Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Renaissance Man (and his Wife)

My father was born when his father was 47 years old.  All of his siblings were teenagers then.  His mother died when he was three, and so he lived with his aunt and uncle until he was seven.  Nevertheless, he became very close with his oldest brother, Cecil, who was 16 when my father was born, and in his twenties when my dad came home in 1941 to live again with his family.  

The first time I remember meeting Cecil was when I was a little kid at my aunt Betty’s house down in Anderson, Indiana.  He came alone, wore a fedora, and brought bananas, which seemed strange to me, and yet very funny.  I could tell immediately that he was a smart and congenial guy and that I liked him.  He held me on his lap and he talked to me not like I was a child, but like I was a real person.  I liked that.

Cecil was very heavily involved in the Lions Club and so every once in awhile he would come up from Indiana to Chicago for a convention and stay at our house. Those were fun times.  One night when I was a little boy he came in with my dad and his tie had been cut off about halfway. As he lied down with sheets and blankets on the couch for the night, I asked him, “Uncle Cece, how did that happen that your tie got cut off?”  He groggily smiled and replied, “Don’t ever bet bar waitresses, Tommy. You’ll lose your tie.” He gave me a rub on the head and then he went to sleep.

When I was a junior in high school I thought about going to Indiana University, so my Dad and I went to visit the campus and then stayed with Cecil and his wife, Jean, who I also loved.  She was a librarian and one of the easiest people to talk to I have ever met.   She knew I liked books and writing so every year on my birthday she would send me a novel or some non-fiction thing that she thought was interesting and would catch my interest too.

On the night that we visited, Cecil, who was retired by then, he showed me all of the things he was working on, or had accomplished. He showed me pictures of the boat he sailed on out at the reservoir; he showed me the wine he had made; he showed me the big loom he had made so that he could create tapestries; he showed me the layout for the physical fitness course he was designing for his town, and he showed me the published book he wrote on making rocking horses. It was fascinating.

Later on, he and my dad went out on the patio to talk, and so Jean and I sat in the kitchen rolling out dough for pies.  We talked and talked too.  We talked about books mostly. We kept putting the product into large and then increasingly smaller dishes. I think the last one was no more than four inches in diameter. I asked my Aunt Jean, “How many pies do you think we can make out of this?” She looked around us and said, “Well, if I had the fillings I think we could make about thirty. That’s not going to happen.  It’s good but also very bad when you and I talk.”

The next morning on the patio as Cecil and I were drinking coffee, he said to me, “T.S., if you go to Indiana, and I am to be your second father, there will be rules about your behavior, but here is the big rule.  You never limit yourself.  You explore everything you can and then decide what you want to pursue.  Then when you decide what you want to pursue, the things you are interested in, you do it with enormous vigor.”

I did not go to Indiana, I went to Illinois. I started as a pre-med and then swiftly changed my major to English because all I wanted to do was read and write.  On my birthday that year Cecil and Jean sent me a hardcover version of The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving.  Cecil stuck a note in the book.  It just said, “Make good choices. I know that you will.”  I did.  I made good choices and finished well in school.  I also met a girl who I decided I wanted to spend my life with. After some time, and for some inexplicable reason, she also decided that she wanted to spend her life with me.

Cecil and Jean came to my wedding. In the receiving line after the ceremony Cecil gave me a hug and said, “I’m glad you married a Lutheran. They don’t waste anyone’s time. Twenty minutes and we’re done. That’s perfect.” Jean hugged me also and said, “I’m slightly disappointed.  I expected less traditional readings. I thought you would have more Vonnegut in there.” That made me laugh…It was pure Jean.  

Just about the time my oldest son, Ben, was born, Jean died. I went to her funeral alone because my wife had taken Ben down to another funeral for one of her great-grandparents in Louisiana, which is where she was born. When I saw Cecil I was shocked.  He looked so frail….a weak, bloated old man on an oxygen tank, who couldn't even wear shoes.  It made me very sad to see him like that. Yet I could see in his face the same intelligent, sweet guy who offered to be, and always was, my second father.  That made me happy.

After the service my siblings and my father went back to Cecil’s son, John’s house.  John is an attorney, but he is also a master guitarist.  We had lunch together, I talked to John’s daughters, who were very young at that time, John played, and it was all quite beautiful.  At one point Cecil called me over to where he was sitting on the couch.  He basically said to me the same thing he had said to me on the patio so many years before. “I know you’re working now, have a family and a career, but look at me, look at your dad, look at John. Don’t limit yourself. Stay close to your passions.”

A week after Jean died, so did Cecil.  My dad called me and simply said, “Sorry, bud, but Cecil, didn't make it.” After we talked a bit, I wandered the house aimlessly, alone, in a fog because my second father, who I loved, was gone. 

Over time I have heard stories about how Cecil was a hellion and a hooligan in his youth. I don’t care about that.  I didn't know him then. When I think of Cecil, and I do often, I think about the things he told me throughout my life. I think about what he accomplished. Despite what is going on in my life right now, I always remember what his key message was to me and I am sure many others: There are no limits to what you can imagine and can accomplish in this world.