“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”
Paul Tsongas, New York Times, January 14, 1987
I’ve been thinking about Tsongas lately because of a comment made to my brother-in-law after my father’s memorial service over Memorial Day weekend. It was the middle of a hot Saturday afternoon in Houston, at Christ Church Presbyterian, where my two Houston sisters and their families, as well as my dad, worshipped. We were gathered at the back of the sanctuary for punch and cookies time, which is the (some might say telling) Protestant equivalent of a wake or sitting shiva.
An Exxon executive said to Fred, “The most amazing thing about this memorial service is that none of the tributes mentioned what Paul did for a living.”
This was meant to be a compliment to my father, although some might say revealing of the speaker, as well.
I had just been mulling something similar. All of us who spoke had been talking about the same person. This is a kind of harmony that can be rare at funeral events. If you have attended as many as I have (and I haven’t been to all that many), you know this to be true.
Keeper of Secrets.
The memorable occasion for my four sisters and me was the afternoon we walked into Memphis Funeral Home to hold the visitation hour for my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, who had never married and who the family comfortably assumed to be homosexual.
Uncle Watty’s closest living relative was my mother, who nevertheless did not feel well enough to leave Houston and return to Memphis for her brother’s funeral. So we her five daughters had travelled to Memphis to take her place. I hadn’t seen Watty for many years, the last time in San Francisco, where he loved to visit, where he hung out with the coast-to-the-river gay crowd—as I knew well, since Watty and I had a few acquaintances in common there.
Arriving early to the funeral home in preparation for a steady arrival of people we presumed would be our guests, what did my sisters and I encounter? A room full of grieving men and women—brothers and sisters—exactly our ages—and an older woman, bereft, weeping. That was the afternoon we discovered that my Uncle Watty had had a secret life. In his early fifties, he had met a Memphis woman, a widow, a Catholic with five young children, in New Orleans, his second favorite city. She was a lovely woman. I was happy to make her acquaintance, if only briefly, for she passed away within a year of my uncle.
After New Orleans, Watty and Joan had lived together in Memphis for the next two decades. Watty had been a father to her children. But my uncle had never told his blood relatives any of this. He kept his bachelor apartment, where my mother and his other sister (then living) thought he lived. Indeed my mother drove out to this apartment in the Germantown suburbs at least once a week.
What you have to understand here, to begin to grasp my amazement, is that Memphis is not all that large a city. 400,000 people. Divide that by 2 and you have 200,000 white people. Whittle down to only the old families—whose purpose in life seems to be, sometimes, keeping track of each other—and truly you have to wonder how my uncle managed to keep to himself the treasure he found late in life.
Well, that was the idea. Keeping his happiness intact. And away from the scrutiny of the family that might ruin it. Obviously, another story—a very Southern story—here. Maybe another day. This piece is supposed to honor my father.
My father was also a keeper of secrets—a man of his generation, really. That Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II and never afterwards spoke of it. Unless, like my father, he had a daughter and later a granddaughter who sat with him, as if they had all the time in the world, and chivvied him into speech.
My sister Paula recorded Dad on his years in the Navy. At the same time, she researched the medals to which Dad was entitled, acquired them through the VA and framed them for Dad. Quite an array. When the War ended, most of these had not yet been designed, much less struck. And young men were not interested in medals; they just wanted to get on with their lives.
My sister Julia’s daughter Karen spent a summer, home to Houston from Georgetown, recording Dad’s reminiscences about growing up in 1920s Iowa, small town and farm life, the Depression, falling in love and going off to war. Dad called Karen “Little Bit.” She took time to hang out with him and was his favorite, deservedly, among the grandchildren.
At Dad’s memorial service in Houston, all the grandchildren read portions of the memoirs Karen had recorded and later, the following summer, transcribed.
My daughter Mayhill Courtney read this excerpt, my dad recalling his last Christmas at home before going off to war.
“At Christmas time at home in Iowa we always had a lot of snow generally speaking, but for you that have never been in a nice quiet snow, and I mean one where the wind isn’t blowing it’s just gently snowing big flakes and in a little town like Clear Lake at night if it was snowing like that if there was any traffic on the streets it would be muffled by the snow. And so if you went out and walked which I had done several times in the past growing up, if you went out when it was just gentle snowing, no wind, but it was really coming down, it was the most peaceful and the most exhilarating feeling that you could feel. And anybody that’s done that they know that feeling. Because the whole world is quiet and it is really just something to feel and to have experienced.”
