On Monday, Dad would have turned 81. He died from ALS in 2009, at age 69.
Most years, February 1 comes and goes, and I just notice in passing. Maybe due to the greater isolation this year, this one hit me harder.
He was the first college professor I ever knew. When I visited his workplace as a kid — Holmes Hall at SUNY Brockport — it struck me as exotic. It had stenciled paint on the water fountains alerting everyone that “due to the energy crisis, water cooling has been turned off” (or words to that effect). Most of the professors had cartoons on their doors — still one of my favorite features of higher education — and I got an early sense of the academic sense of humor. The buildings were impossibly square and notably ugly, even to my young eyes: they were a sort of downmarket brutalism, with hints of rust. Every so often a student would pop in to talk to him. He’d refer to “college kids,” which struck me as an oxymoron; everybody seemed so tall and old. Some of my early babysitters were students of his. (It was the 70’s…)
I remember his departmental colleagues as almost uniformly unkempt, sometimes comically so. When I later discovered Jules Pfeiffer’s cartoons, I immediately knew where Pfeiffer got his visual style. It was only barely caricature.
Although he sometimes tried, Dad never really had much sense of appearances. The powder-blue Ford Maverick was eventually replaced by the off-yellow Ford Fairmont. His taste in shirts was…well…it was the 70’s. (Later he admitted that in grad school, he used to have his pants hemmed extra-short — what we used to call “floods” — so he wouldn’t have to wash them as often.) After the divorce, when he got his own place, his staggering lack of visual sense was entirely unchecked. Without Mom to steer him away from the worst visual choices, he made them. When my wife complains about my aesthetic choices, I remind her of my formative years, and suggest grading on a curve. It is only by the grace of God that social media didn’t exist when I was in junior high.
He finished his dissertation (with substantial, uncredited help from Mom) when I was in kindergarten. He got the cap and gown and tried them on at home. Apparently, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between a gown and a dress, so I told everyone at school about Dad’s long black dress. This was 1974, in the suburbs. Phone calls home were made.
He grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 40’s and 50’s. As a transplanted Southerner, he never really made peace with the (admittedly challenging) winters of Western New York. The house I grew up in, like the house I have now, had a driveway with an incline. Although I didn’t learn the myth of Sisyphus until later, when I did, I recognized it immediately: Dad had that same expression when he’d finish snowblowing the driveway just as the plow came and put a few new feet of the heavy, wet stuff at the base. He’d shake his fist at the plow, cursing it out as it trundled down the street. From my perch at the window of the family room, it played like a tragicomic silent movie.
Every so often, his “Southern” would show. I didn’t usually hear his accent, although my friends did. (The exception was the way he said the “ow” sound in “cow” or “brown.” His rendition of “how now brown cow” was almost musical.) But he would usually address women as “Miss (First name),” which I thought was just a personal quirk until I was well into my teens. His taste in spices could be called aggressive, which he inherited from his mom. Grandma Reed was about 90 pounds, of which 80 were attitude, and she considered tabasco sauce a beverage. She routinely made breakfasts of “brains and eggs,” which were canned pork brains fried with eggs, smothered in tabasco sauce. When buffalo wings got popular, Dad would order the “thermonuclear” level of hotness, and then add to it. The smells were so strong that I literally couldn’t walk into the kitchen.
But my abiding memory of Dad’s Southernness is when we saw Star Wars at the Strand Theatre in Brockport in 1977. It would have been right around my 9th birthday. Dad always had a great belly laugh. At the cantina scene, after the camera panned the room and showed all manner of fantastical creatures, Obi-wan, Luke, and the droids tried to walk in. The bartender immediately stopped them, pointing to the droids and saying “we don’t serve your kind here!” Dad howled with laughter. I didn’t know why. Later, he explained why. Growing up where and when he did, he caught the reference immediately. To his credit, in retrospect, he took the time to explain it to me. It made an impression.
He lived just long enough to vote for Barack Obama for President in 2008. Coming from the Memphis of the 40’s and 50’s, that was something.
I was always a little jealous of Dad’s voice. He had a rich, resonant baritone with that trace of Tennessee in it. For a while, his church tapped him to record PSA’s for it for the local radio station. Behind a microphone, he was always impressive.
The loss of that voice was one of the crueler tricks ALS played. As the disease progressed, he became less able to speak intelligibly; he simply didn’t have enough control of the muscles to hit the consonants. The last time I spoke to him on the phone, his wife had to translate him for me. For someone who had spent his adult life teaching speech communications, that was a tough one.
He was always impossible to shop for. But I wouldn’t have minded a few more birthdays. Happy birthday, Dad.