You know the expression, "You can take the boy out of the small town, but you can't take the small town out of the boy?" That was Sylvester Joseph Patyk, a.k.a. our Dad, or Pat, or Syl, or Sal, or "“ as he was known growing up in that small town of Wakefield, Michigan "“ Sally.
My Dad never met a stranger. He could and would talk to anybody in exactly the same unaffected way. He embodied many classic "small town values": honesty, modesty, hard work, helpfulness, optimism, devotion to faith and flag and family. He possessed a belief in the goodness of man that could seem naÃ¯ve if you didn't know him and how genuinely he believed it. He was a salt-of-the-earth, meat-and-potatoes, have-a-beer kind of guy.
Jimmy Stewart would have played him in a movie version of his life. (Same lanky build, with a genuine aw-shucks manner.) Add a Cary Grant chin cleft, Lorne Greene eyebrows -- the kind that stayed jet black long after his hair went grey-- and a dash of Don Knotts' loveable goofiness.
His life seemed scripted by Frank Capra, whose movie "It's a Wonderful Life" did star Jimmy Stewart. Dad's Wakefield boyhood came complete with three adoring sisters, a dog named Dandy, a Brownie camera, a job at a popcorn (which he always pronounced "pupcorn") wagon, and even a stint as drum major in the high school marching band.
Despite growing up in the gorgeous UP, Dad was neither hunter nor fisherman, skier not sailor. In his last months, he liked to retell the story of how his heart sank when his Uncle Martin stopped by his house for him -- "We go fish" -- outings during which Dad had to dig the bait, haul the rowboat, row the rowboat, bait the hook, and gut the catch. The distaste was still fresh on his face in every retelling!
No, he loved cars. Working at Cloon's Garage and pumping 15-cent gas at his dad's station, it was a romance that shaped his career: Studying engineering at Michigan Tech University, a World War Two stint in the Army Air Corps as a plane mechanic, and then heading to the big city 600 miles from home, Detroit, Automobile Capital of the U.S., for a job as a test driver and mechanical engineer.
Dad spent his entire career at General Motors, spanning the era of "as GM goes, so goes the nation." I never quite understood his job "“ something to do with catalytic converters and slide rules. I know he sure loved it when pocket calculators came along. Dad was a famously early adapter of most new gadgets: stereos, cassette players, video cameras, CB radios, "car phones," tiny TVs, DVDs, on up to a computer when he was in his 70s and 80s. (And he was sooooo patient, he never even minded dial-up!) A distinction of his GM career is that he was the longest continuous member of the GM bowling league. When, two years ago, we cleaned out the house where he and Mom had lived since 1965, Paul and I found neat stacks of notebooks recording his bowling scores, going back to the 1950s.
Bowling, golfing, the Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Red Wings, the Iowa Hawkeyes, Olympic athletes, the Cousino High School Patriots -- Dad loved sports as much as cars.
The #1 love of his life, though, was his wife Eleanore. My parents met through the Detroit News Hikers Club. Young singles would meet to traipse through woods and fields, then go dancing and drinking at a tavern afterwards. What a concept! Since they did this in all seasons, it must be where Dad got his favorite expression, "Cold hands, warm heart."
Married in 1950, my parents lived a happy postwar cliché, with a tract house in the suburbs and five baby boomer kids. (Well, technically Paul missed the 1946-64 baby boom by a hair, but he's always been lumped with the rest of us, and always will be.)
Dad worked. Mom kept house. Dad mowed the lawn. Mom cooked "“ except on Sundays, when Dad made bacon and eggs after church to the sound of polka music or while singing his mangled nursery rhymes. ("Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the kings horses and all the kings men"¦ate scrambled eggs for breakfast again!") My brother John recently pointed out that he didn't know about plumbers or electricians or car repair shops until he was a grown-up, because we never used these services. If something was broken "“ dishwasher, station wagon, Christmas tree lights, mom's favorite platter, the hinge on your glasses -- Dad fixed it.
Our growing-up years could have been a wholesome 60s and 70s sitcom "“ complete with laugh track, since Dad was pretty funny. "Act natural!" he'd say when he sprang on you with his ever-present camera"¦and then fiddled so long with the lenses and settings that the spontaneous smile on your face froze -- or you cracked up. Every Father's Day, we actually believed he was thrilled to get the same tie, box of chocolate-covered cherries, golf tees, and Old Spice soap-on-a-rope: "Gee! Just what I wanted!"
