I was 34 when I lost my dad to a sudden heart attack. That was 19 years ago last week. I’ve heard all the expected comments since. You know the ones; “I’m sure he’s looking down on you now,” or “He sees all that you have accomplished and I’m sure he’s proud,” or “Well you have an angel in your corner.” All very nice and all intended to ease my mind a little, but I don’t know about all those suppositions.
There are days when I feel his presence, not as an apparition or spirit, but when I know what I am saying or doing is largely a subset of a lesson he once taught me or a way he had with people that I picked up on young and have emulated since. I see my sons do this all the time without knowing it.
But I think people would be surprised to know how little I think of the romance part of it compared to the little things that were funny or odd about him. The personal stuff that he and I shared has far outlived the moments of wisdom and great revelation. An example might be how he was such a “meat and potatoes” guy and rarely ate vegetables or anything good for him. Well when he finally found a donut shop that served bran muffins and tried one, he was so proud to tell my mom and sisters that he had found the healthful dietary supplement to his daily routine that would evolve his fitness forever. That muffin and a cup of coffee was his commitment to health from then on. Without internet abilities back then, instant research was not so available so one day when a nutrition guide was published about fast food, I looked up his bran muffin and that dang thing was so soaked in oil and sugar and everything bad for you it was probably way worse than the donut he used to have instead. I didn’t have the heart to tell him so I left the literature in plain sight and he happened upon it and brought it to my attention. He was so disappointed because he thought he was doing his body some good and here he was doing worse. That little event in his life stayed with me and I still revisit it once in awhile remembering his regret. I felt so bad for him. It shouldn’t be a significant memory of him but it is. I guess because it humanized him in a way that let me think he was perhaps not error-free, not an overwhelming pair of shoes to fill. Dad made mistakes. As a young man at that time, I needed that dose of reality.
So I guess we can’t really pick the moments we recall or treasure or are stuck with. My grandfather that passed on decades ago was truly a pragmatic, wise man and often said things that should have been written down. But the thing I remember about him is this black and red flannel and wool jacket he always wore that smelled like tobacco, not cigarette smoke but tobacco, and this little red Buick Skylark he drove around so proudly. Sure I recall what a great guy he was and don’t deny he taught me many things but it’s that coat and that car that come back to me about Pappy all the time.
So now I think about people that go to great lengths to give certain jewelry to certain grandchildren or other heirlooms that people entrust to those they leave behind and how some elderly people make such a big fuss about this stuff. “Irene, I want you to have my engagement ring and you must never give it away.” Well, what if Irene is not such a big fan of the person that left her that jewelry? What if she is a big fan of her and wants to pass it on to her daughter whom she loves so much? Should she never pass it on as instructed? Should she take it to her grave? Does it really matter that much? I think the answer is a resounding “NO.” It’s a piece of metal attached to a stone. The important thing is the relationship and sentiment that evoked the passing of the token but that gets lost in the shuffle. It might even be the source of an argument later. “I can’t believe she left that beautiful ring to Irene. She could care less about jewelry so why should she have it?”
I was attending the funeral of a friend’s father last year and the priest that was to say the prayer at the gravesite needed a ride from the funeral home to the cemetery which I gladly provided. On the way over we began to talk. The family had placed medals of distinction that were achieved in the war inside the casket to be buried with the body. A tradition I always found strange in that it made the coffin into a sort of “time capsule” if you will. Like, by sending these things into the earth with this person, if he is ever dug up that research team will know he was a war hero (…and then what?). Anyway – the priest asked if there was anything in my life I would want to be buried with or what one physical token I would run back into a burning house to rescue.
I couldn’t think of a thing. Sure I have sentimental mementos in my life. Tokens of my childhood, my children, my wife, my parents but none of them are greater than the memory those experiences gave me. The endless supply of videotapes in the library of my mind that recount the things that came to be my world and the atmosphere that shaped my opinions, view, and preferences.
And that’s when it came to me. The words of famed author, poet, activist Maya Angelou who once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Bingo. That’s it. That brings it all together, doesn’t it? What people remember after important people in their lives have passed on is the way they made them feel. Attached to my memories of my father is the empathy I had for him that is nestled in the examples I told you about and many others I haven’t mentioned. Pappy’s flannel jacket was the warm inviting place where he hugged me. Clearly the smell of tobacco would have been right where my nose wound up when his embrace of this little boy was made. Look at the sorrow you find when you draw up the emotions of a pet that you once loved. Simply you are recalling the way they made you feel. There need be no physical token to render that.
At the end of one of my favorite movies, My Dog Skip, the narrator speaks in a voice over as he waxes poetic over the years when he left his childhood home and went off to college, leaving his boyhood dog at home with his folks.
“Old Skip was 11, and feeble with arthritis, but he never lost that old devilish look in his eye. He made my room his own. Came across an old photo of him not long ago. His little face with the long snout sniffing at something in the air. His tail was straight out, pointing. Eyes were flashing in some momentary excitement. He always loved to be rubbed on the back of his neck. And when I did it, he’d yawn and he’d stretch, reach out to me with his paws, as if he was trying to embrace me.
I received a transatlantic call one day. “Skip died,” Daddy said.
He and my mama wrapped him in my baseball jacket. They buried him out under our elm tree,” they said.
That wasn’t totally true.
For he really lay buried … in my heart.”
I’m thinking I want to be real careful going forward – about the way I make people feel. It’s really the only legacy a person has, isn’t it?
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a BS in Business from Bowling Green State University and an MBA from Baldwin Wallace University and has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990.