Worthy of being ‘givin’ the business
The first opportunity to meet my future father-in-law came on this date 21 years ago. Rita invited me to join her, her sisters, parents and other family for Thanksgiving. I was worried about meeting her father. Stories shared earlier about him were reminiscent of my own father, a rather gruff, no-nonsense sort of fellow. It wasn’t clear what we might find in common to talk about, he being a cattle rancher and all. I had no knowledge of branding, dehorning, castrating calves or baling alfalfa and hay. I was also sure my subject matter would be equally unfamiliar to him. It seemed wise to drive my old Chevy to Bismarck that Thanksgiving Day. Surely we could talk about that.
Rita, her mother and two sisters ran into problems preparing the turkey and fixings. As a result, dinner wasn’t ready until 3:00 that afternoon. “You girls fooled around getting dinner on the table,” he bellyached. “I’m not coming in. I’ve got cattle to take care of,” he said before hanging up the phone. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more than cattle keeping him away. Maybe he wasn’t particularly anxious to meet me.
It was a month later when Rita suggested I drive to Bismarck again to meet her dad. “Happy hour on the farm is at 4:00 PM,” she explained this time. “Peter’s pals show up about that time to chew the fat over a cocktail. I’ll introduce you then.”
When the day came, Rita walked me out to Peter’s shop, where he and four neighbors sat in a circle talking about whatever ranchers and farmers normally talk about. Rita introduced me. I shook hands with Peter and the rest before sitting in the hot-seat prepared for me. Rita vanished.
“Want something to drink?” Peter grumbled, sounding more annoyed than welcoming. He offered his favorite first when asked about options. “Lord Calvert and Coke, maybe a beer if we have any.”
Although I didn’t drink hard liquor, I thought it wise to have what Peter was having. “Whiskey-Coke sounds good,” I told him.
As conversation resumed between Peter and his pals, I sipped slowly, hoping for an opening where I could chime in. Talk moved between livestock, field work or neighbors who weren’t there to defend themselves. There seemed nothing I could say that might fit into the discussion.
When a brief pause came in the banter, Peter looked directly at me and said, “I don’t know what kind of interest you have in one of my daughters, but I’ll tell you this: they change husbands more often than I change underwear!”
Peter passed away in the fall of 2011, in part due to stresses placed on his cattle operation by the Missouri River flood. After I married Rita, he was always kind and pleasant to me. Too much so, it sometimes seemed. Other men in his circle were relentlessly razzed about one petty thing or another. You might say Peter showed he cared for those around him by pretending they greatly annoyed him somehow. That day was my first inkling I might be worthy of Peter giving me the business like he did with others.
The night before his funeral, Rita’s mother insisted I serve as emcee at Peter’s wake, pooh-poohing any claim that as a Presbyterian, I wasn’t the right choice for a traditional Catholic gathering. She requested I tell a story about Peter near the end of the wake that might trigger others to recall and tell their own stories. I told what happened at our first meeting in 2002. This time, I shared the thought that came to me just after he told about his daughters and frequency of changing underwear. “I didn’t know if he was trying to warn me about Rita, or about himself,” I added.
Perhaps Peter was somewhere nearby to hear my comment that day. If so, there’s a better-than-even chance he would be “givin’ me the business” now for sharing what happened back then – as only he could do.