And did you get what
You wanted from life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.
“Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
From “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
These are the poems I read at my father’s memorial service on Sunday. I put off practicing them for the longest time, mainly because I didn’t want to think about the service. I did buy some new clothes for myself and for Noah in various shades of gray and blue, after Beth researched the question of what to wear to a memorial service (black or muted colors is the answer if you need to go to one yourself). Still, I resisted even looking at the poems until a few days before the service. The grief I felt after Dad’s death in January had faded more quickly than I thought it would, probably because I saw him so infrequently—he just wasn’t part of my day-to-day life. I knew this was going to bring it all back and make it real again and I wasn’t relishing that. My sister said she’d been putting off writing her speech, presumably for the same reason.
But she wrote the speech and I practiced the poems and two o’ clock Sunday found us seated in the journalism building at Columbia University waiting to begin. It had been something of a wild ride getting there.
We woke that morning at my mom’s house outside Philadelphia. We’d driven up Saturday and were planning to leave June with my mom and stepfather. As we were sorting items to take with us to New York and those to leave at Mom’s house, I discovered we didn’t have Noah’s nice shoes. I could remember getting them out of his closet, but I had no clear memory of putting them in his suitcase. It looked like Noah would be wearing his crocs to the service unless we stumbled across a shoe store en route between Penn Station, the guesthouse and Columbia because we didn’t have time for a detour. At least he’d be wearing underwear, though, because when we realized we hadn’t packed any for him the night before, my mom had run out to Target to buy some. If you’re scratching your head and remembering the times last summer when we left his pajamas at home (West Virginia trip) or his whole suitcase (North Carolina trip) and wondering why we can’t pack for Noah—I have no idea.
But as I was considering Noah’s shoes, Beth told me, “We have a bigger problem.” She couldn’t find the folder with the addresses of everywhere we needed to go, the maps she’d printed and our train tickets.
“It’s okay,” she said, not sounding at all okay. “We can buy new tickets.” I agreed, though we were both nervous on the way to the station. I wondered, would there be time? Would there be seats left on the train? But there was no way to find out, other than to go. I didn’t even tell my mom as we left her house, because I didn’t want her to fret. Beth and I had that covered. To take my mind off the tickets, I read the poems aloud to Beth and Noah as we waited for a SEPTA train to take us to 30th Street Station. I explained the Tennyson one to Noah after I’d finished. He said he’d understood “about 50%” of it.
Once in the station we found a ticket kiosk and purchased new tickets. There was time. There was room on the train. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in New York. We took the subway to our guesthouse. Our lodging had also been the source of a little anxiety because my uncle David had found it and the price seemed just too good to be true. Would the neighborhood be dicey, would it be a roach-infested dump? Online reviews proved positive, though, so we’d made the reservations. And it was fine. The neighborhood felt safe and it was clean and quiet inside. It had a shabby, eccentric charm. Space was at a premium and used creatively. Our shower was not in the bathroom, but in a closet down the hall. There was a pretty pressed tin ceiling in our room and the bed was comfortable. Now the front door of the building was hard to unlock and it was a little tricky to track down the manager so we could pay and then when we found out it had to be cash, we had to go searching for an ATM, and getting the cot we’d requested for Noah and sheets for it was another adventure, but we paid $72 for three people to stay in New York so I am most definitely not complaining. I will take David’s advice on lodging any day.
We ate lunch at a pizzeria around the corner (where we found the ATM we needed). It was greasy and delicious. I really liked the garlic rolls and wrapped the leftovers in foil to take with me. After a quick and fruitless search for boys’ dress shoes in some neighborhood shops, we met up with David and walked to the service.
David is my father’s brother, two years younger. I hadn’t seen him since my father’s fiftieth birthday party in 1993, but I’d seen some recent pictures on his wife’s Facebook page just a few weeks ago and I’d been surprised by how much more he looks like Dad as he’s aged. My first sight of those familiar features online hurt and delighted me at same time. So I was even more surprised to see him face to face and to discover he’s shaved his head. I was a tiny bit disappointed because it definitely reduced the resemblance. Soon I was seeing it again, though. He has the same eyes, not just the dark coffee-brown color, but also something in the expression and the way the skin wrinkles around them. David’s nose is similar, too, but it was his eyes that felt comforting.
David lives in Costa Rica, so he and Noah spoke a little in Spanish as we walked to the university and he told a story of how when they were six and eight, Dad made him pick a library book to take home before he could read because Dad “wasn’t going to have a brother who didn’t read.” David says he learned quickly, partly out of intimidation on my father’s part and partly out of a desire to emulate his older brother and parents, all of whom gathered in the living room to read each evening.
