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December 16, 2013

Remembering My Father

Portrait of Rosemary's father
Today is the fourth anniversary of my father's death at age 87. The last time I saw him, he wasn't able to recognize me. I believe that he thought I was a nurse. For health reasons, my mother had to go home early, so that evening, I was the only visitor.

Dad's distress at being alone in a strange hospital room, not remembering why he was there, kept him from sleeping. He felt abandoned and would call out for help. I stood next to the bed so he could see that I was there. His eyes were wide open with anxiety, and he complained of insomnia. I suggested that he might be able to sleep if he closed his eyes and let his body relax. I promised I would stay with him until he fell asleep. So he said, "I'll give it a try," closed his eyes, and dozed off peacefully. Those were his last words to me.

Here is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral.

One of the things that was really important to my father was education. When I complained about having to go to school every day, he told me how much he had appreciated the opportunity. He claimed that even when he broke his leg, he was so determined not to miss any classes, that he got his friends to carry him to school on a stretcher. This is Southern California, so at least it wasn't five miles in the snow.

Dad as a WWII soldier in his winter coat
His education was interrupted by World War II. Just getting into the army required a lot of determination. The first time he tried to enlist, he was rejected because he was seriously underweight. So he spent the next few weeks trying to fatten himself up, and on the morning of his second attempt, he bought ten pounds of bananas, which he ate during the streetcar ride to the enlistment office. That worked. But because he was nearsighted, he wasn't eligible for combat duty. Instead he went into the medical corps. Of course, as he pointed out, the only difference between the medics and the regular soldiers, was that the medics didn't have any guns to defend themselves. And that big red cross on top of the truck looked like an excellent target.

After the war, the GI Bill made it possible for him to attend the University of Redlands, where he majored in English. In 1952, when he wrote his master's thesis, he wanted it to be about his favorite author, P.G. Wodehouse. But his advisors said Wodehouse wasn't an important enough writer, so he chose Somerset Maugham instead. Today Wodehouse is acclaimed as a great master of English prose, and is the subject of many master's theses, which shows that Dad was right, and ahead of his time.

Coming of age during the Depression, security and stability were important to him. He took a frugal and focused approach to the American dream: a family, a suburban home with two cars in the garage and plenty of food on the table. He was married for over 60 years, fathered five children, and lived to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren. He taught for over 40 years, sending countless teenagers into the world with verb conjugations dancing in their heads.

One of his aspirations was to be a professional writer. It's an overcrowded field where success is hard to come by. Over the course of a few decades, in his spare time, he worked on a couple of novels inspired by Wodehouse's style. I don't think they turned out quite way he had envisioned, and when he self-published them, he told me he didn't think anyone would read them, but at least they were finally finished.

'Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries' book cover
In the meantime, he also had a lifelong love of mystery and suspense fiction. In the 1980s he began selling poems and stories to the big three magazines in the field: Ellery Queen, Mike Shayne and Alfred Hitchock. A couple of years ago, when one of his stories was included in an anthology, the editor commented that although his output had been small, each story was perfectly formed. A review like that is a mark of success that would make any writer proud.

Nobody gets everything they want out of life. All that really matters is achieving what's most important to you, and I think he did. And that can give us all a large measure of satisfaction and comfort.

7 fabulous comments:

  1. Very sweet. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What a beautiful eulogy, Rosemary. Thank you so much for sharing this very personal part of your life. Your dad sounds like a wonderful man - full of life and smart, smart, smart.

    And to think, I thought one of my high school friends from Upstate NY was joshing me when she said she was going to the University of Redlands. She even called me from there a few times our freshman year, and I thought she was making it up. Glad to have it confirmed as a real place! Seriously though, Jen was a really bright person, and I believe she also majored in English.

    I love your last paragraph. It hit me right in the heart.

  3. What a guy! My compositions rarely turn out as expected. Once they begin, they have a life of their own. But the satisfaction of finishing something cannot be overstated. Beautifully rendered, Rosemary, as usual...

    1. Thanks, Chief. Dad's story reminds me of the value of persistence in all the endeavors you love.

  4. AnonymousJuly 17, 2014

    Mr. Smith was my german teacher for several yrs. He was terribly kind and I am sorry to hear of his passing. Andy Ralston


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