I promise you that the temperature on that hot Houston Saturday afternoon dropped. During the punch hour, I can’t think how many people (elderly—who else attends a memorial service on a holiday weekend?) said they were off to write their own memoirs.
Dad had never been a wordsmith. More—he was Scandinavian, half Norwegian, half Danish. Not saying much was in his genes. But now for the first time since my parents had moved from Memphis to Houston fifteen years earlier, where my dad had attended Christ Church almost every Sunday, his fellow congregants knew him, at last.
Another truism about the Greatest Generation is that these men were not in touch with their feelings. From my observation, this is truth. It would be fair to say of my dad, as well, that he was not in touch with his own body. He had grown up as a Scandinavian Lutheran, after all. Therefore, even though he was a religious man, as he grew older he could not nevertheless face the prospect of death.
I used to wonder, jokingly, if he thought, even though he was progressing through his eighties, maybe he was going to be the only man on the planet not to have to face that reality.
After my mom died (horribly, of Alzheimer’s), Dad had more than six great years. He was the center of a loving quartet (the three women who were his caregivers and Dad); he had an epistolary romance with one of my mother’s sorority sisters; he reaped the benefits (some might say at last) of having five daughters; he enjoyed his grandchildren. Slowly, he came to accept that his days were numbered. I remember in particular his last Father’s Day, and how he savored it.
These years were God’s gift, I believe—for his fidelity towards my mother, who was one of the most difficult of women. Even though she treated him badly, he ever loved her.
For Christians, human relationships exist not in and of and for themselves, but as a pattern through which we can know God. In the end, that’s the meaning of parenting: we love our children even though they try us sorely. Through that experience, we understand how God loves us. Just one example of what I’m pointing to here.
Somehow, for my dad, I always knew that part of the gift would be a quick dispatch. And indeed it was. His caregiver Olga called the paramedics to take him to the ER a Monday afternoon about 4 PM because he had started shaking. My two Houston sisters joined them there. The thinking was that a persistent urinary tract infection had flared. Tests were done. Dad felt better and demanded to go home. Suddenly, his eyes rolled back in his head; he was unconscious. Despite all the ER efforts, he was dead within a few hours, never having regained consciousness, all his organs failing one by one. Massive septic shock, the tentative diagnosis.
Again, that Scandinavian DNA. A man with a lower pain threshold might have begun to feel badly days earlier.
My happiest final memory of my dad: a wedding shower for my Chicago nephew and his fiancée over Easter weekend, at Dad’s house. He was about to lose the house, because he was running out of money. The Quartet, and all. My sisters and I were moving him into an assisted living facility. But Dad insisted on staying in his house through the wedding shower.
My nephew’s fiancée arrived, wearing a white bandage-style sundress. She has a beautiful figure and looked drop-dead gorgeous. Dad’s eyes lit. He said, “You can pick ‘em, John Mark.”
I laughed to myself, thinking how great it is that at least for some things men never get too old.
The Big Six.
About a month before he died, Dad told my sister Karen, who in the between-caregivers hours put him to bed every night, that he wanted to be cremated. He wanted part of his ashes scattered at his favorite duck hunting camp down in Mississippi.
And so we honored his wishes.
A Memphis gathering. On a Saturday in July we buried some of my dad next to my mother, in a family plot that her father had bought for his beloved second wife, who died in her forties of heart trouble, as people said back then. My sister Nancy had done some research and discovered that any local Veterans group will provide an honor guard and bugler for a veteran. Two Marines presented my sisters and me with a flag, first folded according to ceremony, while the Navy hymn played on my sister’s tape recorder.
“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation,” the Marine holding out the flag said. At the farthest edge of the hill, the Marine bugler played “Taps.”
The next morning, very early, because of the heat and insects, we caravanned down to the Big Six, in Mississippi. This duck camp, once owned by Dad’s best friend, was named after the bridge the WPA built over a small river tributary there back in the 1930s. Dad’s friend, confined to a wheel chair, had long since sold the property. But the new owner, who of course had never known Dad, nevertheless had brought in a tractor and cleared a path for us through the woods.
My sisters and I, several sundry and assorted daughters and husbands, walked in. The deep woods, which in autumn would be flooded in order to lure the ducks, were mostly dry in July—a paradise for cicadas, frogs and butterflies. Our expedition was led, and indeed had been facilitated, by the son of Dad’s best friend. His name is Bill Craddock—just like his dad.
We three oldest sisters had grown up next door to Bill and his sister Linda during the 1950s. That Sunday morning Bill and Linda accompanied us. Bill brought his silver wedding goblet and a very large silver spoon, for Dad’s ashes.