There were at least one hundred and fifty people at the service and at times it felt like I spoke with most of them, either beforehand or afterwards, at the reception. It was overwhelming for me so I can’t imagine how it must have been for Ann. A lot of the people attending I’d never met, but they wanted to extend their condolences. Others remembered me from when I was “this high.” They all held their hands at about June-height. Apparently, a hand held thirty six and a half inches from the floor is the universal symbol for “small child.” A lot of them I did remember, though. I saw Ann’s brother Peter and her aunt Doris and uncle Art for the first time in decades. Lee, the trainer for the racehorses Dad used to own, was there. There were old neighbors, too, but mostly there were Dad’s colleagues. It was a writer’s send-off and you could tell. There were ten eulogies.
We sat in the front row, which was reserved for family and speakers, close enough to smell the big bouquet of pink and white lilies and carnation onstage. Noah was the only child in the room and he did a reasonably good job sitting still through a lot of long, grown-up speeches. When he started to kick his legs too vigorously, Beth would lay a hand on his thighs and he’d stop.
I won’t try to summarize the eulogies. When a wordsmith dies, it’s amazing how much text is generated in the form of public obituaries and blog posts and private emails, letters and cards. My stepmother has been forwarding all the emails and links she receives to me and to my sister and I have read it all. I think the most important thing I have learned from reading and listening to all these memories and observations of my father is what a valued mentor he was to other writers. Countless people have said he gave them confidence in themselves and made them better writers.
Two of the eulogies were more personal. Sara spoke movingly about Dad as a father—the eccentric ways in which he showed his love for us. Dad’s friend Bob Schwabach talked about their friendship and how he introduced my father to the racetrack. It was a long, rambling and funny speech that ended, “He was the smartest guy I knew and I loved him.” What more needed to be said? I concluded with the poems and that was the end of the program.
At the reception, Sara taped Schwabach and Lee telling more stories about Dad and we ate tiny cupcakes, cheesecakes and brownies. My dad had a wicked sweet tooth and he loved coffee so I thought it was fitting that at the reception they served nothing but coffee and dessert.
Sara had been to Dad and Ann’s apartment earlier in the day and sorted through some things. She brought me the following mementos: a yellow metal toy car, a wooden elephant wearing a beaded harness, a watch, a leather shoulder bag, some family photos and a t-shirt from the Green Parrot Bar in Key West. The back says “No Sniveling Since 1890.” It was originally printed “Snivelling” but Dad had used White Out to correct the spelling. I love this. She also gave me a bag full of sympathy cards on loan from Ann.
We ate dinner at The Deluxe Diner (http://www.deluxenyc.com/) near Columbia. My plan was to order a chocolate malted because Dad loved them. Sara was going to get one, too, and when the waitress told us they were out of malt powder such a gasp went out around the table that the poor woman was taken aback.
Despite the lack of malteds, it was a good meal, with good company. David and Sara and I laughed about how many people spoke or wrote about Dad’s humility or lack of ego, because that was not at all how we had known him. (I should say this comment was almost always in a professional context, usually about how he made sure his writers got credit and never tried to steal their glory when they won prizes. Under his stewardship there were a lot of prizes for writers at The Inquirer.) David said when I was reading the poems he didn’t want me to finish because it would mean the service was over and we would all need to move on.
Monday morning, we said our goodbyes to David, visited the New York Hall of Science (http://www.nysci.org/) in Queens and made our long journey home (three trains, then a three-hour drive). While June was at school this morning, I read through the stack of sympathy cards. They were different than the ones I received, more detailed, because they came, for the most part, from people who knew Dad. They also came from a generation of people who own dark-bordered stationary for writing letters to the bereaved. A couple of the letters were typed on actual typewriters. Somehow, this really brought home that when my father’s peers follow him in death, it will be the end of an entirely different era from the one in which we live, and that made me sad all over.
But as so many people have pointed out, the dead live on in the lives of those they’ve touched. Much abides.
I’ve been tagged to do the Ten Things You Might Not Know About Me meme by not one but two bloggers, Tara of 040508 (http://www.040508.blogspot.com/) and Tyffany of Come What May (http://btmommy.blogspot.com/). I think the name is self-explanatory, but I can never do these memes straight. I always have to find an angle that turns it into something I really want to write about at that moment, so here are ten things about me that come from my father (some of which you probably already do know if you read here regularly, but bear with me.) I see some of them reflected in his brother and my sister and my kids, too, because we’re all part of what abides, along with the mark he left on the writers with whom he worked and on American journalism as a whole. Here’s the list:
1. My brown eyes
2. My high forehead
3. My sweet tooth
4. My stubborn streak
5. My pedagogical bent
6. My love of the written word
7. My love of narrative
8. My love of newspapers
9. The most excellent last name a lesbian could want
10. My children with their high foreheads, stubborn streaks and love of words and stories.
When I was pregnant with Noah I visited Dad and showed him the ultrasound picture. “He has the Lovelady forehead,” Dad commented. I agreed and ventured that I thought he had the Higgins nose, too. “Baby noses mean nothing,” he said in his exasperatingly imperious way. While they are also Higginses, and Allens and Niehauses and, genetically at least, parts of families we don’t know, they are most definitely Lovelady children.