Today would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. Early this morning, my sister called to tell me that she dreamed of Dad, our aunt, and grandparents. She dreams of them all often. I began to cry while she was telling me the dream, overcome by a wave of missing, not yet awake enough to try and stave off the sob. The suddenness of the moment reminded me of Holly Hunter in that scene in Broadcast News, when she sits on her bed, holds the phone off the hook, and cries…hard, for a minute or two…daily. Hard cry. Done.
A little later, I spoke to my Mom who was heading to yoga (I love this), then to the cemetery to visit Dad’s grave, and finally to a one-year-old cousin’s birthday party, which somehow all seems appropriate.
On my way to work, I phoned my brother, also at work. We made small talk, and I eventually told him that I called because it was Dad’s birthday. I guess I just needed to talk to everyone that I knew loved him as much as I do. I asked my brother if he remembered Dad eating Entenmann’s Hot Cross Buns, a seasonal item only available around Easter…and Dad’s birthday. He remembered, and laughed, and I did too. “Those were AWFUL,” I said. (I love you Entenmann’s, just not your hot cross buns.)
As was standard with any bread product or baked good my father devoured, he generously buttered each piece before eating it, and washed it down with lukewarm coffee.
I can see him in my mind, sitting at the kitchen table, sunlight streaming through the windows, the Sunday paper spread out everywhere, eating those hot cross buns, sipping coffee. Content.
In some ways, it didn’t take much to make him happy. In other ways, I’m sure it was the hardest thing in the world to do.
That’s who we all are, I guess. Simple. Complicated. Content. Wanting. Ever so beautifully flawed and flawless.
My brother and I spent the better part of a day traveling to and from our Uncle Bob’s funeral on Monday. We began in the pre-dawn winter darkness of Wooster, Ohio, traveled to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan and found our way back to Wooster as the pale sun fell into its pink then blue place below the snow.
Along the way, dressed in funeral attire, we talked about family (memories of Uncle Bob, of our own Dad who died in 2009, growing up and its accompanying angst and adventure), politics (the economy, the 2012 election, John “tan” Boehner, Barack Obama and the tragedy in Tucson), music (John Lennon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Gerry Rafferty to name a few) and movies (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Big Lebowski, High Fidelity and Elf). It was an eight-hour ride.
While The Beatles were playing, I asked my brother where he was when John Lennon was shot. My brother is a huge Beatles fan. In fact, the first album he ever gave me was The Magical Mystery Tour. His answer, “at college,” reminded me of our 12-year age difference, which nowadays seems a much smaller expanse of time. He told me that he came home just days after Lennon was killed, and the news coverage was exhaustive, much like it’s been since the Tucson tragedy. My brother said that Dad, tired of the constant coverage, said in frustration, “He’s just a man.”
My brother said nothing back – but that moment was one of alienation and misunderstanding. My brother grieving his hero, a musical, social and political voice of his generation, unable to share any of it with Dad. And Dad, viewing Lennon as an aimless artist, hippie, troublemaker – who he didn’t even respect as a musician.
I sat with that for a moment when my brother finished. And I told him that I recently read an interview with Yoko Ono in which she spoke with pride about John being “the first man to push a baby carriage…no one did it before John.” I told Steve that whether or not that was true, it was amazing to think the effect one man could have had on a generation of fathers – a collective unconscious agreement to perhaps take a more hands-on role than their fathers had.
Interestingly, our own Dad was very hands-on with us when were babies. Not surprisingly, when we were old enough to voice our own opinions on the world, our relationships got more complicated.
I wonder if my Dad ever came around to John Lennon – understanding what a tragedy his death was, not just for his fans, but for his wife, his sons. And our culture. Did Dad respond that way because of his own fear of death? You’re walking through your life and suddenly, you’re gunned down in front of your home? Or one day, your mind simply stops working the way it once did. Was his quick anger simply his confirmation that we are all, always, vulnerable?
Now, at Uncle Bob’s funeral. A chance to honor the last of 11 children, a man full of life, a storyteller who often spoke of himself in the third person, a devoted husband, dad, grandpa, uncle, friend. A doer of good – in his church, in soup kitchens, with children less fortunate, with friends and family. A stubborn, funny, crystal blue-eyed character.
The minister said it out loud: “We are perishable. What has happened here will happen to us all.”
I looked out the window to the churchyard, where Uncle Bob spent hours cleaning up, tending the lawn and flowers. It was snow-covered now: a large birdfeeder hanging from a leafless branch.
The minister continued, “The pain is over for Bob…and he will live on forever through God.”
I didn’t feel convinced.
But a covey of doves flew into the churchyard and began eating from the feeder. That was something.
A mutual friend of Uncle Bob and Aunt Georgia’s delivered the eulogy. It was laugh out loud funny at times; poignant in others, as all good tributes should be.
