[Shortly after my father passed away in February, I posted a lengthy remembrance that told his life story in miniature. Dad was buried last Friday at a military cemetery in central New Hampshire. A veteran who served with the Marine Corps in Korea, he was accorded military honors. After the service, family and friends gathered in a nearby restaurant to share a lunch and tell some stories about the person we remembered. This is what I had to say.]
I’d like to thank everyone for coming today, to the interment, to lunch, and for making some time to remember our father. It means a great deal to Cassi, to Barbara, to my uncles Paul and Bobby, to me and to my five brothers and sisters, and to our extended family.
Let’s all take a moment to thank my sister Colleen, in particular, who has been worrying for months about this day, this lunch, that salad, maybe which dressing … She really took on every detail, and it shows. She’s stubborn for details.
If you knew my father, you knew he could be stubborn, too. I think they teach ‘stubborn’ in the Marines, but maybe Dad took the graduate course.
He had his rules. Cross him on a rule and he’d quickly give you a piece of his mind.
- Talk too much? “Stop yer yuk-yukking!”
- Talk when sports or maybe M*A*S*H was on TV? “Try and keep it down to a dull roar, willya?”
- Leave the front door open in winter? “We’re not heating the neighborhood!”
- Not taking responsibility for something? Dad would point his index finger and say, “You’ve got more excuses than Carter’s got liver pills!”
- And of course, “If you don’t like it, you can go pound sand.”
We’re Irish, so we’re predisposed to remember slights and hold grudges. Dad did some of that, but I came to see that the thing that angered him most was feeling like he was being talked down to.
And that cut both ways: he’d grab my ear any time he felt that I was acting in a way that was superior to someone else. In a turbulent household, my sisters and brothers and I were raised to see ourselves as equal to anyone else, but not better.
At times, Dad could be loud, profane and embarrassing. Growing up, we were sort of the Clampetts of West Peabody. I remember how we used to play whiffleball in the front yard, with small objects placed where each of the bases would be. One day, I was laying out third base and noticed the ground was all spongey.
It turns out the septic tank had overflowed to the point that it was starting to push to the surface. That night, I told Dad what I’d found, and he didn’t say a word. After I was done talking, he looked at me for a while, as if I’d been speaking the whole time in French. Finally, he said, “I think it’s time to move third base.”
Unlike me, more like most of my siblings, Dad could talk to anyone. More to the point, I think it was impossible for him to not talk to someone. Everyone was a prime target. Imagine if he was your usher for a pre-season game at Wide World of Sports. You’d know his take on the whole park before you sat down, and you’d have heard his life story before the game was over.
He was fiercely loyal. I remember a story he’d tell all of us, time and again, about his brother Bobby, who was an accomplished distance runner in high school and college. At one race, an indoor event with a tunnel covering part of the track, my uncle Bobby would go into the tunnel in the lead and come out in second or third place. He’d regain the lead, only to come out of the tunnel in third place again.
It turns out that my uncle – Dad’s brother – was getting tackled every time he was out of sight. The last lap, he sprinted free and won the race. At the finish line, my Dad said, Bobby stopped, turned around and clocked the guy who had been manhandling him in the tunnel. In various tellings, my Dad and/or my uncle Paul tumbled out the stands to join a near melee at the finish.
Honestly, facts and legends kind of collided in some of these stories, but the lessons never changed. Each was simple. Here, the smaller lesson is obvious: “Don’t back down from a fight.” But the deeper one also stayed with us: “We take care of our own.”
Dad didn’t do a lot of big things, but I’ve seen him do small things really well. In the middle of 2009, we had a family reunion in Boston, and the extended clan got Red Sox tickets that included a chance to stand on the warning track, shagging fly balls during batting practice. The Red Sox gave us each a souvenir glove, mostly to keep us from getting beaned.
Turns out there was no batting practice that day. As a bit of over-compensation, the Red Sox brought the 2004 and 2007 World Series trophies to where we were having lunch before the game. My Dad [on the right in the picture that starts this post] and his brother Paul got to hold them while we took as many pictures as we possibly could.
After he put the trophy down, my father noticed a boy, maybe six or seven years old, on the outside of the place we were standing. The kid was taken with the trophies – I mean, who wouldn’t be? – and my father went over to talk with him.
A couple of minutes later he asked me, “Where’s your glove?” I said, “Right here.” He picked it up and started to walk away with it. I said, “Where are you going?” He turned back to me and said, “I’m giving it to the kid. He doesn’t have a glove. I’d give him mine, but he’s right-handed.”
Yeah, he had just been handed the 2004 World Series trophy, and he had an eye out for a kid he had never met.
Shortly after he passed, I wrote (somewhat sparingly) that Dad had lived a “varied and occasionally complicated life.” He made mistakes, and he recovered from a lot of them… “the odds of faith in the face of doubt”. When it came to living a full life, he didn’t leave a lot on the table.
It was Robert Louis Stevenson who said, “Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.” If there are lessons Dad would want you to take on your cruise, they might be these:
- Just put out the trash. It won’t kill you.
- Golf more. Work is okay, but mostly it’s just a job.
- Duct tape. Trust me. Solves almost any problem.
- Don’t be late. It screws things up to a faretheewell.
- Don’t put someone in a corner. They don’t like it, and you’re not gonna like it that much either.
- It’s never too late to make up for a mistake. Well, almost never.
- And (to borrow from William Butler Yeats) there are no strangers. Just friends that we haven’t met yet.
Thank you for being here, for all of us. Colleen hopes you liked the lunch. And if you didn’t like it… Well, Colleen says you can go pound sand.