing together.

Dad was the peacekeeper in our home. My mother was a rather crabby disciplinarian. When we had arguments, my father would negotiate between "sides" until we made up. He was philosophical, low-key and loving.

Dad's sudden death created a huge hole in my life. There wasn't a day I didn't miss him intensely, even though I was already teaching economics at the University of Colorado. Then I found another father: my grandfather Marinus.

I had spent most of the prior year with him in Cromwell writing a dissertation, gardening and keep house together. He was so like my dad: full of good cheer and humor, thoughtful, a carpenter, a fiddler. He had been living alone since 1948, when his beloved Ruth, our grandmother, died of cancer.

Renus, as everyone called him, became my summer home, no matter where I was teaching. We gardened together; explored Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian music; visited neighbors; and went to the Methodist church on Sundays.

Most weekends, my uncle Sidney — my Dad's only sibling — came over from Esko with his four kids. We'd roam the hay field searching for butterflies. With my teenage cousin, Martha, Grandpa and I went on a long summer car trip to the Black Hills.

Grampa lived to the ripe old age of 95, losing by a year his competition with his neighbor, Pete Dahl, to see who could live longest. I missed him, too, but at least I'd been able to share those seven or eight years and summers with him.

Months before he died, I laid my baby son in his lap. I'll never forget how Grampa laid his fingers, so gently, on this new David. Grampa was mostly blind from glaucoma by then, so he used the gentlest touch to explore his first great-grandson's face.

On my desk, I have Dad's Cromwell High graduation photo, taken in Cloquet in 1936. And on our living room wall, we see the oil painting of Grampa Renus dated 1981 — a gift from artist Carole Hill.

I miss them. But I have my brothers and my son, all now fathers themselves. I'm loving watching them with their children. Seeing Dad's touch, love of learning and adventuring reproduced. Variations on a theme.

Happy Father's Day, Dad and Grampa!