Afterward, we gathered with cousins and church folk for a luncheon. I joked with my brother, taking bets on whether or not ham would be served. (It is the Midwest, after all.)
There was ham. And chicken. Pasta. Potatoes.
And literally, a table of desserts.
Everyone wins with that kind of grief buffet.
When I hugged Aunt Georgia goodbye, I felt her physical strength through her heavy wool coat, though I knew her heart was aching. She had spent 62 years with Uncle Bob and today, for the first time in 62 years, she would go home alone.
What she has, what we all have, is memory, the way in which her life is different and richer because of the moments contained within it.
It’s not for me to say if Uncle Bob is somewhere laughing now with his 10 siblings, parents, even with my Dad.
I have an armload of memories. I have every present moment. I have a snowy car ride with my brother. And it is more than enough.
A few weeks back, my pals at Blue Ion and Gil Shuler Graphic Design asked me to help craft a brand story about the town of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. As some of you know, Mount Pleasant has been in the midst of a strategic marketing initiative to enhance and grow the community.
Armed with some heavy-duty resident research and strategic planning, Blue Ion, Dean Foster, Gil Shuler and I went to work to craft creative to support the initiative. After much discussion, Gil put together a super sweet logo. I crafted the story below. Many thanks to Dean Foster for sharing his thoughts and insights and always, to Blue Ion and Gil. Big squeeze.
One last thing: Yes, I am a born and bred New Jersey girl writing about the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But let me just say: duh, I’m a writer, that’s what I do. And two, for a year and a half I lived in a quirky apartment on Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant. I cannot tell you exactly what that time and those long walks through the Old Village did to me, but perhaps it’s evident in the words.
To understand Mount Pleasant is to intimately know the water – the ebb and flow of the tide. The marsh creeks and rivers that surround us. Living here means measuring time and joy by the water. Is it high tide? Can we take the johnboat out? Here, water is sustenance – shrimp boats at dawn, crabbing off the dock, the day’s catch being hauled in. It’s the taste that lingers on your lips after day is done.
Mount Pleasant is an idealist. Our strong neighborhoods are built from generations of strong neighbors – folks who work hard, whose children play with yours, who say “hey” when they see you, who gently guide even the most confused tourists to the beach. Our solid schools are crafted by a close-knit community of teachers, citizens, parents and children.
Mount Pleasant is borne of the land and water. Protecting them is part of who we are. Not just because our shrimp are caught in local waters or our tomatoes grown on local vines. Not just so that our children and grandchildren have them to enjoy, but because this kind of raw beauty, this rich history and culture has a harmony to it we strive to emulate. The land and water have a life well beyond ours and are at their best when shared.
Mount Pleasant tells a great story – from Sewee Indian to Capitan O’Sullivan, from dirt road to highway, from inlet to open sea, to “talkative” wood floors and tin roofs to fisher monger to physician. There is a gift for conversation here, an ease of sharing, which brings with it the ability to question, listen, entertain and lend a needed hand. Some say it’s Southern hospitality. The stuff of beloved novels or bedtime stories. To us, it’s simply a way of life. The sweet life.
Check out the video Blue Ion and friends put together based on the copy here.
If I let my mind go, it will go all the way back to that field in Ohio where you lay, set off from the state road. A green-grassed space next to a farmer who realized the cemetery business is good, steady income, few hassles, a peaceful proposition.
I wonder what you think – being in a field of a place you teased about for as long as I have memory. “Apple knockers,” that’s what you called Ohioans. But Mom said you feared the hills of your native Pennsylvania, worried about disappearing down old coal mine shafts. And you avoided the topic of “final plans” altogether with a curt, “I’m not going.”
But you did go.
And even though I was there, I think we all missed the precise moment you slipped out the door, the smell of morning coffee and newsprint (which always made you sneeze) lingering.
We didn’t spend enough time at the grave; it all went too quickly. Mom did all she could bear and ran into the safety of playing hostess. As the limousine pulled away from the cemetery, I looked back in panic. I couldn’t believe we were leaving you there…where you never wanted to be.
But, part of me thinks you might enjoy all that quiet. The wind moving through the hemlocks and tops of distant trees and pastures. Maybe you enjoy the grey-bellied clouds that gather for summer storms, the wind showing the underside of leaves, thunder rolling into eternity, a staggered bolt of lightning meeting sky and flat earth.
I want to know you are safe and happy. I want to know if you see the still beauty of graves covered in November’s first snow.
I think of all the visits to cemeteries I endured as a child, looking at names and dates etched in stone, trying to imagine faces and lives of people I barely knew. It seems crazy you are there now, and I am here.
I listen for you. Watch for you. I want you to be the moon following me home. The stranger that smiles.