Sunday, July 29, 2007

I've re-arranged it and cut some bits.

The story of our father’s childhood has an idyllic ring to it, in spite of a number of tragic events that are part of that story:
Dad told us of making boats with his brother and sailing them in the cistern in the basement and on Keuka Lake, of trips to visit kinfolk in Rhode Island, and of working with his brother to make maple syrup and horseradish to sell. He told us of the private telephone line between the Scholes’ home and their own, of gashing his knee on the night his grandfather died, and of the bridge across the creek which allowed family members to go between the houses in which his extended family stayed. He told us of being ejected from a high school championship basketball game, of his sister who he loved so dearly, and many more things that I would love to share with you. I want very much to write a family history, because the list I’ve just given you barely scratches the surface. I’m glad I paid attention when he told stories, but wish I’d done so even more.
Dad’s father died of influenza, after already being weakened by Tuberculosis, when Dad was only five months old. This was especially tragic because his father, Ford Clarke, had been very active as a scoutmaster and Professor of Sociology, and lived a renaissance life for only 32 years. Ford had nearly died in a bobsled accident on Waterwells Road, and had told a friend to tell his future wife that he loved her, if he died. When he did die, the Alfred University class of 1921 erected a fountain on the village green in his memory.
Ford’s father, our great-grandfather, was also removed from Dad’s life by tragic circumstances, so most of Dad’s childhood influences came from his mother’s kin. Much of Dad’s fatherly influence came from his grandfather, A.B. Kenyon. A.B. had grown up in Rhode Island and was training to be a carpenter, but his parents had sent him to Alfred for college, and he ended up becoming a teacher and University administrator. He lived in Alfred for the rest of his life. Dad told us of all the many things A.B. built, from the house at 33 South Main Street to the garage at 150 North Main Street, and from the pipe “intercom” between the upstairs and downstairs apartments, to a desk with a secret compartment. Dad’s mother and brother and sister, and his grandparents all lived in the same house for much of his childhood – that house which A.B. and A.B.’s father-in-law had built in the 1870s. Grandmother and the three kids also lived in apartments in houses on Park Street and Terrace Street as circumstances changed, but they always returned to the old homestead on South Main Street.
Other men exercised fatherly influence on Dad, especially his step-father, Ahva John Clarence Bond, who was also an educator and administrator, but this came later in his childhood. Dad’s decision to enter ministry may have been prompted by his landlord when he was a student at Kansas State, but it was shaped by his step-father, who advocated ecumenism (the dictionary definition of which is “a movement promoting worldwide unity among religions through greater cooperation and improved understanding”). “Father Bond” as Dad called him, also introduced camping as a way of connecting people to each other, their Creator, and their environment. He also wrote splendid poetry.
A cousin and family friend, Lloyd Watson, took enough interest in Dad to buy him a flute. He taught Dad to play it, and helped him build a wooden box to protect it. You see the flute resting in one box here, but there is a second box beside it. You might wonder why. The reason is that our father was human. He made some sort of error in cutting out the dovetail joints in the first box, so there are small gaps in the joints. Dr. Watson was the man who had been the first in the world to inseminate a queen honey bee with instruments after being told he should take on some other achievable doctoral project. He had to figure out how to draw glass capillary tubes to finer diameters than had previously been done, in order to accomplish it, but he had done so in spite of “safe” advice, so we know he was an exacting and persistent man. He insisted that Dad start over and fabricate all the dovetail joints perfectly. The second box is really beautiful, but Dad evidently kept the first one to remind himself of something. Dr. Watson’s persistence was – in some measure – transmitted to our father. In his high school years, Dad worked in Dr. Watson’s apiary, and set out for Kansas State to study entomology before coming back to Alfred and entering the ministry.
Dad was raised mostly by his mother, and to her he gave much credit. She deserves it. She was a kind, generous, thrifty, hard-working, unpretentious, lovely woman who outlived two husbands and most of her friends and relations, and never knew an enemy. She had a wonderful sense of humor that was never expended for anyone else’s detriment, but Dad did inherit her Victorian stoicism. Dad endured the pain of a broken foot that was never set correctly, for fifty-five years, taking nothing more than the occasional aspirin to alleviate it.
Dad’s sister picked up in Sociology where their father left off, and was a rising star in her profession when she died of surgical complications. She was an especially unique woman, and we might not have known of her largest struggle had not our grandmother finally spoken of it, fifty years after the fact. Dad’s “big sis” was the one who mortified her brothers by stripping to her underwear – which I’m sure, in the 1930s, covered her from ankles to chin – and joining them and Alex Landis and her boys in the creek one hot summer day, down at “The Ledges” on McHenry Valley Creek.
