Green Hills Literary Lantern



My Dad, Finally



If you had met Arthur Tolf, you would have liked him.  He had a firm handshake, a hearty “How’re ya gettin along?” and a smile that lit up his Scandinavian blue eyes.  My dad was a salesman, but his friendliness was no act.  He greeted waitresses at Marishka’s, where our family of eight had garlicky poorboy sandwiches, with the same enthusiasm he showed customers who walked into his piano store. 

“A salesman sells himself,” he’d say to me or to one of my five sisters.  “And if you can sell yourself, you can sell anything!  You girls can go into business for yourselves, not for somebody else.”

The first thing Dad ever sold was rubber stamps.  I know the story because it’s one of the few my father enjoyed sharing about growing up in Joliet, Illinois, the town where he was born, raised, and died.  It was 1930, a year after the stock market crash.  Dad was sixteen.  Times were hard, but Alvar Tolf, a Swedish immigrant and gifted carpenter, was able to support his wife and his five children.  Like many others, Dad’s family had a pot of garden-grown vegetable soup simmering on the stove that they ate with day-old bread, but the Tolfs were not so bad off that Arthur had to drop out of school.  I don’t think any of his three brothers did, and I know that his younger sister, Evelyn, graduated with her diploma.  Arthur Tolf was restless.  All his life, he admired people with education, but he was no book reader himself.

He left Joliet Township High, the limestone castle where I began high school forty-two years later, after his sophomore year.  He’d been offered a full-time position as a stock boy at a downtown department store.  The first day he was hired, the assistant manager ordered him to create a display of household items.  Dad worked hard on his assignment.  He never said this, but if you knew my dad, you took it for granted.  Whether it was folding towels, painting a closet, or attaching a bell to the handlebar of a bike, my father took pride in a job well done.  As he was finishing up, the assistant manager surveyed Dad’s handiwork. 

“You call that a display?” the man demanded of the tall, blond kid he’d taken an instant dislike to.  “You happy with that, Tolf?”

My father looked his new boss coolly in the eye.  “Suits me,” he said.

“I was fired that morning,” my father would tell us, “but I got a job selling rubber stamps that same afternoon—and ended up making more money!”

            Dad might have become a carpenter like his father and his oldest brother, Ruben.  The signs he later painted for his own and other people’s businesses show an artist’s sense of symmetry.  For all I know, my grandfather, who died before I was born, might have wanted to teach his trade to his stubborn but smart third eldest.  From the bitterness with which my father spoke about him, it was clear that Dad believed otherwise.  I grew up assuming my grandfather did not have much use for his maverick son—the only Tolf in a Republican, Baptist household who supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later declared himself a Democrat.  It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties and had a few long phone conversations with my Aunt Evie, then retired and living in Arizona, that I was offered a different perspective.  Evie insisted her father did not play favorites.  Listening to her, one sees Arthur Tolf as a quick-tempered, sensitive young man who estranged himself from his family. 

“After your father married, he almost never came by to see us.  Ma used to sit on the couch and cry because she hardly knew her granddaughters!”

Evie believed this as firmly as my father believed that Elmer, his younger brother, was daily lavished with affection denied to him.  Never mind that somewhere in between these emotion-charged memories lay the truth.  My aunt and my father stuck to their own version of it—as we all do. 

            In any event, my father wanted a trade of his own.  He found it in piano tuning.  He was twenty-five when he enrolled in a course taught in Chicago by one Braid White.  Even if I had never seen the photograph my father kept of his teacher, I’d have pictured him as he is in the photo: a tall man with a slightly stooped back, snowy hair, and a grave, kindly face.  Braid White was one of those men who replaced, for Dad, the father he was convinced he never had.  He wrote a number of well-received books on the art of piano tuning and occasionally published scholarly articles in journals like Shakespeare Quarterly.

