Monday, February 16, 2009

Stories of My Father

Stories from My Father

Joseph Gordon Martin
September 1st, 1930 - January 29th, 2009

Yesterday, we celebrated the life and mourned the passing of Joseph Gordon Martin - otherwise known as "Joe Gordon" to his kin back in Big Stone Gap, VA, "Captain Martin" to his Air Force colleagues, "Your old uncle Joe" to the people he called up on the phone during his long career in real estate, and just plain "Joe" to most of the people who grew to know and love him throughout his life. For me, he was "Dad."

His memorial service, held in the multi-purpose room of the Fairborn St. Luke United Methodist Church (it wouldn't fit in the sanctuary) was not your typical, somber affair. It did begin with a moving presentation of an American flag to my mother by an Air Force color guard in honor of Dad's service to the country he loved. The standing room only crowd (we're thinking around 300 attended) was perfectly silent as taps played.

Then things got to hopping! We sang "How Great Thou Art" with gusto - one of my dad's favorites. Dr. Stuart McDowell, Chair of the Wright State University Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, introduced a group of students to sing selections from their recent production of Smokey Joe's Cafe. Mom and Dad have been long-time supporters of the theatre department and helped fund a student scholarship there. I had asked Stuart if they might come and sing, hoping for two to agree. Instead, eight singers and a pianist entertained us with powerful versions of "Loving You" and "Stand By Me," the latter song bringing claps and cheers as their joyous vocals filled the room.

We then had a time of sharing tributes by friends and family. I started by asking folks to raise their hand if they had ever:
  • Had a real estate dealing with "your Old Uncle Joe"
  • Attended church with Joe
  • Seen Joe in the Fairborn 4th of July parade
  • Been publicly embarrassed by my father

For each question, hundreds of hands shot up. To me, these questions really summarized the public face of my Dad. Always with a smile and a story or something funny to say.

There was one question I didn't ask - how many of you have ever benefited from my father's generosity? I learned only in the last year or so as he began disclosing some of his financial dealings with me, that he had made so many personal loans to folks when they couldn't get credit or were going through a particularly difficult time. He shared this information with me with some pangs of regret as the current economic hardships have made more than a few of his debtors default. He was watching the nest egg he had put aside for his "first wife" Sonia (as he called her for their entire 52 years of marriage) suffer along with everyone else's and worried that he hadn't been prudent enough. I reassured Dad that Mom would have more than enough to live comfortably for many years and still have some leftover for his kids and for the charities he cared about.

During my sister's beautiful comments, she mentioned his quiet generosity and live-within-your-means style, saying that the world wouldn't be in its current economic state if we all behaved in this way. He gave us a wonderful example to follow - one that I hope I can live up to and that my own son will grow to appreciate.

I wrapped up my own comments with a poem by John Updike, who passed away the same week as Dad:

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same.

That's my dad.

Many others shared stories of his humor, community service and love of life. I'm sure as the service was closing, had my father been standing in the back, he would have been shaking his wristwatch and putting it up to his ear - playfully signaling the preacher that it was time to stop.

Lest anyone imagine him a perfect man, let me assure you I do not. Nor was he a perfect father. I know that there have been at least three reasons I haven't shed tears with his passing. One is that his death was a blessed release from the pain and suffering we were all experiencing as cancer ate away at him. Another is that it is very hard to have a conversation with someone who knew my father without laughing about one of his stories or something he said or did to make a perfect moment - and he would love to know that this is so. We are all so grateful that he took the time to put some of his best stories in a book, The Life and Times of Joe Gordon (to the best of my recollection), more about which is available here.

But there is a third reason I haven't really mourned his passing. My relationship with my father was pretty much the same as everyone else's. He was (mostly) kind and supportive; I never doubted that he loved me or that he was proud of me; if I got into a bind, he would loan me money (with interest); we took family vacations to interesting places. But there was no real connection of the father-son kind. I have a solitary memory of throwing a ball with him when I was about four. No camping trips or father-son outings, though a couple of times he did take my sister, Melissa, and me to Rainbow Lakes - a theoretically stocked mudhole of a lake outside of Fairborn that, in retrospect, seemed more like an abandoned minefield than a place to actually catch fish.

As I've read about Ronald Reagan and the relationships he had with his children, I strongly resonate with those experiences. What you saw was what he was, with no ulterior motives or hidden resentments. But he was not a man with whom his children had much of a personal relationship. Like Reagan, my father was a product of his generation and didn't seem to have much of a capacity to explore his inner self or connect with others at a deeper level.

Helping him write and publish his book was the closest I came to having heart-to-heart conversations as he grew nearer to death and acknowledged some of his fears about what happens next. So in a very real and somewhat sad way, I haven't lost my father at all because the man I knew and the relationship I had with him are pretty much encapsulated in his book. For me, he was his stories. I was rarely, if ever, a character in them, and then played only a bystander role. So if I'm mourning any loss, it is that I know that this is the full extent of my ever knowing and having a father.

If this sounds like a judgment against my dad, it is not. I can think of many, many examples of fathers that make me so very grateful for the one that I have had. Joe Martin was a very good man, one I am exceedingly proud to say was my father, and one who lived a full, no-regrets sort of life that I would be happy to be able to say that I emulated when my own life story comes to a close.