Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Season of Remembering

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."
~ Mitch Ablom

Last weekend I read an excerpt from Michael Hainey's new book, After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story. The title of the excerpt was "My dad: 35 and dead." You can read it here.

The excerpt struck a chord, not least because this is the season of remembering for me. The season starts a week or two before February 11th, the anniversary of my mother's birth, and it peaks on March 2nd, the day my father died.

Dad has been gone 53 years. That's one year shy of the 54 years he lived. I was a little girl when he left us, but somehow he remains the most important influence on my life, and I continue to think of him every single day.

This is one of my favorite photos of my dad. There are surprisingly few of them. He was usually behind the camera – he loved his Leica. But this is how he was, or at least how I remember him. Always dapper, always ready for fun.

I believe that the last time I saw my father we were at an airport – I think it was Idlewild (now JFK), but it could have been La Guardia. He and my mom were heading to Florida on vacation. That's where he died.

Dad at my sister Betsy's wedding,
about six months before he died.
Mind you, this is probably a false memory – science tells us that the act of remembering rewrites history. And this memory is particularly untrustworthy because it came to me one day when I'd seen someone off at an airport and ended up sobbing for no good reason, as I always did. The sudden memory, if it was a memory at all, seemed to explain things.

In any case, dad had been ill for a while. He'd had a heart attack. His blood pressure was miles too high, and he was severely allergic to the only medication available in 1960 to control it. At first, just after his heart attack, he would wander around in his bathrobe and slippers and spend hours rearranging his slide trays; it made me unspeakably sad.

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”  

~ William Shakespeare

The days immediately following his death were all sorrow and chaos. There was a blizzard in New York. Dad's body made it out on a plane, but we didn't know if mom could get home in time for the wake (she did).

The thing that's been bothering me in this season of memories are all the things I don't know about my dad. I know he was terrific father and the kind of man people felt comfortable telling their troubles to. I know he loved New Orleans and adored the music of Al Hirt.

I know his parents came from Baltimore and at some point moved to New York City. I know that he, too, lost his dad when he was quite young. I know he liked sports and played hockey on a team called the All-Americans. But I don't know what life was like for him as a boy, what my grandfather was like, whether he ever knew his own grandparents, what family stories he grew up with and so much more. I never got a chance to ask him.

About three years ago a wonderful relative I never knew existed found my sisters and I through her genealogy research. She is descended from one of my paternal grandfather's brothers, who went to live in Cuba. When Castro came to power, she and her relatives moved to Iowa. She has been terrific at tracking down the past, and took these photos of Hush tombstones in a Baltimore graveyard. Everything I know about these people is inscribed on those stones.

If I had had any idea how the wondering would haunt me, I'd have made a list of questions and interviewed every relative I could find before it was too late. I'm dedicating this post to the younger generation in my family – and encouraging them to start asking their questions now.

Signing of with more Al Hirt for my dad.

“Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.”
~ Langston Hughes


  1. This is beautiful and poignant, Michele, and I'm so sorry for a loss that will never not feel like a huge loss. I'm fortunate that my dad wrote so much about his childhood in his small town in the Finger Lakes, because now even that seemingly indelible part of his memory is being erased. Thank you for sharing your dad with us. And the Al Hirt tracks are a wonderful tribute.

  2. Thank you, Susan. How fantastic that you and your family have your dad's writings; what a wonderful legacy, especially now that his memory is fading. It's something for future generations to treasure.

  3. My memory...He died 4 months before I was born. After raising 6 girls he had purchased a football for me in the hopes that I would be a boy. I never minded that I wasn't born the gender he had hoped for. O loved that he knew I was on my way and in family touch football games with the Corcoran's I was actually a fairly decent place kicker! I loved hearing stories about him when I grew up. Years ago my kids had a high school assignment to interview a grandparent. During Colleen's interview with mom she asked the question, "If there was anything in world or past events that you could change, what would it be." Mom's answer was so immediate and direct, "I want my father back." She wanted him to see her as a grown woman and to know her grand children. I was very fortunate to have known Granny so well. I have the fondest memories of baking with her, playing cards, eating tv dinners and sleep overs where she let me put on her dusting powder and perfumes. Remember the little playhouse in the back yard and the art lessons with you? A lot of my awareness of music and appreciation for it began with you and your extravagant record (Yes, LP's) in the basement. thank you for that. I believe that is one of the things that connected me to Kevin. We will be married 29 years this June! I'll have to check out some Al Hirt music now. Love you-Eileen

  4. Thank you, Eileen. I remember that football very well. As I'm sure you know, your grandfather would have loved you, his first granddaughter, just as much as any grandson, just as he loved each of his six daughters all the while hoping one would be a boy. Your mom, Terry, all of us want our father back. He was a wonderful man and it's so sad that he never got to know you.

    And yes, I remember that playhouse well. I also remember the great pleasure your Granny took in making it ready for you - restoring it, painting it, buying furniture for it and putting curtains up. What a great thing that was.

    Congratulations to you and Kevin - you're a great couple! And enjoy Al Hirt. Love you, too.