Dad was valedictorian of his high school class and graduated cum laude and with departmental honors, from college. He was a good calligrapher and was very capable at designing and drawing things. Dad could make things from wood, starting with sailboats that were blown across the surface of the cistern in the basement of the family home, and ending with his help in building our house out at Five Corners. He bought a camping trailer in Colorado in the 1950s and adapted it to our family’s needs, several times. He called the trailer Jonah, and I own it now.
Dad did not assume that his religious beliefs granted him any favor with the Almighty. His beliefs were things that were continually scrutinized and re-evaluated for weakness. His faith was a contract which obliged him to a lifetime of diligent labor, and he fulfilled his contract, just as he did his marriage vows. He spent days and nights in anguish, wrestling wisdom from the events and choices he confronted, and he pushed his lean, long-boned body and his perspicacious mind far beyond the endurance of other mere mortals. I know he got at least some of this drive from his father, because Dad’s uncle Clarence wrote a letter saying “Last summer I thot [sic] many times that he [Ford] was trying to do many times more than I could try to do without wearing out.” Dad was a man who, once seated, could nap almost anywhere, anytime, but he was – until only perhaps six months ago – the last person to go to bed and the first one to arise in the morning.
Dad believed in God, but ascribed both male and female attributes to God. He accepted scientific understanding of evolution and other natural processes. I think he came to believe that natural processes are not just evidence of God’s presence in a Universe larger than our imagination, but that they are the very workings of the mind of God. He would not limit God to any less than all that the Universe embodies. He did not believe in Satan, because he felt such a belief let humans off the hook for their own weaknesses and hampered people from responding creatively to their shortcomings. He understood that people are not perfect and he made allowance for all kinds of faults, but he also believed that people must always be perfecting themselves with God’s assistance and in company with other humans. He understood that philosophy and theology are methods of increasing our collective understanding of the Universe and our role in it, much like the scientific method. The book that Dad was trying to write was all about trying to understand more broadly how individuals are responsible FOR themselves and TO each other, and how to use their “moral energy” to improve relationships. I hope I can do him justice in editing and publishing his manuscript.
Dad’s faith was not something he put on, just on week-ends. It was integral to his being. It was not anything he paraded in public or used as a weapon against others, nor was it something that placed him above anyone else.
Dad claimed “scotch” heritage, but, from all I’ve been able to learn, it may have been more due to growing up as the child of an extraordinary single parent during the Great Depression than to biological legacy. Certainly all of his ancestors were a thrifty sort, and Dad could take something that someone else would throw away, and make something useful of it, from a plastic jug that ended up as a lamp shade, to rubber innertubes that he cut up and used like bungee cords
Dad epitomized what is best about the word liberal – that is to say, generous. He worked tirelessly for all kinds of people; he gave his scarce money to causes that seemed important, from workers’ rights to wind power; he gave his time to helping others, from visiting people in nursing homes and jails, to building houses. He worked many hours at the Harvest Center in Prattsburgh which provided resources for migrant workers. He delivered Christmas turkeys and gifts and clothes and food to those workers for many years, and he managed the Alfred Food Pantry for a long time. He took care of his mother and aunt, and his cousin, “Mike” Kenyon and Annamay Langworthy and Bob Place and our mother and Ethel and plenty more that I don’t dare take time to list. His efforts ranged from international peace initiatives to helping Alfred neighbors get along.
Dad was a creative thinker who often went over people’s heads in the ways he could associate concepts and layers of meaning. He could write and read a eulogy for even someone that everyone in the audience might know was “kind of a stinker” but do so honestly, without sugar-coating or ignoring the person’s weaknesses, but in a way which honored their goodness and integrity in whatever measure it could be found.
He was often called upon to remove bees from homes, and saw it as an act of reconciliation to take the bees and set them up in a hive in a place where they were welcome. My siblings may not know this, but if the Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Siting Commission had taken a different route on that cold day in April, 1990, Dad would have been one of the ones chained to a bridge, preventing radioactive waste from being dumped in this county. He was perhaps happier to let his good friends Clarence and Warren and Bill and Alex get their names in the paper, but he was ready to do his part.
We, his family, have perhaps sometimes felt that we came second to neighbors and strangers, but Dad was only living up to the commitments he made. We knew he loved us and we know it still. We know that he struggled with his choices like we do, and that he filled his life with living for all kinds of people.
