12 Jun For my Dad,with Love
February 26, 2022
My mother and I want to thank you all for being here today. We have been so touched in these last few weeks by your generosity and care. Many of you have sent sweet messages of love and concern, brought food to the house, sent flowers, lent an ear or a shoulder to cry on, shared stories about my father, and much more. And as I was saying to one of our hospice nurses the other day, I do not live here in Virginia anymore, and most days I don’t miss it. But these last few weeks have really brought home to me the many virtues of southern culture: good Christian women feed you in times of sorrow, and it means something when you are in a girl’s wedding, no matter how much time has passed — she’s there for all of your own divorces, helps to bury the bodies, and shows up at your father’s passing to take your children for a few hours of joy, no questions asked. It means so very much that you have all come to remember my father, and to honor him and our family with your presence.
When I was beginning to put my thoughts together for today, a childhood memory floated into my mind, a memory of being at my father’s father’s funeral, some 30 plus years ago, during which I was becoming rather bored and fidgety, as children are wont to do. And I recalled my father, next to whom I was, as always, sitting, putting his hand on mine and leaning over to whisper to me: “It’s okay, dumplin’, I hate funerals too — they are too long, boring and everyone just wants to go home and eat.” I appreciated my father’s sympathy with my selfishness and impatience, and his honesty about the unpleasantness of burying those we love.
My father was a legend, even if it is cliche to say so of an old cop like him. Certainly, he was a legend to me. Dad was larger than life and yet was the kind of man we would describe as the “salt of the earth”; he was refined and yet rugged; he was courageous but measured; he was a man of few words, generally speaking, but the ones he did speak were usually rather high in value; as his friend and colleague, Chris Alberta describes him, he was a renaissance man in style and beliefs and yet a completely ordinary one in the best possible ways; he lived a lot of his life on the thinest of edges and and then spent the other part of it in his living room chair, docile as could be, watching Westerns; he was not given to sentimentality though was a deeply sensitive soul; he was a man of genuine conviction but a truly open mind; he had an admirable constancy to him but was never afraid to change with the times; he was an idealist in his principles but a realist in relationships; he was a merciful man with everyone from his daughter to convicts he put away, but he always came down on the side of Justice; he kept mercy on his tongue whenever possible, but he did not mince words when something needed saying; he had a way of cutting to the chase when the rest would avoid it, and he would not hesitate to lay someone low, even his flesh and blood, when there was good cause; he was proud but knew when to ask for forgiveness, and he was not too proud to ask it of his wife and daughter on a few occasions; he knew that you had to give respect if you expected to get it, and he knew how to show a person — even a person without a penny to his name or someone he was meeting on the worst day of their life — respect; and I suspect this served him well as a cop (I know it did as a parent); he loved Greek mythology as much as he loved motorcycles and fast cars; he was someone who lived with his heart on his sleeve and yet was also a deeply private person, always shrouded in a bit of mystery, which added to his mystique. There was just something about Dad. People were drawn to him, all of you. You could not help but favor him.
And everyone felt as though they knew my father, because he was so easy to know and to be around, and because he made everyone — anyone — feel seen. What a gift that was as a child, as a daughter, to be truly seen and heard by her father, to feel as though her voice mattered. It made all the difference for me. In fact, ever since I was a small child, my father would pick fights with me just to make me a worthy opponent, to make sure I had the grit and the fire a girl needed to make it in a man’s world. Maybe he wanted me to become lawyer. If he did, he never said. He never would have. But because of this skill honed in my youth, and because he never wanted me to be afraid to say what I thought, he and I always had a way of saying what needed to be said to one other. We often found ourselves in the unique position of saying things to each other that no one else had the guts to say. And there were many times over the course of each of our lives, when we both counted that as a blessing. I think it’s safe to say that there were times our ability to speak hard truths to one another saved his life; and I know there were times when it saved mine.
Dad was loving, honest, good-hearted and so very funny. And he was, as my Uncle Dale said just the other day, an incredibly generous and magnanimous person, for which we believe he will get rather “high marks” at the pearly gates. Dad had a kind of transparency to him and a ballast that let you know that what you saw was what you got, every time; he did not put on airs, and he did not much care for people who did. Most folks knew, for better or for worse, where they stood with my father, and that standing was often a measure of much more than my father’s like (or dislike) of a person. It was a measure of character, of values, of the quality of your soul. Sometimes I measured up, and sometimes I didn’t; but I always knew where I stood and the distance I had to go.
And since my dad always knew how to take the measure of a person, I would not be doing right by him if I stood up here and pretended that he was perfect. In fact, he would hate that. Being human, Dad had plenty of failings. As most of you know, he battled a drinking problem for many years, which he eventually overcame by way of the love of my mother, sheer determination, and a lot of hard work; his sobriety was hard won, as it is for many, and it was a point of pride for him, for all of us; he could be quick-tempered and rowdy at times; he took risks with his body that caused him pain and us a lot of heartache; he could be stubborn and impatient at times; and if he didn’t feel like coming down for Christmas dinner, he definitely didn’t; he was rather set in his ways, at the end of his life. But all of this, in a way, only made you love him more, because he lived life on his own terms, and personal freedom was a value he held very dear. He expected the same of others, that they, too, would live their lives as they, and not anyone else, saw fit, and this has stood me in good stead over the years.
The most important thing to know about my dad is that he loved my mother more than anything. And she loved him. Theirs was a love story like no other. Many of you were with us when we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, which, I believe, was Dad’s last hurrah, as it were. My parents were completely devoted to each other for nearly all their lives, each one taking the other into account every little step along the way. Mother, elegant, refined, the very picture of southern style and grace, a banker, she turned out to be; Dad, a little rough around the edges, especially in his younger years working undercover, a cop of all things, but with long hair, a beard, cut-off jeans and chewing tobacco. A perfect match somehow, and no one ever doubted it. One of the secrets to their marriage was its longevity itself. One of my favorite ancient philosophers, Plutarch, wrote that people who have been married a long time can withstand a lot, whereas young couples need to put in the hard work and time that it takes to resolve disagreements. In Advice to the Bride and Groom he writes this:
“In the beginning, especially, married people ought to be on their guard against disagreements and clashes, for they see that household vessels that are made of sections joined together are at the outset easily pulled apart by any fortuitous cause, but after a time, when their joints have become set, they can hardly be separated by fire and steel.” And I would add to that even death. They have been each other’s greatest blessing in life, and my father would surely never have made it this long without her.
In the final days, when it was becoming clear what precious little time we had left, and dad and I knew it was, once again, time to say those hard truths to one another, I told him how sorry I was that I had not always managed to live up to his expectations of me as a daughter. And he looked me deeply in the eyes, and then got that little mischievous look so familiar to me, even now, and the corners of his mouth turned up just bit, and he said softly, “That’s okay, sugar, you’re young, you’ve still got plenty of time to get there.” I appreciated his humor, even in that sorrowful moment, and the reminder that our work is never done, we are always be-coming something — and exactly what, is up to us.
It was and is an honor to be my father’s daughter, and if you knew him, the honor was yours, too. Again, thank you all for being here today. He would have been pleasantly surprised that you all turned up.