Sunday, February 19, 2017
My Father was a remarkable man, and he lived a long and truly blessed life. When he died on May 20th, he was almost a hundred and one years old, and I might have entirely missed knowing and appreciating him.
I have no idea where to begin, so many stories about my Dad’s intelligence, his impeccable memory, his endless curiosity and quick whit. His golfing buddies will testify how much he loved the sport and bridge partners will swear that he remembered every card played even when he was more than 100 years old. People will tell stories about his work ethic, his writing and stamp collecting. He was devoted to his family, our mother Lee, her sister Judy, his Dad, his brothers, our Uncle Donny and Rich, Uncle Chunk, his wife Freddy, and Bill, Don’s partner, his seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren as well as his many, deep friendships.
I want to share one memory that I changed our relationship. It’s also about memories. On one of my first visits to Huntington Commons, in part to hide my trepidation about not having visited for a long time (I almost called it off and probably would not have made the trip without Ashish’s encouragement and support) plus my personal fears about not measuring up, I tried to start a fun conversation--reminiscing about growing up.
We went back to the time when he was a young dad soon to have 4 kids, a new business, and the responsibility for an extended family that included our maternal grandmother, Nana, and mother’s sister, Judy, who was suffering from TB at a time when cure was far from certain. But our family life, thanks to both Mother and Dad, extended beyond those concerns.
Our parents had a close circle of friends, other young couples in Nichols. Bif and I went up and down Huntington Turnpike, and talked about the people we grew up with and their kids. Their shared experiences included learning life’s lessons during the Great Depression and fighting a great war, raising families and building schools, bike trips on Nantucket and family summers on Cape Cod. Bob and Mary Dunning, Dick and Barbara Sargent, Les and Shirley Nothanagle, Mae West, Dave Peck, the Flemmings with their eight kids, Bif remembered everyone.
Then there was the Milford Yacht Club, our memories of the countless summer weekends when we campaigned our Lightning up and down Long Island Sound with Wayne Brockett and our sailing friends, the life guards and sailing instructors who Dad had a hand in hiring. He spearheaded the first World Championship for the Lightening class in Milford, and that opened up the opportunity for him and mother to travel to Italy and Peru. When we talked about Ned and Emily Daly, their sons Ned and Jerry, he had me pick up the phone and call Ned Junior.
From the days of Ireland Heat Treating on the Post Road, we talked of his many loyal workers, his long-term secretary, Hilda Graff, whom was almost part of our family, and the men who’d encouraged Dad to go out on his own.
We drifted in and out of this conversation over the three days we spent together. For more than 60 years I believed a story I made up: that my Dad was distant, that just because we’d had a difficult time communicating (and of course that was entirely his fault, not mine), that Dad was somehow self-absorbed and not really in touch.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
He remembered details that I’d entirely forgotten or never heard before. But what really astonished me was the level of feeling, the kindness and compassion in his recollections. He talked of the happy events and the sad moments, the setbacks as well as the accomplishments in a way that made them present. It was so clear that he cherished these men and women. As we talked I could see his face change. I felt his admiration for their successes, sadness for their losses, and gratitude for their friendship. I can also tell you that if there was any funny story about any of the people we talked about, he told it with his gentle laugh and bright smile. That weekend he gave me a real gift—himself.
When I talk to my friends about my father, they are amazed that he lived such a long life, and that it was such a happy and rich life right to the end. They ask, “What was his secret?” Those of us who were close to him know that he was not perfect by any means, that he had his share of disappointments and sorrows, but when I look at his life for an antidote to life’s sufferings I marvel at the wonderful way he connected with so many people, accepting and treating everyone with an even hand, balanced with good humor and love.
I can’t close without thanking all the people here in Kennebunk who became part of Dad’s family during his last years, the friends and admirers who welcomed me when I came to visit. I will mention Ruth, Annette and Nancy, the Chandlers, by name, and I have to include Dick and Peg, who are no longer with us.
Julie, thank you for everything you did to make Dad’s last years so rich and fulfilling. You are a totally extraordinary woman.
It’s best to end with a funny story, and one that inspires me, as I grow older.
When we were celebrating Dad’s 90th birthday at Elen and Charlie’s ranch up in the high Arizona desert, I told Dad that my friends who were golfers (I am not one) were really impressed that he’d cut 7 strokes off his handicap since he was 85. He looked at me with a deadly serious face and said, “Well, Ken, I’m sorry that it isn’t true. … It’s 11. “
The photo was taken at Bif's 100th birthday party which we celebrated on Goose Rocks Beach, at the Tides Inn where he worked in the kitchen during the depression. Ruth, Dad, Annette, Julie and me.