Dust In My Coffee

Loving my life as a woman in agriculture one sip at a time

My dad had large hands.  He told me they were good for milking cows.  Every time my dad talked about his childhood he spoke with fondness about life on the farm and how his big hands were good for milking cows.  Perhaps my own love for farming grew through those stories or maybe it’s just in my DNA.  I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot this week as I recall his passing nearly two years ago and how his hands and heart shaped my life.

babyJoan dad

My dad carried this photo of me in his wallet for many years.

Dad was a hard worker.  He was always working with his hands from his early days as a mechanic to running a business repairing drywall tools.  From overhauling diesel motors to putting tiny screws in repaired tapers, rollers and finishers, dad’s rough and calloused hands worked diligently to get the job done.


We often teased dad about his office.  He told us he knew where everything was.  Notice the Rolodex of contacts he had!

There were eight of us in our family.  I am the oldest of six kids and we were a very active bunch.  One of my favorite family activities was going to the annual Father’s Day picnic held every summer by my mom’s side of the family.  We traveled to parks at different locations all over Nebraska.  Our drive home often added more excitement when one of us six kids would holler out about the steam rolling out from under the hood of the station wagon.   Fortunately, dad could repair broken hoses and once used some scrap barbed wire to tie up an exhaust pipe.  Dad’s hands were known to fix about anything to the point of being a type of MacGyver with duct tape for every household emergencies.


This is a typical Father’s Day picnic with dad carrying a plate and tables covered with food.

I remember my dad’s hands on the steering wheel when he taught me to drive.  One afternoon I was driving the family car and the brakes went out.  I looked quickly to the right and to the left as I approached a busy intersection.  Seeing no traffic I allowed myself to coast right through.   Dad must have been daydreaming as he suddenly put his hand on the wheel, looked quickly both directions and allowed me to continue driving.  If I wouldn’t have known what to do I am certain dad would have cranked the steering wheel whatever way would have helped us.  The brakes were repaired.

Dad did very little cooking when I was growing up and I never heard him complain about any of mom’s cooking.  One job dad had was carving the turkey and I can picture him standing in the corner of the kitchen with the electric knife trimming away all the white meat and saving the bones for my husband, Steve, to clean up later.  Dad also helped to peel large amounts of potatoes for holiday gatherings.  I can see him standing at the sink with his large hands holding the peeler in one hand and a potato in the other.


Sometimes my dad would order a hamburger late at night from a bar/lounge not far from where we lived.  The burgers were very large, wrapped in a wax paper covering and always included a dill pickle spear.   I can see my dad sitting at the end of the table with that hamburger still looking big in his large hands.  I can still smell those burgers.

My dad was a prayer warrior.  I remember seeing him kneeling by his bed with his arms stretched out and hands folded as he said his prayers.  Dad had very arthritic hips but it never stopped him from kneeling by his bed or during mass.  Dad would hold the rosary in his hand teasing my mom and I that he had already rounded the bend (started the first mystery) while we were still in the first few beads of prayers.

clem rosary

Alzheimer’s did not take away my dads ability to pray.  We also noticed he would also make the sign of the cross before he would eat while living in skilled care.

There are numerous memories of watching my dad draw pictures of items he was going to build.  Dad had lots of ideas and dreams.  A pencil always looked so small in his hands yet he could draw the finest details of a bus converted into a motor home.   I’m not sure if my siblings were excited about seeing those dreams come true.  The motor home didn’t happen but we did have a really cool blue conversion van that took us on a vacation to Montana one summer.

Dad loved kids.  I don’t remember getting coddled as much as our children, nieces and nephews did.  At about 5 months of age each of the grandchildren became the focus of my dad’s entertainment.  He would hold them in his big hands and make faces, roll them up into a ball and even place them into boxes, baskets or whatever object he could find to get them to giggle or squeal.


Dad is holding two of his granddaughters, Emily and Amy.

