So twenty-four years ago last night, I was at work at a produce market in southwest St. Louis County. I was a year out of college, and when my student loans repayments kicked in, I found I needed a night job as my temporary Associate Editor position at an industry magazine wasn’t going to cover them much less gas money to get to the job, so I went back to slinging produce.
In those days, I was driving back and forth to Milwaukee frequently as I clung to my collegiate friendships as best I could. Probably a mix of I didn’t want to leave college yet and I don’t make friends easily. It allowed me to see my father, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer the summer after I graduated, and who completed a course of treatment and went into “remission” that lasted whole months.
My brother, on emergency leave from the Marines, had called the day before and told me that I should probably come home soon, so I made plans for the weekend to come up.
However, as I was doing the store-closing processes, my brother called me at my workplace. The other manager, whose name I forget but who infrequently covered for Earlene, paged me from the elevated courtesy counter, and she offered the phone through the pass-through. My brother told me that my father had passed away. I said I’d be up, and I went back to facing the dairy.
You know, I love mindless tasks because I can get them done regardless of what state my mind is in, so I moved tubs of sour cream and yogurt forward in the cold cases, probably spinning the labels to ensure they faced out instead of mooning customers with their USDA nutritional values, when JoAnne, the other employee on duty (and Earlene’s aunt, if you’re making the org chart/family tree), appeared behind me.
“Oh, hon, why don’t you go home?” she asked, and she pulled me in for a hug. Apparently, my brother had called my mother, and my mother called the store and told the manager, whose name I still don’t remember paragraphs later. Who told JoAnne. Who sent me home, where I had no mindless tasks to not think about. I thought about leaving immediately to drive overnight to Milwaukee, but I opted to get a couple hours of sleep first.
I called my magazine editor from Milwaukee around 8 am from a pay phone in Clinton, Wisconsin, on the magazine’s 1-800 number to tell him I would not be in. I don’t remember my father’s laying in state, but I remember the funeral. My stepmother’s father stood and directed us to the second pew instead of the first, where the family sits; apparently, he considered his daughter and grandson the only family. I read a couple verses of the Bible at the lectern. When the service was over, the family was to follow the casket out to the grave site (in the church’s cemetery), and Tony stood up again to block my brother and I. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way,” I growled, and he yielded. I still get hot thinking about that, and he’s been dead himself for many years.
We interred my father. He had told my brother and I that he wanted bagpipes to play “Amazing Grace” at his service, but although we related that to our stepmother, she discarded what we had to offer.
The day after the funeral, my stepmother gathered my brother and I along with my aunts and uncles who were in town for a formal reading of a handwritten “will” that my father had written shortly before he passed away. In it, he bequeathed to me a Confederate flag, a Rebel cap, and a cap and ball pistol, and a sentence made it clear that my brother and I were not to carry off anything from the bar in his basement. My stepmother made sure to have the whole family there so that we could, what, be shamed? As I was leaving with the three effects, none of which meant anything to me of my father other than he left them to me, my stepmother told me not to put them in a garage sale when I got back to Missouri. Apparently, this angered my then-girlfriend who had flown up to attend the funeral with me more than it did with me. After all, it was on the spectrum of what I would expect from my stepmother. We did not have a good relationship.
It’s funny, and probably a poor reflection on me, how events from that era steam me up even today. Not as much as it used to, but still.
At any rate, 24 years. My father has been gone longer than he was alive when I was alive. In January, should I make it, I shall have lived longer than he did. My parents separated when I was nine, and we moved to Missouri when I was eleven, so I never got to know him as a young man or a man, really. I did get to live with him when I was attending college, so I got to know him a bit then, but I was a college kid unchained from a sheltered lifestyle, so I didn’t learn from him what I could have. I wonder what he would think of me now. I wonder if I would continue to disappoint him as I did then, but I think his estimation would have improved as I grew up (slowly) and I think he would have loved his grandsons.
Here’s a poem I wrote about him back when I was a poet. It appeared in the 1996 issue of Franklin & Marshall College’s Prolog magazine and in Coffee House Memories.
But through the fifth floor hospital panes
autumn steals slowly in.
The trees, agonizingly clear through ammonia glass, burst
into red gold pyres
for summer to lay its sunsets on.
Slanted roofs slide like days to the next.
Church spires stab the gelling gloom
and clutch the last tracings of light.
They were things once—
now textures, colors and strokes flat behind the glass.
The world blurs Impressionist
as waters trickle down,
and beneath the varnish of medication,
the November son slides into darkness.
Not the eulogy my mother got, but something.