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My dad, Carl Gunnar Stenman, aka “Boom”

Happy Father’s Day, dads!

The role of dad has undergone remarkable changes since I was a girl in the 1960s—changes for the better, in my opinion. Back then, the dad’s role was to be the head of the house—a breadwinner who had the final say in any family disputes or debates, and a (hopefully!) benevolent disciplinarian when the big guns were needed. He was the big dog—the man—and he typically spent one-quarter of the time with his kids than did his 1960s wife.[i] In 1968, 85% of children lived in a family with two married parents,[ii] with the dad serving as the sole breadwinner in 47% of them (1970).[iii] In 2016, dads put in about triple the time on child care that they did in 1965.[iv]

The reach of an involved dad stretches beyond affecting the individual and family, to impacting society at large. According to Senior Program Manager, Bevone Ritchie, MS, at the Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade County, the involvement of fathers and father figures are key to a child’s development for a variety of reasons, among them:[v]

  • Kids are likely to be healthier. The benefits resulting from dads being involved before, during, and after a child’s birth include having more prenatal and postnatal healthcare visits, as well as a higher likelihood that parents will seek out immunizations and care for childhood illnesses.  
  • Kids tend to be more prepared for school, do better in school, and are more likely to achieve higher levels of career and economic success. Further, boys whose dads actively participate in their care have lower school delinquency rates.
  • Kids get to see the world through the eyes of both a mom/mother figure and a dad/father figure. These multiple lenses help kids to become more well rounded.
  • Kids are more prone to talking earlier and are more verbally expressive, helping them to become better communicators.
  • Kids are more apt to have a can-do attitude, be tougher (in a good way) and are better able to deal with stress. They also have less fear, more self-direction, and less psychological distress.
  • Kids are more likely to play better with others. In fact, playful and affectionate interaction with a positive male role model has been shown to predict a child’s overall social-emotional involvement with people.
  • Kids grow up to be strong men and women. For boys, a dad is the first standard of masculinity—they learn emotional maturity, and what is expected of them as they grow into being men. Girls who have a close bond with their dads often have more positive self-images, tend to be more ambitious in their careers, and have higher levels of self-esteem.

Parenting partners also benefit from the presence of a strong male role model because with their support, the workload of parenting and home-related matters should be lighter.

And with that, I want to thank the dads/father figures in my life, including my husband, Mike; his dad, Ken; and our son-in-law, Brian. You have all been so important to me. Mike and Brian—you are love, strength, and entertainment:) in our family life. That said, in the interest of this post’s length, I will leave you with that message, and focus on… 

My dad, Carl, aka, “Boom”

My dad, “Carl Gunnar,” was 48 when I was born. He became known to the three of us kids as “Boom,” which was short for “Boomer.” Neither my brother nor I can remember where the nickname came from (our sister lost her battle with breast cancer several years ago), but just as calling my mom, “Mom,” became too formal sounding, calling my dad, “Dad” only seemed to fit when we were having a very serious discussion. My dad was extaordinarily proud of his heritage—he was a first-generation Swede—and was a tall, strong man who often had a loud voice when he really got going in a conversation or in uproarious laughter. I think “Boom” just evolved from that, as well as the presence that he often commanded when he entered a room.

My relationship with my dad was more complicated than the one that I had with my mom. He and I had a respectful—often fun—but often combative relationship, and while I never felt the specialness of being “Daddy’s little girl,” I remember him making me feel extremely safe when he wrapped his very big, strong arms around me. I came to appreciate him much more when I was old/mature enough to look at him through the lens of his life, versus that of a young girl or teenage daughter looking at her dad. At this point in my life—36 years after his passing—there are so many things I wish I could tell him. I would say that while I was quite vocal about the things that I didn’t like growing up, I get it now. That I respect him immensely, am grateful for all the lessons that he taught me, and the qualities that I developed because of him—strength, independence, perseverance, ambition, an intense work ethic, an appreciation and respect for manual labor and the trades—and a love of humor. I would tell him that I wish life had been easier on him, and that I wish he could’ve known his awesome grandchildren and great grandchildren.  

My mom and dad with their first two grandchildren, Christina (l) and Lael (r). This was the last picture taken of my dad, which was about three months before he passed.

Much of our relationship stemmed from just having less time together than I did with my mom. Like so many men in the 1960s and 70s, my dad worked a long day and childcare was left to “the women.” He was pretty exhausted when he came home, most days, so my mom and I simply interacted more while he got some well-deserved rest. Also, my dad passed when I was 28. Thankfully, my mom was with us almost 25 years longer. And honestly, he liked kids from a distance, but wasn’t a “kid person.” My dad was a 1960’s guy’s guy who was focused on working hard, fulfilling his responsibilities of being a provider, and getting some personal space.    

Houses? I got this…

My dad could do almost anything related to houses—professionally, he built them, roofed them, painted them, and repaired and improved them. The only thing I remember him staying away from was electrical work. He did everything else, and was thorough, patient, and meticulous in his approach. He was a genius with his hands, and a physical wonder, despite having smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life and having thrown back a whiskey or two. My dad roofed houses until the day he retired at age 66, lugging shingles that weighed 75-80 pounds per bundle up-and-down ladders. After he retired, he told me that he had never liked heights!