When our children became old enough to value money he would give them .75 for every fifty cent piece they brought him.  Our son, Scott, learned he could get quite a few from the bank and really make a haul.  Dad would continually find ways to interact with the kids eventually moving into playing Phase 10 into the wee hours of the night.


We made dad a book for his birthday with pictures from his childhood and all of our family members to help him remember us.  His sister, Stella, reminisces with him.

Dad found it much easier to show affection to the grandchildren than to my siblings and I.  Somehow I always knew he loved me even though he didn’t say it.  Perhaps it was the ease we had talking about the farm, religion and the kids that gave me the sense he loved me.  The conversation that continues to stick in my throat occurred on the last night he had in his home.  I was at one end of the table getting some photos downloaded to a photo center for his new room at an Alzheimer care center.  Dad was at the other end of the table eating supper.  My mom brushed past him and he mentioned something about Joan.  I looked up and asked “Who is Joan?”  Dad looked across the table at me and simply replied “Don’t you know who you are?”  It still brings tears to my eyes knowing how Alzheimer’s likes to toy with the emotions of a caregiver.  I was taking him from his home the next day without his knowledge and he still had some idea of who I was.



Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease.  What disease isn’t?  There is suffering that comes with each disease and our family did the best we could to help our parents and one another through the phases.  We were not prepared for the final phase.

The last trips to visit my dad found him confined to a wheelchair, not eating much and usually looking down at his hands.  I would bend down and peer up at him to get him to smile and look up at me while encouraging him to eat his supper.  Mom was still getting her strength back after fighting breast cancer when she made what would be her last visit to see my dad.

mom dad wood river

My mom gives dad some extra comfort with a warm blanket as he adjusts to his new home.

It was the middle of the day.  Dad was in bed which was very odd for him and he was not responsive.  Mom asked the staff without much success for help.  Three of us live within 150 miles of my folks and two of us were out of state.  My aunt and sister-in-law assisted mom with calling the doctor who then directed a rescue unit to get my dad and bring him to the hospital.

All of my siblings, family and extended family members were caught off guard.  The phone call that night sent us all into a tail spin as we were told dad was nearly gone and most likely wouldn’t make it through the night.   One sister was able to be with my mom as they sat with dad through the night.  Another sister and I made emergency travel plans to get back while three other siblings were working on their travel plans, too.

Our family including siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles spent several days around the clock with my dad as doctors continued to anticipate his passing at any moment.  Dad spent his final days on the hospice floor of the VA Hospital in Grand Island receiving five star care from the staff.  The staff kept dad comfortable and clean while we sang, prayed, told stories, read scripture, cried and laughed.  Dad gifted us one last time with some very special moments together.  As we said our good-byes we held our daddy’s hands one last time.

joan dad hands

I will love you forever, I will love you always.

by Holly Dunn
I remember daddy’s hands folded silently in prayer
And reachin’ out to hold me, when I had a nightmare
You could read quite a story in the callous’ and lines
Years of work and worry had left their mark behind
I remember daddy’s hands how they held my mama tight
And patted my back for something done right
There are things that I’d forgotten that I loved about the man
But I’ll always remember the love in daddy’s hands
Daddy’s hands were soft and kind when I was cryin’
Daddy’s hands were hard as steel when I’d done wrong
Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle but I’ve come to understand
There was always love in daddy’s hands
I remember daddy’s hands workin’ ’til they bled
Sacrificed unselfishly just to keep us all fed
If I could do things over, I’d live my life again
And never take for granted the love in daddy’s hands
Daddy’s hands were soft and kind when I was cryin’
Daddy’s hands were hard as steel when I’d done wrong
Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle but I’ve come to understand
There was always love in daddy’s hands
Daddy’s hands were soft and kind when I was cryin’
Daddy’s hands were hard as steel when I’d done wrong
Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle but I’ve come to understand
There was always love in daddy’s hands




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