He also, like my father, had perfect pitch.  That, no doubt, is one of the reasons why Dad was able to teach himself how to play the piano when he was a kid.  He had wanted piano lessons badly, but those went to Evelyn, his sister.  Evie sometimes played hymns on her old upright piano when we went over to her house—the house in which Dad grew up—for a holiday.  She played as one would expect a devout Baptist lady, who had practiced dutifully as a child, to play.  Dad played like a maestro.  His repertoire was limited to a dozen or so tunes—“Red Wing,” “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Ain’t She Sweet”—along with snatches of classical music.  But the way he caressed the keys and pedals of any piano he ever touched made for melodies that were rich and sweet and lingered in the air after he stopped playing.

Arthur Tolf was the only one of Alvar’s sons to serve in World War II.  Ruben, Albert and Elmer all got medical deferments.  I remember those deferments coming up once or twice in conversations as I was growing up.  I’ve forgotten what they were for, but I can’t help thinking it terribly odd that out of four brothers, three were excused from serving in the armed forces.  After Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father enlisted immediately.

The day he left for boot camp, Dad was taken to Joliet’s Union Station not by Alvar, my grandfather, but by my great uncle Eston.  When I try to remember Eston, his physical appearance blends in a dreamlike way with that of Braid White: my great uncle, too, was a tall, gentle-mannered man with a steady gaze that quietly assured you of his goodness.  Neither Arthur, twenty-six, nor Eston, then in his fifties, would have been demonstrative as they drove from Garnsy Avenue on the East Side to the downtown train station. 

“You take care of yourself, now,” Eston might have said, keeping his eyes on the road.  “Write your mother every week.”

“Yes, sir.”  Dad loved Eston like a father.  He seldom reminisced about his childhood the way Mom did, but those rare times he did, his uncle’s kindness underlay every memory.  “Eston used to buy me pineapple sundaes at the Sweet Shop . . . . wouldn’t you like to try chocolate or butterscotch, he’d say, but I always wanted pineapple.  He’d give me a dime so I could spend all Saturday afternoon at the Rialto.  They had live acts in between the movies, but I didn’t care about them or the movies as much as the man playing on that Grand Barton pipe organ.”

Alvar could not understand why his son insisted on taking his brand-new set of tuning tools with him to boot camp.  Maybe Dad didn’t either, but he had those tools with him, wrapped carefully in felt and housed in soft leather, when he boarded a camouflaged train in the middle of the night and started to head west.  “We knew what that meant,” Dad said.  “Headed east, you were going to fight in Europe.  Headed west, you were going to fight in the Philippines.  I wished we were heading East.”

As it turned out, he fought on neither the Eastern nor the Western Front.  Dad’s unit had a several-day stopover in Hawaii.  Through a coincidence I wouldn’t believe in fiction, the U.S. Army’s entertainment branch stationed there had need of a piano tuner for that night’s performance of a play.  My father offered his services.  He ended up staying in Hawaii for three and a half years, working for the Entertainment Corps. 

Or, as my father put it, for “theayter people”: grown men who pored over Variety in the morning before picking up a newspaper to read about the war.  My father didn’t despise all actors, but he didn’t have a high opinion of very many.  “Phonies,” he called them.  According to Arthur Tolf, there were few things worse than being a phony.  You could be goofy—Dad’s word for eccentric individuals.  But you could not be phony. 

Tall and slim, with golden-blond hair and bright blue eyes, Private Tolf kept to himself.  Every day he read from a small, leather-bound New Testament that my mother gave me after Dad died.  Perhaps it was a parting gift from his father, for both Alvar’s and Arthur’s names are inside, Alvar’s script careful as a child’s, my father’s emphatic.  He kept his barracks space immaculate and did laundry weekly, unlike other men who used the same towel over and over until, as Dad put it, “there was maybe a tiny, tiny clean spot on it, and they’d turn that dirty towel around and around until they found it.”

