By Bill Wilson
On a hot and sunny late morning in July, seven pallbearers carried Dad’s flag-draped casket to the grave and placed it on the vault a few yards from where several rows of chairs were aligned to accommodate family and friends. A large maple tree shaded the plot, and the seven young men, all grandchildren, lined the back of the site after placing Dad atop of what would be his final resting place. Prayers were said one final time, kind words offered by the funeral director, and when all had quieted, two uniformed service members in dress blues and white gloves solemnly and meticulously folded the American flag thirteen times and presented it to the family.
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Holding the flag to my chest, I closed my eyes while off in the distance a lone bugler played taps. His notes floated through the marbled rows on a gentle breeze, bracing family and friends with their precision. They drifted away with the day’s sadness, signaling that it was time to place a hand and a rose on Dad’s remains and say our last goodbyes.
* * *
I often think about Dad. I run into things throughout the day that remind me of him. His touch and clues pervade. Rummaging through a collection of nuts and bolts he gave me years ago as I fix a broken lawn mower; clipping a wire fence with tin snips he once held; working upon his handmade brushed-aluminum table I use as a garden bench, I can’t escape his memory. I grin while I go about my chores, imagining what he’d say were he here to “supervise.” I rest a spell and sit on the front porch we rebuilt together. It’s sturdy, square, and durable. The gaps between planks are uniform, and there’s a slight downward slant to dispel rain. The joists beneath the decking are set on cement footings and atop concrete blocks. These tributes to the work we shared together are reminders of the type of craftsman and companion he was. There are rituals which help define the lives of fathers and their sons, and with him gone, I realize they transcend death and live in the land of dreams and memories. I can lay my hands on his old tools, mirroring his grip; eyeball the thread pattern on nuts and bolts and know if they are “fine” or “coarse”; and check the heads of the bolts for degree of quality and strength.
He taught me how to tie a trout fly to fine monofilament tippets without ruining the wings of the imitation, and was there when I caught my first bluegill at Allegany State Park. We fished together on the Ischua, Wiscoy, and East Coy Creeks; Lake Erie, Eighteen Mile Creek, and the Genesee River; and spent hours walking the waters of Cattaraugus Creek looking for trout. Our creels never overflowed but that wasn’t the point. It seldom is. Many years ago, and more than once, Mom jokingly accused me of being responsible for her and Dad opening their first Sears Roebuck credit account because I saw a particular HO model train at Christmas. I remember the platform that came with it, but it didn’t survive moving into adulthood because it occupied too much space. The train cars, HO gauge automobiles, and track that were part of the gift remain stowed away in plastic totes in our attic, directly above my older son’s former bedroom ceiling. We’ve been trying lately to downsize and eliminate items we no longer feel attached to or need and have made numerous trips to charities emptying out our “stuff.” I’ve spent part of the past two years removing goods from the attic and reinforcing the old bent rafters and bones of our house. During a break the other day, I opened two of the remaining totes and removed a few of the train cars and the small electrical transformer that powers the rails. They are fragile and maybe worth a few bucks, especially the tiny detailed buildings and cars I added over the years; but their abiding value is the warm memory of the original gift. It assures that the trains remain here until I find a worthy and willing heir.
* * *
I view a beer commercial during a football telecast and remember my dad and me slithering off to town for a cold draft. Scanning through the DISH programming guide, I encounter Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS, usually rebroadcast twice every Sunday. It was my job after Mom died to call Dad to remind him when it was scheduled. Lawrence and his bubbly brand of entertainment was Dad’s favorite. For many years I made a habit of visiting Mom and Dad, then him alone, on Christmas Day, leaving my in-laws for a spell with my two sons and dropping in on my side of the family. On one of those days, Dad was watching Mr. Welk when we happened by. It was a toss-up who would command his attention. We often lost.
My earliest recollection of Dad is from about sixty years ago. In the kitchen before he left for work every morning, he’d stop and bend down, allowing me to kiss him quickly on his forehead, chin, and both cheeks, ending with a fast peck on his nose. I was still in my pajamas-with-feet at the time, maybe three or four years old. Decades later, my final memories were his struggling to remain in his home at age ninety-six, the same house where he raised me and my four siblings. And between those two cornerstones are countless stories to tell, wrapped in all the feeling one expects from a lifetime shared. They are everything we experienced during our days as father and son, the good and the not-so-good, the nuts and bolts of who we were and how our lives either wound together or didn’t fit so well.
* * *
Three days from today, I’ll again be visiting my wife’s parents on Christmas Day. My older son will be with us. I anticipate a vacuum as noon slides into the quiet of midday, when dinner is a few hours hence, the very time I’d gather my boys and head to see Mom and Dad. I won’t need to fret about a timing conflict with Myron Floren, Bobby Burgess, Joe Feeney, and Cissy King. Champagne music and polka are not on the holiday menu, and I’m grateful for that. Dad always welcomed us with “Happy Easter” as we entered his home at Christmas. My sons found this funny and settled in to listen to his ever-repeating tales. I was never so patient, but will always remember those times together. The ritual of visiting on Christmas Day will be missed, as will be his parting wish to “Come again when you can’t stay so long.”