He had a serious side, too, of course, especially when it came to the many charitable activities of the Knights of Columbus. He worked the fish fries and pancake breakfasts, served in the rosary brigade, sold Tootsie rolls to benefit handicapped children and always got my teetotaler Gram to buy fundraiser tickets to "a wheelbarrow full of cheer." (What a great euphemism.) No wonder he was Knight of the Year one year, and the head of the Family of the Year.
A special point of pride was his five kids' athletic prowess: My older brother John making All-State basketball and earning a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, my younger brother Paul founding a volleyball team at Michigan State University. But also my younger sister Patti's love of golf, a game dad taught her, and my older sister Pamela's love of tennis, the game he taught her. He was also proud of Pam's lifelong modern dance career (even if he did offer to buy her barefoot troupe shoes every time he saw a performance). Okay, I should have said his four kids' athletic prowess "“ he let me keep my nose in a book. Though I did once "“ once -- get Dad to walk-jog the three miles around Sunday Lake in Wakefield with me. Usually he offered to follow me in the car and track the mileage on the odometer.
Dad liked to say he "saved up" his athletic skill for his kids. Later he'd also say he saved his musical talent "“ limited to a high school "C-melody sax with leaky keys" -- for his 14 grandkids.
How he loved being "Grandpa." So many babies to take pictures and videos of!
It was his baby, Paul, and Paul's wife Laura "“ the daughter named Laura my mother always wanted "“ who came to Dad's rescue on the evening of Mom's funeral two years ago next month. The six of us sat around our parents' bedroom while a houseful of guests still milled around below, worried about what to do about Dad, who no longer drove and clearly couldn't live alone without Mom's gentle guidance and protection (or, as some would call it, "Mom's covering for him"). But we all lived in different states.
When Paul and Laura volunteered to take Dad in, they gave his life a truly grand finale. "We could never move, it would kill your father," Mom used to say when we'd suggest they retire in the South. Ironically, the move seemed to pep Dad up in spite of his dementia, his renal tumor, and other health issues. "Strong like bull!" he'd tell doctors. He joined the Swinging Seniors bowling team. (He bowled a 189 just this past spring!) He adored being around his Carolina grandkids. He and Priscilla, the youngest, had a standing polka date at bedtime. He brightened for outings to mass or Scouts or for meals with John, secretly fed the dogs Coco and Phoebe, and loved to watch "Wife Swap" with his namesake, Sylvester the cat. And thanks to his friend Mary Lou, a Michigan angel in North Carolina, he had someone new to teach cribbage to. Moving to Indian Trail gave him a new location to etch on the back of his trusty cribbage board "“ the one that he'd carried all over the world, from Wakefield to Houghton to Korea, Japan, so many states, and so many cruise ports of call.
The move didn't kill him. The cancer did, and maybe the stress of life without his beloved wife of 57 years. The day she died, almost exactly one year and 11 months ago, Mom talked about getting on a plane. "You're on a later flight," she told Dad. The week before he died, Dad began talking incessantly about fixing a flat tire, finding a part, needing his wallet for his driver's license. Mom flew, and Dad went by car. Typical. We're all pretty sure that she flew back down to the first rest stop to meet him "“ because that's as far as he liked to drive on long trips, before handing over the wheel to her.
Unlike Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," Dad did leave his small town, though he returned there every year for family visits, class reunions, and Fourth of July Crackerjack. He may have left Wakefield, but he recreated its small town vibe right wherever he was: tight circle of family and friends, all the time in the world for the people and things he loved best.
At his memorial mass at his longtime church in Warren, Michigan, Father Roman noted that St. Sylvester's saint's day is December 31, a festive day. Perfect for this happy man! For Dad also loved K of C dances at "the club," playing 65 with his card club, jitterbugging with Pam on cruises, family barbecues, and yes, New Year's Eve parties. He always loved music, from Buck Owens to Frankie Yankovic. (Though he famously predicted to my sister Pam that the Beatles "noise" would never last.) I can almost hear him now, whistling Big Band tunes as he fixes St. Peter's celestial motorcoach. Can't you see him trying to avoid stepping on Mom's toes as they dance though the clouds to his favorite song, the Blue Skirt Waltz?
"You were the beautiful lady in blue,
I was in heaven just dancing with you"¦
Come back, Blue Lady come back, don't be blue any more."
No one was ever better prepared than Sylvester Patyk to find heaven one big polka party, one big small town.