Hard, physical work was the cornerstone of my dad’s life. Born in the early 1900s and raised by a single mom, my dad quit school at age 13 to help support the family. He worked with a pick and shovel for his early paychecks, prompting both him and my mom to impress the value of an education upon us kids. In fact, lack of a formal education became an insecurity for my dad—I think it made him feel “less than.” I understood why he felt that way, but it actually increased his stature in my eyes. I so admired that someone with such modest—actually, downright poor—beginnings knew so much and could do so much because of his own initiative. He once worked on a mechanical project, building a lamp after a group of college-educated men hadn’t been able to do it.    

My dad was the middle child of three brothers. When his older brother was 18 and my dad was 13, they built the house where their family—my grandmother and the three boys—came to live. It was a small, three-room house which was later expanded. My parents lived there when they were first married. Then, when my dad was in his 40s, he built a house next door to the original “family house.” He and my mom eventually moved into that second house, and that became the house where I grew up. The neighborhood was fairly close to the Connecticut River—we could see it in the distance when the leaves came off the trees every year. The neighborhood was modest but tidy, primarily comprised of Swedish immigrants. Growing up, there were Swansons, Nelsons, Setterburgs, and two families each of Carlsons, Johnsons, and Ericksons, as well as a Viking Bakery truck that would make deliveries. There was even a Swedish clubhouse near the river that was long defunct when I was a kid, but was full of music and dancing when my dad was young. He loved to dance, even as an older man.

The good son…

My dad was extremely close to his mother, Augusta, who had immigrated to the US when she was in her early 20s. She had been an established seamstress in Sweden, and set up a new business when she arrived here. Augusta Americanized her last name from “Stenman” (stone man) to “Stone,” which my dad later changed back to Stenman. She passed before I was born, but her reputation for strength, independence, tailoring ability, and some midwife skills lived on through stories. Augusta seemed fearless to me—my dad would talk about giving her rides to work on his motorcycle—and between that, crossing the ocean as a young woman to tackle a new country, throwing her husband out because he continuously chose drinking and carousing over parenting, and raising three boys on her own in the early 1900s—she was a woman who wasn’t afraid to act on her convictions. My kinda girl. I always wished that I could have known her.

Augusta developed “cancer of the womb” (as it was relayed to us) when she was in her 50s, and my dad stepped up to take care of her. He was in his late 20s/early 30s, and not yet in a relationship with my mom. At that point, he was living in the first family house, and was driving “Phil Gas”—trucks with individual tanks of Phillips Petroleum on board. Working hard over the years had had its benefits. By then, my dad had saved up and purchased several plots of land in the neighborhood.

My dad drove Phil Gas all day around the hilly, winding, and in the winter—icy, back roads of northern Connecticut and western Massachusetts. He was up at the crack of dawn, arriving home in the early evening. The days were long and stressful, and they didn’t end when he got home. Augusta’s illness was progressing, and after jockeying gas-filled tanks all day, my dad injected his mom with morphine to relieve what had become extraordinary pain. To pay for medical bills, my dad sold most of the land that he had worked so hard to acquire. No hesitation. But try as he might, he was no match for the cancer. Augusta died on her 58th birthday. My dad was crushed.

New life…same neighborhood

My mom and dad’s wedding day, 1940

Fast forward 25 years. My dad’s bachelor life transitioned into one with a family that included a wife and three children. He/we still lived in the same neighborhood where he had settled in at 13. Hard work and long days continued but now, having built a successful contracting busines, he was his own boss, performing almost any service related to houses. His clients—and people in general—loved him. His work was of the highest quality. He was something of a perfectionist, always careful to protect his clients’ homes from paint splatters, sawdust, etc. when he was working there. And he had more personality in his little finger than most of us have in our whole body. My dad was often “the life of the party.” He told funny stories and always had a joke—sometimes my mom would exclaim, “Carl!!” and escort us kids quickly out of the room when he told them. I won’t say they were always family-friendly jokes.

My dad passed at the age of 76, having lived on the same street that he moved to at age 13, in houses that were next door to each other.

When I was young, I loved to watch family sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show. Even then, I realized they didn’t exactly mirror my life, but my seven/eight-year-old eyes made me believe that that was how family life really was in most homes. Dads were soft-spoken like Ward Cleaver and genteel like Alex Stone. Were these guys modeled after my dad? Hardly. My dad was hard-headed, outspoken, and told off-colored jokes. He was also known to have a few-too-many whiskeys, which Ward and Alex would never have done. But I’m betting that neither Ward nor Alex ever had to overcome the life challenges that my dad both faced and conquered. Life wasn’t kind to my dad, but it instilled a lot of substance in him. It created a man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps—who learned—and taught all of us—that life isn’t perfect, so you persevere.

And so, you TV dads—you can stay on TV. I’ll take my dad over you, any day.

Happy Father’s Day, Boom. Love you, miss you…and forever, thank you.

Until next time,

[i] Roles of American dads changing this Father’s Day; US news—Life/NBC News, Hope Yen; June 15, 2011; http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43415067/ns/us_news-life/t/roles-american-dads-changing-fathers-day/#.Xu5u3GhKiFU

[ii] About one-third of US children are living with an unmarried parent; FacTank, News in the Numbers; Pew Research; Gretchen Livingston; April 27, 2018; https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/27/about-one-third-of-u-s-children-are-living-with-an-unmarried-parent/

[iii] 8 Facts about American dads; FacTank, News in the Numbers; Pew Research; Gretchen Livingston and Kim Parker; June 12, 2019; https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/fathers-day-facts/

[iv] Ibid

[v] Male role models make a huge impact on a child’s life; the Miami Herald; Bevone Ritchie, MS; June 12, 2018; https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article213061544.html#:~:text=Children%20with%20an%20involved%20male,actively%20participate%20in%20their%20care.