Dad had one friend, though: a laconic man by the name of Tosheo.  Tosheo ran a barbershop.  Private Tolf spent his free afternoons there and sometimes had dinner with Tosheo’s family.  If certain soldiers didn’t approve of an enlisted man being pals with a “Jap,” it suited Arthur Tolf just fine.  Again and again as we grew up, Dad told us to think for ourselves.  “When I met your mother, I said to myself, ‘that’s the girl I’m going to marry.’  Did I ask anyone if I was making the right decision?  No!  If you have to ask, then the answer is no.” 

Despite his dislike for the “phonies” he worked with, Dad said those three and a half years he spent in Hawaii were some of the best in his life.  He ate fresh pineapple and took naps under palm trees.  “I never seen a sun sink the way it did there.  One minute the sky’s full of color, the next minute the sun dips into the sea and it’s night.”  Dad even managed to print up business cards and carry on a profitable tuning business on the side.  This infuriated his Corporal, who made numerous attempts to have him reprimanded.  Dad might have been a Corporal himself, but turned down the several promotions he was offered.  He liked being a Private. 

“You know the first lesson I learned in the Army?  Don’t volunteer for anything.  There were a coupla Italians (Eyetalians) in our outfit.  Good guys.  ‘Tolf,’ they said, ‘you know what you do when that Corporal starts giving you the business?  Act confused.  Lift up one shoulder like this.’”  And Dad would imitate the exaggerated shrug they showed him, head to one side, palms turned upward.  Then he’d start to laugh.  My father could never finish a funny story.  He’d laugh so hard he couldn’t talk anymore, so hard he would cry.


            My dad and I kneel beside the fire hydrant in front of our house, painting it red, white and blue in celebration of the Centennial.  It’s a chilly day in early April.  Cans of paint and rags and brushes clutter the sidewalk. 

            “Don’t get too much on your brush or it’ll drip, it’ll drip!  See?  What did I tell you?”  The ragged, high-pitched irritation in my father’s voice clenches my stomach into a familiar knot.  He says in a different voice: “That’s better.  Now you’re getting it.”

            If I were a different kind of teenager, I would crack a joke to ease the tension, but I can’t.  Instead I say, lamely, “I’ll try not to get too much paint on my brush.”

My father is trying hard to be nice.  I am trying hard to be enthusiastic.  I wonder if he’s as uncomfortable as I am.

This is all Mom’s idea.  Like painting a stupid fire hydrant is going to make us bond.  My father doesn’t like me.  I’ve known this for a long time.  It doesn’t bother me.  I have Mom.  I don’t need him.  I don’t need this “togetherness.”  I’m as nervous around him this afternoon as I used to be when I was little and found myself in the same room as him, just the two of us.  I never knew what to say.  I still don’t.

 “You got a nice smooth touch there, Frannie.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

A long time ago, he liked me.  He threw me up in the air and called me Wickey Woo. He’d say:

Wickey Woo,

I love you,

Yes I do!


I was little more than a baby, so how can I remember this?  Yet I do.  The sky was blue and green branches came close to my face, then flew away; we were both happy and laughing.  Now I am seventeen and my father criticizes my hair and my clothes every morning before I am halfway down the kitchen stairs.  He’s always saying there’s no such thing as an uncontrollable temper, but he doesn’t control his temper.

Last winter, I used the wrong utensil to adjust a burning log in our fireplace.  My father went berserk.  Not that one!  Not that one!  He was so furious I ran into the cold without a hat or gloves and walked for blocks until the sun was an orange ball and I heard the cathedral bells telling me it was four o’ clock.  When I came home, half-frozen, he ignored me.  My father doesn’t believe in apologizing.  That’s OK.  I have my own protection now.  When he’s screaming at me or saying how dirty my jeans are, I repeat to myself, he doesn’t exist.  He’s not part of my reality.

            My father stands, stretches.  I can tell his knees are starting to ache.  “When we’re done, I’ll show you how to clean the brushes.”  He cleans those brushes meticulously, I know, and  stores them in Hills Brothers coffee cans in his basement workroom, the room where he makes each of us girls signs for our birthday that Mom hangs in the kitchen. 

