Welcome To Middlehood: A Deal With My Dead Dad

I’m still seeking fatherly advice from beyond the grave.

Illustration by Julia Yellow

This month marks the 100-year anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I. There are no veterans of the war left alive, though that doesn’t mean century-old lessons are no longer relevant. In fact, earlier this year, my father reminded me of a key one. And he’s been dead for five years.

World War I aside—we’ll get back there, I promise—I should first explain my theory that dead parents can do little favors when you need help. In exchange for bearing the weight of being motherless or fatherless, you can ask them for tiny nudges from time to time to let you know if you’re heading in the right direction. Or at least that’s the system I’ve worked out with my dad.

He died in 2013, when he wasn’t himself anymore. After he passed, I made a deal with him—or, I should say, I made a deal with the version of him circa 1994. That was a decade before his dementia started, when I was already enough of an adult and he was still enough of himself to be able to enter into a binding contract.

The terms of our deal are as follows: I can ask him for small, but not trivial, things at key times and he will either deposit an answer into my brain or put some sign in front of me that helps me know what to do. Off limits is asking for overly gratuitous favors like landing a seven-figure publishing deal. Acceptable is asking him which way to turn inside a complicated office park when I’m running late for an important business meeting.

A perfect example is from two years ago, when my husband and I ordered a couch online for my new home office. We were struggling to attach the bottom of the couch to the back while following the diagram—as closely as a diagram from Overstock.com can be followed. I admit I’m not spectacular at assembling furniture, but my husband is. A metal placard-like gizmo on one piece needed to slip inside two metal brackets on the other. We could get one side to attach, but the other side wouldn’t comply. No matter how we coerced its tufted heft, the gizmo remained hopelessly outside the brackets. We gave up in frustration and ate dinner.

I came back later to the unassembled couch. It was soft and exactly the right shade of grey. I imagined myself sitting on it, feet propped up on a footstool, laptop on lap, cup of coffee in hand, writing each morning—just what I’d been doing on the living room couch for months, completely in everyone’s way. This new couch was important enough not to be trivial but not, you know, the lottery. Plus, I wanted to be the smart one who figured it out. “Uh, Dad?” I asked. “Thoughts on this couch?”

I turned the back of the couch upside down because I was desperate to try anything. Then, after a few minutes of staring…oh. Oh! We had been trying to slide the bottom of the couch up, because the diagram showed it that way. But we needed to slide the back down. I called my husband into the office, and his face registered that combination of disbelief (Judi figured this out?) and joy (Judi figured this out!). We each took an end, and the brackets clicked.

I texted my sisters later that night and shared the story. “Bert Ketteler still comes through,” one of my sisters texted back. We all have similar deals with him.

Though I have wanted to ask for signs or help regarding bigger things, I’m always worried about violating the deal by being too greedy. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s less about asking and more about paying attention.

This spring, I was noodling around in a box of ephemera I’d been collecting mostly from flea markets, but also from my dad’s things, looking for interesting pieces I could use in a mixed media collage. The year before, my sisters and I had found a bunch of his beat-up coins from around the world as well as envelopes full of what looked to be old German paper money. At the time, I told them I was going to take it all to someone I knew who collected coins (a work colleague of a friend) to evaluate potential worth. I had forgotten. Now, seeing the money again in the box, I texted my friend about it. He connected me with Geoff the numismatist, and he and I set up a time for me to come by his work later that week.

Once there, I dumped all the money onto the art table in Geoff’s office. He separated the currency into piles and explained what each was. None of the coins would likely fetch more than a few dollars (most were just worth the silver), but he picked up a piece of the paper money. Worn slightly around the edges, it was about the size of a standard check and looked like a cross between Monopoly money and something my 7-year-old daughter might create. He asked if I knew what it was. “Old German money, probably from the 1950s?” I responded. My dad was drafted into the Army in 1952 but was sent to Germany instead of Korea, and he’d picked up little German artifacts while there.

“You’re partially right. But it’s older than that. See this?” He pointed to where it said einhundert millionen. “That means 100 million. This is German inflation currency from the 1920s.”

My dad’s dinner table lectures came back to me, about how Germany was forced to pay reparations after World War I. Countries issued protective tariffs on German goods as a further punishment. The country’s economy collapsed, leaving their money worthless—so they just printed more, making it even more worthless. What a colossal mistake it was that we punished them like that, my dad would say, because it gave rise to a monster and another war.

Geoff and I did a quick search on eBay and found similar pieces of inflation currency selling for pennies. “It may not be worth much, but it’s very cool,” he said. I decided to keep it, figuring it was Pinterest-worthy craft material if nothing else.

On the car ride home from meeting with Geoff, I kept hearing my dad say, “We never should have done that. You shouldn’t kick somebody when they’re down.” I had a feeling what he was trying to tell me. I wanted to listen, but in truth my reaction was more like That’s easy for you to say. You’re dead.

About a year ago, my 10-year-old son Maxx was diagnosed with ADHD. I was relieved, because at last there was something resembling an answer as to why he behaved so impulsively and was always distracted and why threats of taking everything away if he didn’t stop it right now! yielded so little. A few hours of researching ADHD clued me in that I’d been doing a lot wrong as a parent.

I read books about ADHD, and we took a parenting class. We put Maxx on medication and instituted a reward system to tackle problem behaviors. Our son’s life at school dramatically improved, and our chaotic mornings and evenings smoothed out. The expert advice and training helped with measurable things related to the clock or completing a task, but not with embarrassing impulsive public behavior. I struggled. And I chastised. A lot.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for behaving that way?” I said to Maxx after leaving the library one evening a few months ago. He had been loud, disruptive, and inappropriate, and I was embarrassed. “Yes,” he said, not with tears but with a kind of resignation.

“Then why do you act that way?” We were in the car now, and I could feel my frustration deepening. He was silent in the back seat. “Why? I want to know!”

“I don’t know, OK? I don’t know!”

“When we get home, you can just think about it until you have an answer,” I said coolly, wanting him to feel as bad as I felt. “Fine!” he said with sarcasm that was clearly masking defeat.

At home, I went into my office to read a new book on mixed media collages. Before I could even sit down—on the grey couch, if you’re wondering—I saw the stack of inflation currency on my desk. “Right,” I said to my dad. “I know, dude, OK?” I was kicking my son when he was down.

This thought had been forming in me for months, ever since I first started to understand the ADHD brain. What I hadn’t connected until my dad kept putting the German inflation currency in front of my face was how much I wanted others to pay for disappointing me. How much I held on to indignation as some protective tariff to keep my ego safe. But I didn’t want it to lead to a war.

There was no overnight miracle change in how I dealt with Maxx. That would have violated the deal. It was more like I had an extra second each day to think before I reached for indignation, until one day I had a full minute, which was a nice chunk of time to redirect myself to a better emotion, like compassion. Those seconds and minutes to think before I kick are really important.

One day a few weeks ago, I was struggling hard, so I pinned a piece of the inflation currency up on my bulletin board. When I look at it, I like to think about my dad wandering through a market in Germany in 1952 and spotting an envelope full of pale purple and green einhundert millionen marks. “Bert, what do you want with that useless old money?” his Army buddy probably asked him.

Maybe my dad liked the colors of the paper money, or maybe it was posterity that moved him to buy it. Or maybe he had a little deal worked out with his own deceased father and, when he felt that familiar nudge, he smiled and bought the worthless money without knowing why.

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