And so we scooped Dad and scattered him across the land that in Big Six flood season would become the potholes that had been his favorites to lie in wait for ducks.
My youngest nieces, Mary and Nadia, ages twelve and ten, had cried so much at Dad’s passing. I like to think that our trip down to the Big Six gave them comfort. But I don’t know.
The last spot the sisters and I threw Dad was towards a slight opening in the woods. “You see,” I said to Mary and Nadia, standing next to me, “it’s like Bapa has gone on ahead of us; we can see the beginning of the path he took–no further. We can’t see the end. But he is making a way for us, and some day long in the future we will follow and join him.”
My brother-in-law, a staunch Christian, retorted, “Of course, we can see where he has gone!”
Closure with Dad had come in many ways, and it, too, was a gift. Growing up, I had not been particularly close to Dad, although I never doubted his love. Mother had been the dominant presence in our house; my sisters and I gravitated to her presence.
In my forties, I determined to get to know Dad, to spend as much time with him as with Mom. I had much to learn and to savor—and a little to let go. By that time, I had realized that my father had not been the force in my life that some of my friends’ fathers had. I felt the loss of the paternal advice and guidance that had helped these friends. But if ever there were a man who kept his own counsel, he was Paul Anderson.
Growing up arises, in part, from a gradual appreciation of the parental point of view. I had not been perfect either. I began to see all the ways I had, as a teenager, tried Dad’s patience. What a little Ivy League know-it-all I had been. Yet he loved me. Got past my faults.
So now I got past his. For the next twenty years, Dad and I enjoyed one another’s company. In conversation. In companionable silence. In a growing bond of unspoken understanding.
Through Dad I came to realize that life is, in the end, so much about forgiveness.
That was the big closure. A small was my moment at the lectern in Christ Church Presbyterian that hot June afternoon. Whenever I attend church—no matter which—I seldom agree with the sermon, recasting the argument in my head, dissatisfied because the preacher has not hit upon what is most interesting in the Scripture that he or she is elucidating.
At last, on May 23, my turn. A testament of faith. A testament to my dad.
‘“The Lord’s foundation is in the holy mountains.’
‘God! How say you to my soul—flee as a bird to your mountain!’
Here are the opening lines of Psalm 87 and Psalm 11, very different in tone, the first sung in faith, the second in peevishness and doubt. For the past two years, I’ve been reading the Psalms, and among the many striking things about their variety is the oneness of their geography of God.
God does not live far away beyond the stars, or in the heavens—although He created the heavens—but on a mountain. On one, or many, of the high places on this earth, where birds nest, where we too sometimes can climb.
A mountain: a geography we can see, we can reach. Even so, we can know God, for at one and the same time He is always with us even as He dwells apart on that mountain the Bible names Zion.
Imagining death, the Psalmist sings of joining God on His mountain, in every mountain space, under His tent, in His high house, in its grand tabernacle, in its outermost courtyard.
And so, in the fullness of time, my dad, our dad, our grandfather, our Bapa, our friend Paul, has joined our Lord in His holy mountain.
And just as God is with us and away, so our Bapa is both with us always, while now dwelling apart from us, in the holy mountain. For Bapa lives in our memories and in our hearts, in our faces and in our genes, in our inheritance from him of integrity and steadfastness and fidelity—an inheritance for which we honor him by passing it on to the next generation.
In Psalm 84, the Psalmist sings:
‘How amiable are your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, even faints—for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Yes! The sparrow has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—even your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God.
Blessed are they who dwell in Your house. They will still be praising you.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee: in whose heart are the ways of them who passing through the valley make it a well where the rain fills the pools.
They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appears before God.’
And so our Bapa is standing in Zion, appearing before God. As for us, gathered here together this afternoon, we are at the foot of the mountain, but we are looking up, almost able to touch, almost able to reach both Bapa and our God. We are very close. We will always be close. For that is the geography of faith.
We are gathered together. It’s like we are holding hands, circled around the foot of the mountain, in the presence of the God of the Psalms, remembering Paul Clair Anderson and giving thanks for this man so dear to us. He was indeed a strong man, in his faith and in his care of us, and yes, he went “from strength to strength,” and filled the pools of our lives with his steadfastness.
We lift our faces. We can almost see God and our Bapa with him. It is not yet our time to join them on the mountain. But in the living now we try to honor, to keep and to pass on, the gifts that both God and this man we love have given us.”
For Dad, the mountain was the Bix Six. From the verge of those woods, we said our farewell.