            “OK.  I know that’s important.”

“I don’t know why he’s so hard on you,” Claire said to me last week: a huge admission from the sister who thinks her father’s perfect.  Instead of telling her I’m grateful that somebody finally acknowledged it, I acted indifferent.  “How would you know?”  I said, turning away.

            It’s not her fault that she gets along with dad, that of all my five older sisters, she’s the one Dad feels special about.  “A Swede like her father,” Mom says about Claire.  Claire loves pickled herring and strong beer and that pale yellow cheese Dad buys at Christmas, the kind that has caraway seeds.  She’s serious about the piano and believes, like Dad, that Martin Luther was a hero.  I tried to tell Claire that Martin Luther may have reformed the Church, but he also believed in burning witches.  She didn’t want to hear about that.  In Claire’s book, as in my father’s, people are either good or bad.

Maybe that’s why they get along so well.  In the shoeboxes of photographs no one’s ever bothered to paste into albums, there are pictures of my next-oldest sister wearing a pocket watch Dad gave her.  She threaded a black shoelace through the handle and wore it around her neck when she was little.  Claire’s always sitting next to Dad in these old snapshots; she liked spending time with him.  But I loved Daddy—I called him Daddy back then—too.  He used to tell us bedtime stories about two hobos, Pete and Jake.  Even at five, I knew making up stories was hard for my father.  I loved him for trying.

That was a long time ago.  Now he hates me.  Well, I hate him.  “There are no favorites in this house,” Mom’s always saying.  Yeah, right.

            “I think we did a pretty good job.  What do you think, Frannie?”

            “It looks great, Dad.  You did it, not me.”

            “I couldn’t have done it without you.  We’re partners.”  He puts his arm around my shoulder and squeezes hard, so hard my face crushes into his windbreaker.  My dad, with his big hands and thick neck, the neck of a man, not a boy.  I swallow violently to get rid of the lump in my throat.  You are not going to cry, Godammit.  My father hates it when I cry.  “Cut out those tears!” he says, as if tears were something you had control over.

            Mom takes a picture of Dad and me standing beside our patriotic fire hydrant.  We smile wide in the photograph, a father and his youngest daughter with paint brushes in their hands.  A sunny spring afternoon.  1976.


My father died ten years ago.  For years after his death, hurt and anger I never confronted him with when he was alive churned alongside of love.  The storm’s over.  I’m left with memories of a remarkable man I wish I had known better.

He had a modest dream: to own and operate a successful piano store in his hometown of Joliet, Illinois.  And he did, for nearly fifteen years—first on Bluff Street, which overlooked the canal, then on Van Buren Street in downtown Joliet, across from Montgomery Ward and Barrett’s Hardware.  Dad quit working full-time at the piano store when I was in second grade in order to work at a tire factory.  He started out driving a garbage truck, a job he claimed he liked just fine (“it’s the best job in the plant!”) because the bosses left you alone.  Later, he became a painter.

All this time, he never stopped tuning pianos on evenings and weekends.  I think that he did this as much for social as for monetary reasons.  Dad loved to tell Mom about the homes he visited—the mothers who served him cups of coffee and shared little details about their days, the children who watched him doctor their piano with his strange instruments, then were treated to “Happy Birthday” and “Jingle Bells.”  He had a soft spot in his heart for any family who owned a piano, for that meant they understood the importance of music.

And music, to my father, was bread.  “Art Tolf Sells Happiness!” is what his hand-painted signs claimed.  He kept a stack of those signs (black and red, accented with musical notes) in his pickup truck.  If he noticed an opportune tree on which to advertise along one the highways that led into and out of our town, he’d pull over and tack up a sign.  It was against the law, but if a state patrolman stopped, Art Tolf, broker in happiness, talked himself out of a ticket. 