* * *
The United States flag from Dad’s burial rests in the center of a bookshelf in our living room, one tier above a smaller flag flown by my son over a military base in Afghanistan, in tribute to my sixtieth birthday four years ago. My father’s flag is not framed in a glass case, but instead lies exposed to the voices, laughter, and open companionship of his kin. It’s a beautiful flag, deep blue background with embroidered white stars facing forward according to tradition. Draped over the top triangle is his U.S. Army and Air Force dog tags, found when we were cleaning out his basement following his death. He had simply tossed them into an old wooden box once used to store silverware, buried alongside assorted hardware and bits and pieces of all kinds of weird little things he believed worth saving. Between the flag and his military hardware is tucked a small card, one of those mementos offered during burial services. It shows a picture of Dad facing the camera with a big grin on his face, and I use the cards as bookmarks along with similar cards from Mom’s funeral, where she, too, is smiling wide. I say hello when I open a book and see one of their faces welcoming me back to where I left off. The graveside flag ceremony; flying the Stars and Stripes in a foreign land thousands of miles from home; the dog tag with Dad’s name and military identification number, which he could recite until the end; and the tiny cards: they all mean something. These rituals are small patches of the quilt we stitch together and cover our lives with, things we do to show respect for those we love. Even when reduced to a number stamped in tin while waiting to go off to war, rituals signify a type of ceremonial order worth maintaining. The tag belongs with the flag that covered the man who never forgot nor abandoned his place in line, who at ninety-six could still rattle off his personal badge of honor and faithful service. He beamed whenever he did.
* * *
This will be our family’s first Christmas since the death of both parents. I hope we can meet and share a few more stories and laughs. For many years at get-togethers, Dad acted as the unofficial photographer. He was loath to settle, and spent much of his time circling the crowd from a safe distance and taking snapshots. I never believed his habit grew from loving photography, but rather his reticence for conversation and intimacy. There was a broken piece of him holding sway over his behavior, birthed in a destructive childhood, and it wasn’t until much later in life that he let it loose, and even then, the parting was not complete. Taking pictures was his way of ensuring that parts of his life wouldn’t pass him by again, coupled with a self-imposed caution. I witnessed this compulsive habit enter the realm of ritual, where the repeated withdrawal from more human interaction was done for a reason other than the camerawork alone. It was his shield, a thin armor of a small lens and flashbulbs. I let it slide for too many years because I believed I knew the source of his restraint. As a family, we fooled ourselves and shortchanged Dad with the stereotype of his generational toughness, the alleged “Greatest Generation” with all their stoicism and hard edges. He was merely “being a man.” We were wrong not to try to draw him in. This should have been our burden, and looking back, I don’t believe I carried it well.
* * *
Life goes on. This Christmas Eve morning while sitting in my favorite chair, I view four deer bedded down in our yard, drawn off the hill by lack of food. We’ve given them feed and they reward us with their presence, resting peacefully like a segment from a holiday Nativity scene, absent the crèche. They have feasted enough to fill their paunches, and in unison lay in a small herd chewing their cuds. The bare limbs of trees are dusted in white powder, and the small run that meanders out back tumbles and sparkles as it flows over a fallen birch and river stone. This quietude could easily lapse into melancholy, but we are packed and headed to celebrate the season yet again, a decades-long ritual more about the actors than the many miles between us.
I will think of Mom and Dad throughout, but have steeled myself to their absence and welcome the future for what life will hold for those they left behind. Like the whitetails but by a different definition, I ruminate about Dad and his daily ritual of sitting at his kitchen window in the city with his breakfast can of beer, awaiting sunrise and early morning birdsong to begin his day. And I think of my ninety-six-year-old father-in-law whom we will visit soon, another veteran from the war, a gentleman who returned from his long combat stint in Europe with the Canadian Armed Forces, moved to America with his wife, and settled within a few miles of my parents. I can see him sitting beside his picture window in his customary chair, observing and offering play-by-play for the comings and goings of his neighborhood. The years are slowly taking their toll and gaining an edge, but despite advanced age, his mind is sharp, and I look forward to our sharing laughs and conversation. Before others wake, he and I always sit alone together at his kitchen table, the first of us to rise brewing our communal drink. Like Dad, he will repeat the stories of people and events in his life that meant the most to him. Also like Dad, many tales will remain untold and accompany him to the grave.
* * *
We are fathers and sons of habit, our routines well beyond quotidian, becoming the personal rituals we repeat and lay down for others to see and become a part of. Not always of our own design, we participate in the rites and customs of others within our orbit. They channel impulses to pay respect and honor those who paved our way. Rituals straighten our backbones as we bow our heads. We are given opportunities to stop and pay attention, to listen and to learn. We are paradoxical creatures demanding individual freedom, yet insisting it be exercised within collective order. How we act is seen as who we are, and repetitive behavior becomes the blueprint of our lives. The dynamics and subtleties between fathers and sons are fluid. We do our best in the present while planning for the future. Guidance is given and freedom dispensed knowing limits will be tested. Fathers safeguard while trying not to stifle. Deals are struck and sometimes broken. We borrow from our past and lead by example, at the same time encouraging self-determination and independence. We make mistakes. We screw up. Hindsight is always 20/20. Lessons are hopefully learned along the way and we press on.
But certain special events transpire between fathers and their sons. The fabric coloring them doesn’t run. These we secure and hold tight to, and if we are smart, we welcome them into our marrow and allow them to warm the heart and burnish our souls.
Bill Wilson graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1977, never having learned a thing about writing. He is a member of the Oswayo Valley Writers Guild under the guidance of Cheri Maxson. A hopeless bibliophile, he enjoys gardening, landscaping, and birding with his wife of forty-two years, Jean, a local stained-glass guru. Black Bear, Procreation