I believe Dad gave a sermon from this very pulpit many years ago that used Matthew 23:11-12 as the text, which says: ”But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted”. Dad spoke of water as a way of understanding this teaching. He said that water, under the influence of gravity, is like the good and righteous woman or man under the influence of God’s will for humanity: it seeks the lowest place for itself. He understood how useful humans can be if they, like water, will wash away dirt and contaminants, and transport nutrients as they seek the lowest place. That was how he lived.
Dad was an optimist, but he was much more than that. Dad knew that the air in the “empty” part of the glass contains water in the gaseous state. Our father was not just an optimist who believed in people upon whom everyone else had long-since given up. He was an anti-cynic. When an organization called “Another Mother For Peace” produced posters that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things” he felt this was too much a negative statement, so he made posters that said “Home-grown peace showers its fruit on every Neighbor” and gave them away.
Dad was a sometimes paradoxical man: he was a pacifist who sometimes used a rifle and bow and arrows; he was raised a teetotaler, but learned to like wine in his fifties because his friend – probably the first black man in the nation to do so – opened a winery. Dad was a man with some conservative values but was also a man with willingness to think broadly and reconcile many paradoxes without losing his integrity. He was trained in evangelism, but resisted efforts to evangelize that placed more emphasis on results than on relationships. He was a man who continued to adapt his thinking to new information and new ways of understanding the world, continually adding to and deepening his wisdom. He could usually see all sides of an issue, to the extent that choices were sometimes extremely difficult for him to make.
By the end of his life, I believe Dad was virtually unable to express his deepest feelings, because he was so practiced at adjusting himself to others’ needs and desires. He could express frustration, but he almost always aimed it at himself, sometimes taking blame for things that no human can rightly assume. But that was because he refused to stop trying to find the good in people.
Dad loved to swim and sail and walk, and even walked with his grandson and me on a short stretch of the Finger Lakes Trail, last September, but the foot he broke in 1952 that never healed properly kept slowing him down, over the years. He had been known in earlier years, to ride a horse without getting saddle-sore, much to the consternation of a family friend who wanted to tease him about it.
Dad and Mom had talked about buying passage on a freighter and traveling around the world, but never got around to it. After Mom died and he married Ethel, they traveled around to see friends and family for as long as they could.
I think Dad’s chief pleasures, after doing something for someone else, were talking with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, admiring the good fortune of a friend or family member, eating a meal at a restaurant (his treat), ice cream, and naps.
Dad spent his life worrying more about the people around him than about himself. He loved his life, but he didn’t cling to it. He took advice ascribed to Jesus: “Greater love hath no man than that he give his life for his friends”. Dad counted every person he encountered among his friends, and he spent every day giving his life for them.
We, his children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and friends, know Dad earned some relaxation, but he kept pushing himself until he could do no more. When he could do no more for someone else, taking care of his own needs gave him little to do, but he insisted on doing it. When he began to have difficulty taking care of all his own needs, he just wasn’t interested in going on. We wanted him to live as long as he could, but he didn’t know how to live unless he was useful to someone else.
Dad, especially in the last few years, sometimes mused upon how the world might be different had he continued studying and working in entomology and carrying on Dr. Watson’s work of “Building a Better Bee”, but I hope he was well pleased, at the end.
Dad had a fierce independence, even though he yielded his own desires to others’ needs and desires most of the time. When he lay for a week and a half with a broken femur and then after a partial hip replacement, last month, he would not ask for morphine. We had to ask for it for him. We wished he would stay on longer with us, but I think he chose death over dependence. He chose the manner of his dying, in spite of us.
When we were quite certain Dad was in his last hours, he had a faraway look in his eyes. I told him I hoped that what he was seeing was a sunny day with a good sailing breeze and worker bees busily harvesting pollen and nectar from buckwheat blossoms (buckwheat honey was one of his favorites). I told him I hoped that he saw autumn leaves in sunset colors and that they were pressed into books and cherished, as our mother used to do. I told him that perhaps now he could go and be in the company of our mother and his sister and mother and brother, and all the others he out-lived here. I told him I hoped he could go meet the father he had never known. I told him his was a much-deserved rest.
I hope that our father, who art in heaven, is in a place like that, for if it was ever appropriate to be said, it should be said of him: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”.


musiclover said...

I'm sitting here at work, wondering how to go on after reading the tribute to Dad. Amen. I look forward to coming back to Alfred at the end of the week.

Barb Crumb said...

You left me bawling!

gdeecee said...

What else is a little brother to do?

gdeecee said...

I have posted the latest iteration, lightly edited, but near final form.