Musings On A Headstone: Father’s Day

Sandy with her dad, circa 1953. Family archive photos

Recently, I sat atop my father’s headstone at Lake View Cemetery in the damp mist of a rainy morning before Father’s Day. My sister had planted some red and white geraniums. Someone else had left a white pot filled with a pretty green plant I could not identify. I could not imagine who had left that white pot. But maybe it was a cousin who loved our dad. That’s how it was with him. He was loved by most he met and knew. His good humor was nearly infallible. His smile was broad and real.

The weather fit my mood. I was dark and rainy in my soul that day. Recently I had dreamed of my childhood, of my father and his second wife, of my mother, and of all the rooms of past, of memory, that haunt me. I would open a door to scenes so real, I was sure I was not dreaming in this oddly lucid dream. Then odd things would happen — children were packed in boxes, children’s voices were calling from afar, children’s footsteps were scurrying around amidst packing and paper but I saw only their backs.

I don’t know what any of that means. I do know I am haunted by my past. My parents were extraordinary figures. Their personalities loom so vast, I have been overwhelmed by them in many ways.

Now that they’re gone, one in 1999 and the other two years ago, June, I am freed in some ways from the power of their personalities, but just when one thinks one is free, there you go, back deep into the land of dreams and haunted landscapes.

As a young girl, my dad was attentive and kind. Raymond talked all the time — he loved language. He studied words. He used them carefully, making sure to savor a good one. Once he said, that woman (our waitress in a restaurant) could be called voluptuous if one wanted to be kind. He liked the word unctuous and he liked even better applying it to those whom he did not like, and there were not many. He like the word genteel and used it to show which side of the line of decency one lived on.

Raymond, the son of a Finnish immigrant named Martha and tall and imposing Swedish man named Ben, kept a handwritten journal from the age of 17 until he went off to war in winter 1942. My sister and I have that journal, and in it we read what was in his heart — his adoration of our mother when they were young and in love, his daily work schedule at The Post-Journal (where he started as a newspaper boy at age 12 and later became Circulation Manager before moving on to Hickey Mitchell in Saint Louis, Missouri, when life changed forever for all of us), his attention to school matters, his thoughts on America, on driving a car, about Horatio Alger and the American Dream. He was a serious boy but full of fun, too.

He never slept much (last one to bed at night, first one up in the morning) but would fall asleep in movies or at the theatre even when we attended expensive Broadway shows. Halfway through, we would look over and dad would be sound asleep, head slumped onto his chest. It seemed so unlikely, this fastidious man dressed like Cary Grant. It’s possible he had a peculiar narcolepsy, I’m not sure. Later in life, he was diagnosed with a type of Parkinsonism. I always wonder if the two are related somehow.

As a boy, he rose at 3 a.m. to deliver the Jamestown Morning Post on the Southside of Jamestown in all weathers. He wrote in his journal, I never miss a day. I love it out there in the darkness, under the streetlights, in the falling snow or the warm spring air. I’m by myself but I’m part of the whole world! When all papers were folded into neat squares and delivered with a thump to Jamestown porches, he would return home and go back to sleep for two hours. After that, he rose for school. He walked to JHS from 221 Barrett Avenue and back again. Then after dinner, he walked down Forest Avenue and up Windsor all the way to Stowe Street and Buffalo where he would sit with my mother, his “gal,” “his darling girl,” until 9 p.m. Then he walked home again. If you know our town, that’s a lot of miles in a day, up and down the biggest hills too.

Who does that? Nobody else I ever knew. My father was devoted to life. He was a man in love with living, who took his job so seriously that he wrote about delivering missing papers in the PJ vehicle in snowstorms out in South Dayton when no one else could get through on the rural roads. He loved his family most of all, his three sisters whom he adored to his final breath, his tough little mama, his sweet and imposing dad, his brother in law Clayt Larson who married his oldest sister Jane. Clayt taught my father to drive and together they took trips to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, to see ball games, to see boxing matches. They drove in all weathers, fearless and competent, both.

Dad was fearless. It was only when he was very old and sick that he would awake and call out for help: I’m drowning, I’m drowning, he would yell. Help me! I don’t know what that was, some claustrophobia or a bizarre side effect of his medicines or his disease. Maybe he recalled swimming in the deep blue lagoon off Kwajalein Atoll with the huge manta rays in World War II with the ghosts of dead soldiers lying there in sunken ships beneath him. Who knows. Dad, whose stride was long and sure in his best days, whose face shone with a type of manic light and life, would be twisted in his white sheets, his face full of terror.

After Raymond left us — my mother, sister and me, for another family — in the summer of 1966 (I was 16 I’m not sure he ever saw Clayt again. Surely he must have but not often as dad and his new family moved to Missouri. He visited us several times a year. He sent gifts and letters and books for the next thirty years. Most of all he sent postcards from every place he went — San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Boston, Nova Scotia, Montreal. Every card scrawled LOVE YOU! Having the best time! Wish you were here with me!

My Aunt Jane outlived them all. In the year prior to going into the Greenhurst nursing home, she gave me a box of postcards she had kept from my father and every letter he had written to her from 1935 on. His adult life was chronicled in those letters, all the painful parts omitted; each somehow a glowing report on his life progress. Now I think, he reminds me of Hickey in The Ice Man Cometh. For Raymond was a salesman too, until he became vice president of his company, and he had Hickey’s manic personality, full of big dreams and ideas.

My father succeeded where Hickey did not, yet there’s something of Hickey, no question. Raymond was the life of the party, the hearty back slapper, the guy who always talked like an old friend to every cab driver he met, the hearty lover of life who would stop the car in flurry of skidded stone, leap out and shout, Get out and smell this air! Hey, take a whiff! You can smell the grapes! Or, Hey, there is nothing like this sea salt air! Wherever he was, was the best place on earth; whatever he ate was the best meal ever. I recall him always in motion.

So, dad, I’m sitting on your grave today 19 years after you left this earth and 50 since you left us. It’s a dark gray headstone, very genteel, like a serious suit. You never wore dark gray suits. The color seems incongruous to you and your personality. It has your name, the name of your little daughter who died at 8, who lies there, and the name of your second wife, who does not. And me, well, I’m at home here with you, and so far from home I can’t ever find it again.

I write of fathers today. They’re human. They’re imperfect. What they say we take with us, forever. What they do haunts us. We spend a lifetime maybe trying to make sense of it all, looking backwards like Thomas Wolfe, seeking the truth of it, knowing we can’t find it. We catch glimpses sometimes in dream images — the child’s voices far off, the calling out, the hidden boxes and all the lost things.