Despite Dad’s urging us girls to get into business for ourselves, he wasn’t a good businessman.  “Your father was a superb salesman,” Mom told me once, “but it’s lucky he had me to help him bid for franchises.  Otherwise, he would have put in bids so low it would have been impossible to make a profit.”  Dad wasn’t good at bill collecting, either.  He wrote his own tuning bills in blunt yet graceful printing—all capital letters—and sent them out in hand-printed envelopes.  Catholic schools were always slowest in paying.  This incensed my father, but let Father Ryan from St. Patrick’s, or Father John from St. Paul’s, sincerely apologize for the delay and Art Tolf was soon insisting it was no trouble at all.  “Take your time, Father, take your time!  It’s rough for all of us.”

            With a wife and six daughters to support, and as the owner of a piano store struggling to compete against larger, better financed ones, my father had his share of worries, but he kept them to himself.  He was determinedly, sometimes pugnaciously, cheerful.  He’d imitate the way Katherine, my older sister who wanted to be an actress, rolled her eyes when he talked about “theayter people.”  “What’s on the ceiling there, Katherine?  What are you straining your eyes for?”  When I was a teenager, he’d needle me gleefully for what I considered a quiet mood and he saw as grouchiness.  “Isn’t it a great day to be alive, Frannie?  Yes sir, a great day!  A day to get things done by the numbers, like in the army!  One-hup, two-hup, three-hup, come on, Frannie, say it with me!”

In 1970, when I was twelve, my parents bought a Yamaha Grand, a piano my father had always dreamed of owning.  Even wholesale, it was a lot of money, but Mom never regretted their decision.  When her Arthur played that Yamaha, she could feel his troubles melt into the music.

I was with my mother on the night my dad played that grand piano for the last time.  I’d taken the train home from Chicago to spend the weekend.  Dad had been near bedridden for weeks.  That evening as Mom and I drank a glass of wine in the living room, he appeared at the top of the landing wearing only his underwear, looking solemn and a little unsteady.  I don’t think he knew who we were.  He came down the stairs slowly, gripping the railing, then eased himself onto the piano bench.  Mom and I didn’t say a word.  My father began to play.  Melody after flawless melody rolled over the keys.  When he finished, my mother and I burst into applause.  My father stood up and looked at us gravely.  Then, with dignity, he made his way back upstairs—stairs he would never again be able to navigate. 

I don’t know when my father stopped recognizing the people around him.  My mother always insisted he knew her even when it was obvious he did not.  There are some things we cannot bear to say out loud.  My father said such a thing to me as he drove me to the Joliet train station one morning after one of my visits.  We were at the corner of Raynor and Jefferson, waiting for the light to turn green so Dad could make a right towards downtown.  The light changed; my father looked around in a kind of panic.  “Which way?  Where are we going?”

“Turn right, Dad,” I said as gently as I could.  “You’re taking me to the train station, remember?”

My father looked down at the steering wheel he was gripping.  I think if he had been alone, he would have covered his face with his hands and sat at that familiar corner for a long, long time.  “I can’t remember things sometimes,” he said softly, more to himself than to me. 

I think of that moment now and want to reach down the years and hold him and promise him everything will be all right.  What did I do that morning?  I don’t remember.  He probably gave me one of his swift bear hugs before I got out of the car.  He might have reminded me, a woman in her mid-thirties, to avoid alleys at night and to watch for sales at Jewel Grocery. 

My dad, who fed the birds every winter and stood at the kitchen window watching sparrows and finches feast on suet he’d bought.  Who cried when he read Luke 23:45 (today you will be with me in paradise.  “Jesus didn’t say tomorrow.  He said today!”).  Who buried my cat, Boots, in our backyard and put a white stone over her grave. 

My dad, who at one time I thought I needed to forgive.



Francine Marie Tolf is the author of three poetry chapbooks, two from Pudding House and one from Plan B.  She has published work in numerous journals, including Poetry East, Under the Sun, Water-Stone, Apple Valley Review, and Southern Humanities Review.  Francine’s essay “Dissection” appeared in GHLL XIX (2008).  She lives in Minneapolis with a good man and two bad cats.  More about her at