Norm: My postwar dad – #atozchallenge

Norm: My post-war dad. Fourteenth of twenty-six posts in the April 2017 Blogging From A to Z Challenge on the theme “Whispering Chimneys: My Altamont childhood” — where my genealogy journey began. Wish me luck — I’m more than halfway there!

Norm — my postwar dad — was twenty-six when we moved to Whispering Chimneys in 1950.

A Navy veteran of WW II, he was also an electrical engineering graduate of Clarkson College in Potsdam, N.Y — which is where he met my mom.

Our maternal grandparents lived on the farm with us — and the original plan was for all the adults to “go into business together.”

Gramps opened his machine shop out in the barn and Boom, my grandmother, started selling antiques and collectibles from her roadside store. My mom’s job then was raising us children.

Dad and me on the running board of our maroon Dodge, circa 1952. Photo: Peg (Laurence) Charboneau

A job at GE

And my dad? He became the sole family member with an outside job.

He went to work as an engineer at the General Electric company in Schenectady, N.Y. — a giant multi-factory complex left me awestruck whenever we drove by it.

Yet my early memories of Dad are from when he was home — puttering around doing household repairs, trying to eke a garden out of impossible soil, or getting behind the wheel of our maroon Dodge for family outings.

Gardening fiasco

After he retired, Dad wrote an essay about his youthful aspirations for the farm and how they fell short. So I’ll let him tell part of the story. (It’s written in third person, with “they” referring to our family.)

They could have beautiful gardens of flowers and vegetables, living off the land like the pioneers. They had a farmer plow up an acre to grow the tomatoes, carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, and beans.

What the heck? My brother Mark, 2, watches Dad try to grow vegetables in impossible soil. In the distance is the working farm of the Mennonite family next door. Photo: Rita Mary Laurence

Then they discovered the soil was clay, rain turning it to mud, which built up on the shoes an inch thick. Then the sun baked it to brick hardness with big cracks running through the rows of plants.

The poor carrots and beets could not penetrate more than two inches. The tomatoes did well but became the home of the green tomato worms, munching so loudly they could be located by sound.

Giving chickens a go

Dad gave gardening one last shot — planting strawberries in a far field above a creek behind our house — then abandoned the idea and moved on to a new plan.

Next project was raising chickens for eggs and meat. The barns provided a convenient location even having mangers for nests. The family kept business records, tabulating the cost of chicks, feed, and floor shavings.

They counted the eggs produced and realized that they could buy eggs for the same money at the local market. They did have the chickens to eat, but this meant the revolting task of killing the birds, plucking the feathers and eviscerating. Ugh!

Ugh is right. Well into my adult life, I could not eat chicken skin because it brought back memories of plucking wet feathers off freshly-killed chickens when I was little.

Press coverage of Dad’s 1956-57 stint on the Guilderland, N.Y. School Board (last paragraph). I recently found this Schenectady Gazette article while doing newspaper research. Source:

Life lesson: Try new things

Thus, project by project, Dad gradually moved away from the hope of small farming and embraced his new engineering career.

He also became active in the local community — even serving on the School Board. I was pleased to discover this tidbit in the April 12, 1957 issue of the Schenectady Gazette.

And Dad continued to embark on new projects throughout his life. He even self-published a mystery novel and started a blog when he was an octogenarian — which I wrote about in Norm’s eightieth birthday.

Dad’s can-do willingness to try new things has inspired me since I was little. He died five years ago today and I still miss him.

Up nextOut on the porch: Destination or state of mind? Please stop back!

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14 thoughts on “Norm: My postwar dad – #atozchallenge”

  1. This is such a beautiful tribute to Norm, Molly–wonderful. I loved his descriptions and those photos are precious! I well remember the tomatoes from the garden next to my aunt’s home in Princeton that our neighbor shared with me–picked and then–right into the mouth–warm and wonderful. Your Dad set a good example for me–embracing writing at age 80! Okay–onward…thanks for this!

    1. Thanks, Jane. It’s fun to write about my dad as a young man in his twenties when my other posts about him have covered his retirement years. And yes, you can keep writing and doing new projects at a very advanced age! He set an example for us all 🙂

  2. Molly,
    Looks like you got some of your writing skills from your Dad. I can see while you added the parts he wrote about the garden. We were lucky to have fertile soil that was great for growing vegetables. My favourite carrots are still the ones Dad grew. It’s a shame that you cannot get these varieties today.
    I love the photo on the running board!!!
    Regards Fran

    A to Z Theme: Sharing Family History via #GenealogyPhotoADay By Fran from TravelGenee Blog

    1. You were fortunate to have better soil 🙂 We have some heirloom carrot varieties at our farmers markets here — but there’s still no taste like fresh home grown produce if the soil is good! This essay of Dad’s was never published, so it’s a pleasure to get his writing out in the world again. Thanks for you visit and comment.

  3. I love how your dad started writing after retirement, which must have been wonderful for you to have the opportunity to read his account of things. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. This was a beautiful tribute to him.

    1. Yes, it was great to read his work — especially because his novel was set in a fictional version of his hometown and featured characters modeled on adults from his youth, including my paternal grandparents and uncles.

  4. Spotted “genealogy” first thing and knew I’d found an interesting blog site to visit for #AtoZChallenge. I’ve been doing research since about 1998.
    Very interesting to hear your dad published a book in his 8th decade. So ambitious. My folks spent many years on various projects also, mink ranch, constructing houses, raising chickens to sell (I helped deliver the orders at a very young age!)
    Best of luck with your ongoing research.
    Food For Thought N is for Nachos with Flat Stanley Rose

    1. Welcome, and thanks for stopping by. It’s a bit hard finding fellow genealogists doing the A to Z Challenge. Nevertheless, we seem to be gravitating to each other. Will stop by you blog as well!

      My dad always wanted to publish a book, and went back and forth on the idea in his early retirement, wondering if he had enough time to do it. When self-publishing came along, he jumped at the chance. And I’m so glad he did!

  5. I wonder if he’d taken a smaller space for the garden and plowed a lot of manure and organic stuff into it, if he might not have eventually had a good family size garden. Worked for me with our pure sand soil in Michigan.
    In the 1980s my husband and I and our kids had 5 acres with goats, chickens and once a hog. The chickens worked out ok, but I’ve thought since that we could have saved a lot of wear and tear and money if we’d just bought a couple of gallons of milk every week. Couldn’t replace the memories though.

    Finding Eliza

    1. Your garden remedy may have worked — after all, the Mennonite family next door to us had a large working farm on the same soil. But I think Dad was really cut out more for the career he pursued than the life of a weekend farmer 🙂 Interesting to hear about your Michigan farm. The rural life does create wonderful memories!

  6. Sorry about your father — your love for him comes through loud and clear. I hate to say this, but I like to know other people have trouble growing a garden sometimes, as I do not have a green thumb. Seems like your dad had a great reason, though. I know my Georgia clay can be the worst!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. My dad did eventually have a couple of successful gardens at the suburban home where he retired — and where he finally had time and good enough soil to do it right. A vegetable garden in his side yard, and wonderful spreads of flowers alongside and in front of the house, and down by the road. The flower gardens were so well-tended, they were added to a community garden tour!

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