My father died last week. He was 78.
Today is Thanksgiving, and it seems a good time to tell about him.
I can't give more than snapshots of parts of his life: we spent years continents apart, and a lot of what I saw was filtered through a child's "Isn't everybody's home like this?" Well, no; lots of families move from city to city, but not very many move to Africa as missionaries. Especially not when the team is a nurse and an accountant.
Some glimpses seem general: he loved music, and many times I found him sitting listening with his eyes closed, conducting to a symphony. I'm told that when he was in high school in New Orleans he would usher in order to get "usher seats" for performances he couldn't otherwise afford. Classical instrumental, African contemporary, and a lot in between filled his music collection.
He loved reading, and ranged from William Temple and Buber to Shaw and Haggard and H. Allan Smith. He didn't talk a lot about books with me, oddly enough, and I had to discover Charles Williams for myself. But books were everywhere, and evenings with everyone reading were perfectly normal. When he noticed I had started reading James Bond he gave his Ian Fleming collection away, but a couple of years later in a used book store he recommended Son of Rhubarb.
He wasn't a man for oratory or giving a commentary on what he was doing. He tried to figure out what needed to be done, and then went and did it without (in my hearing) griping.
And he didn't rush to judgement. Though he was mistaken from time to time, he always tried to be just, and understand the whole picture. And I don't remember him rendering judgement "for practice:" if the situation didn't require a judgement, he didn't always bother to develop one.
He didn't have the temperment of a hacker or an engineer. He wasn't interested in kludges; he wanted the job done precisely and professionally. Which is a good attitude for an accountant, and one he tried to instill in me. I remember him telling me several times to "go with quality," and to spend the time and money to maintain things correctly. On my own, as a poor college student, I had to temper this approach with fiscal constraints; but he was right. (Not that it helped at the time: when the car is broken and you have $12.97 you can't hire the mechanic or even buy the right tools, so you worry along with a screwdriver and pliers and hope your fix holds.)
He tried to do the right thing by his children. I remember him running a Christmas filmstrip and record every year in California, trying to make sure we had the real Christmas story as part of the rituals of the season. He bought books to help try to teach us the Great Books, though in the event we didn't use them. He made sure we had good schools, and took advantage of opportunities. When I signed up for my senior year's courses, I casually mentioned as we were driving away that I'd been offered a post as lab assistant for biology. He reversed the car back up the driveway and ordered me to go back in and take it. (He was right, as usual.) And if I had a question, he'd try to answer it, no matter how odd or taboo the subject might be.
He had patience for details, but only a limited amount for foolishness. The biggest explosion I ever heard from him came when he objected to some carelessness of mine by quoting Paul "When I became a man I put away childish things." I responded that "But I am a child!" Bad mistake.
This is a hopeless exercise. The picture of the man I want to make is a pointillist image of thousands of events, each small, but together making up a man who cared and worked hard and thought hard and cultivated a dry sense of humor. And he was my father, and I inherit both from his life and his body. Who I am is partly from him and from the life he tried to live.
Years ago my parents decided to disperse part of their library, and offered us kids our choice of books from a long list. I asked for quite a few, and from the books I can tell how wide-ranging was his curiosity, and from the positions of the bookmarks I can tell which he didn't get around to finishing. Me too: more projects and ideas than I have years to finish them in.
He persisted. (I get distracted more easily.)
I left home for college, and we lived thousands of miles apart for most of the next 20 years, and then half a thousand miles for the next 10. I wish we could have been closer, and talked more; but he had his obligations, and so do I.
In the last couple of years he slowly drifted away from us as the dementia progressed, but even at the nursing home the nurses admired his sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanour (which is hard to maintain when you have trouble with a fork). He lost his skills, but not his character.
The chapel at his church was not small. It was completely full at his funeral. And we are still hearing from his friends around the world. He was an accountant who did the boring work so that the more spectacular missionary work could go on, and he was a great man, and I love him.