Journalcalling #12 – My Second Dad Guided Me Through Adulthood

Journalcalling   •   March 17, 2021

Bob Thompson was my hero. I was so happy to meet him — he was handsome with his brown hair and blue eyes, and he seemed so very kind — a perfect guy for my mom to be dating, and as it turned out, a father for me and my two brothers.

In 1982, my mom and Bob were matched up by a priest at the church they both attended. With them in mind, he started a widower’s group precisely so they could meet. The attraction was immediate and after their first meeting, my mom called Bob and invited him over for a slice of her renowned apple pie. They were married for 38 years. 

After having both lost their spouses way too young, they had each continued to raise their three children alone — my mom for ten years and Bob for two. When the six of us came together — ages 18 to 23 — we were far from the Brady Bunch, but over time embraced each other to become a loving and supportive blended family.

Bob took a keen interest in each of us. When we would come into the house, he urged us to sit with him so he could catch up on our lives. He was a wonderful listener and always had something positive and affirming to say.

He arrived in my life 10 years after my father had died, and with his gentle presence, helped to steer me through my early 20s all the way to 60. We quietly bonded over the losses we had separately suffered in February of 1973. My dad passed away at age 37 on Feb. 19th; his daughter Jodi died at 13 in his arms on Feb. 18th. For Bob, I was a new, oldest daughter. For me, he became a father that gave me back some self-confidence that had seeped away.

He laughed appreciatively at my quirky takes on life, and often nodded and said, “exactly” when I expressed a thought he agreed with. When I got a little bit crass, he would quietly say, “come on, now,” and I knew, okay, too much. I loved his lighthearted chuckle.

He was there with my mom to enthusiastically celebrate the degree I earned in journalism at 25. Out for dinner in Boston, he reached in his coat pocket and slipped me a slim new tape recorder to assist with my interviews. He was proud of me, he said, and he always wanted to hear about my work.

Bob was a wise, big-hearted grampa to my two sons and helped me nudge them along through their childhoods and into adulthood. He delighted in cheering them on at lacrosse and soccer fields even when they ventured out of position to pick dandelions. And although they threw up in the back seat of his immaculate car and sometimes cried in the night for their parents, he still happily took them home for week-long stays with pizza at the beach and trips to museums. 

He and my mom hosted Christmas Eve dinners and lobster bakes for us in their backyard. Splashing in the pool with his grandchildren, he would joyfully lift them onto oversized animal floats, and scold them when they brazenly balanced on the metal edge of the pool prepared to cannonball in, insisting they “get down from there,” and be more cautious. 

Bob was the one I called when I wanted to buy a 60-year-old cape on the edge of a wide river. On a freezing winter day, he inspected it carefully and made a lengthy list of needed repairs. He would later joke that I never read the list and bought the place anyway thinking I could hold it together by slapping on layers of paint. Bob knew better, so on dozens of weekends, he drove the three plus hours from Connecticut to Maine to install insulation against the whipping winds and new doors. He replaced outdated lighting fixtures with ceiling fans and redid the entire bathroom.

He also offered me useful everyday advice like: to avoid a fire, always unplug small appliances when not in use, and when I got my first eyeglasses, the best way to wash and dry them. It drove him crazy that I usually didn’t lock my house or car, but suddenly I am remembering to do both.

A talented woodworker, he accented our home with handcrafted furniture and ride-on toys for his grandchildren that he made in his basement workshop — tables, cabinets, a rockinghorse, and a bright red wagon with tall, slatted sides.

He was generous with his time and volunteered for community events even when it meant tacking up holiday greens and stringing lights downtown with my mom and her Garden Club and Historical Society crews. During summer months, he carted jugs of water to help keep the planters of petunias blooming on Main Street.

Bob went to work Monday through Friday until he was 83. As the maintenance supervisor at Guilford Housing Authority, he patiently took care of the persistent needs of the senior residents who lived there, and they adored him. They would call at all hours with serious and, at times, not-so-serious requests — to remove a parade of ants on the sidewalk, for example, or to get inside a locked apartment at 9 p.m. 

Bob was proud of his home and took meticulous care of 22 Janes Lane, taking apart and fixing everything that needed fixing — from the appliances to plumbing and electricity — my mom never had to call a repairman. Every Sunday, he made a big pot of soup from scratch and he was famous with his children and grandchildren for the piles of sweet French Toast he made with Challah bread.

On the back of the house, he built a room full of light where he and mom enjoyed the view of their gardens and watching the colorful birds fly into the lush wildlife habitat in their yard. Recently, he worked hard at physical therapy to be able to wheel himself to the table in the sunroom for meals and games of Rummicube.

He loved to travel, and with my mom planning every detail, they cruised the world touring countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia and visiting all 50 states. They also took their children and grandchildren on vacations with them to Cape Cod, Disneyworld, Hilton Head, the Berkshires, Yosemite and Tahoe. When a grandchild turned 10, they drove him or her on a solo trip to Washington, D.C. where they toured every monument and historical government building. 

Right until the end, Bob always wanted to know when the next trip was. He was a man who lived with faith and hope. In the last month of his life, when he was struggling with his health, he renewed his driver’s license for six years planning to visit my home and inspect the latest renovations. 

At the end, he showed us how to let go with grace and gratitude. At the hospital, in his last days and even hours before he died, he told my mom, his children and his grandchildren — in person and by phone — how much he loved us, how proud he was of us, and how much our love had meant to him.

Sitting beside his bed, I joked with him and fished for one last bit of this great man’s  approval. “I couldn’t have been that good,” I said. I thought he would say, “yes, yes, you were.” Instead he paused and looked at me with those blue eyes and said, “Well, you could have picked up the phone more.” 

He knew I could take it. We laughed a little and smiled at each other a last time– my dad, still teaching me.