So I flew to Boston Friday, with my son John, to attend a Celebration of Life ceremony for my Uncle Alden. It was a chaotic event, as events often are there in Lexington. And, honestly, I dreaded it. But the love for Alden that permeated the air made it an incredible experience in spite of my fears.
Right before the testimonials [and I mean right before], my mom asked me if I’d be willing to say something. I said, “I don’t know what to say!” She said, “Tell the story about the Irish Male.”
Now Alden bought me this thing for my birthday when I was three — 50 years ago!. I remembered it, but couldn’t remember the details to the ‘story.’ And I told her. So, when it came her turn to tell her story, she started out by telling the crowd (and it was a crowd!) about how, back in the day, my dad had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. And how Alden and Judy (my aunt) jumped in to help. Both her and me.
Then she segued into the story of the Irish Male. Think: Big Wheel, except, as it turned out, a little more dangerous. Instead of pedaling, you cranked this handlebar like an old railroad hand car. That’s ok, as long as you’re on a level or semi-level surface, as I learned the hard way years later…
So, here’s the story:
So, I’m supposed to be sleeping, getting ready for today’s ordeal in returning home. But I can’t. Why? I’m feeling very bothered. And a little tired of my son, Lord love him, kidney punching me in the bed.
Well, first of all, I feel blessed to have joined the family yesterday in celebrating Alden’s life, and his impact upon mine. It was a wonderful ceremony. And I’m glad to have been there.
I felt it was beautiful and would have met with his approval. I’m also sorry John and I had to leave early.
But what’s bothering me most is the testimonials. First, Mom asked me if I would share something. Kind of last minute [thanks, Mom]. Now, I’m a teacher, and I’ve kind of gotten past being embarrassed at speaking in front of others. But most of the teachers I know, myself included, like to have materials prepared ahead of time….And as I listened to all of the eloquent and emotional presentations, I thought, I can’t think of any one thing that I can say that could possibly sum up what Alden meant to me growing up. There were many, many things … all of which spoke to him as a man, but none of which I could put my finger on and could say, “This is how I remember him,” or, “This is what he meant to me.” Too many.
I turned to Mom during the ceremony and said, “I got nothing.” Or, more properly, “I got too much.” Mom said, “Tell the story about the Irish Male…”
Now, mostly, that story took place 50 years ago and, while I remember the Irish Male, I didn’t really remember the specifics of the story. I said, “I don’t remember….” I felt miserable.
So she got up and talked about our hers and my shared experience, with my dad sick, and how Alden and Judy supported us while we migrated to the wilds of South Carolina. I remember little of the experience, though in retrospect, I know what a significant move that was.
I did not want to start out, myself, with that part of my story. With my dad getting sick before I was born. I did not want to, in any way, end up sounding critical of my dad. Who, I am certain was as good a man as Alden, and would have been just as good a dad, if life hadn’t stolen the opportunity from him.
But Mom opened the door. And talked about how Alden and Judy supported us. And I began to remember parts of the story. I still do not remember, at three years of age, chasing Uncle Alden down the road as he took off in the Irish Male….but in my mind’s eye, I have no doubt that it happened. Why? Because it exemplifies the joy that he experienced in everything. And how much fun that probably was. For both of us. Heck yeah! Decades later, I remember my boy chasing me down the road once. Or twice… Now, where did I get that from?
Now the fateful story of my semi-ride down the steep driveway is true. I now remember it well. [Mom had said, ” I don’t know what happened to the Irish Male, whereupon, I chimed in… “I know the fate of the Irish Male! ” I pushed it to the top of our extremely steep driveway in Bayshore, SC, and … does anyone see what’s coming? 😉 ) And I commenced, after Mom made me stand up, to tell the tale of the fate of the Irish Male… I thought, at all of seven years of age, that riding it down the ‘Devil’s Drop’ would be pretty cool. Not taking into account the fact that the thing wasn’t equipped with brakes. Yeah. About halfway down, I wiped out. Fortunately, I later learned, the coefficient of friction of a human body, versus a metal vehicle, is much greater. So me and the Irish Male went our separate ways.
Now, any of you who has participated in a similar spectacular wipeout can relate: There’s a brief period of time, between when everything comes to rest and when the pain sets in, where your brain has to process, “What the hell just happened??” I remember, right cheek planted firmly on the asphalt, watching with my left eye (the right one wasn’t quite working, yet) one of the Irish Male’s wheels plink, plink, plinking down the driveway before starting a clockwise spiral that ultimately wound up in that side-to-side whup whop wonka wonka ping that things like that do. When everything goes sideways.
So, at that point, I did what any sane, rational seven year old boy would do: First, I jumped up and looked around. Checking to make sure that no one had witnessed my most recent act of creative stupidity. Second, having confirmed there were no eyes on me, I jumped up and down a little. ‘Cause, well, I hurt. Third, I ran to Mom, arms flapping, tears streaming and told her someone pushed me down the driveway and I crashed (couldn’t have been my fault, after all, right?). So came the fateful moment (and, in the 70s, this was the go-to treatment for all calamities, regardless of whether your mom was a nurse): Mercurochrome. Time she was done, I was about 2/3rds purple. And Mom, being the compassionate soul that she is, said, “You’re all right. You didn’t break any bones. Shake it off!” [OK, maybe I made a little bit of that up, but that’s how I remember it]. So that’s, pretty much the story I told. I got a lot of laughs — and after all, it was supposed to be a celebration (for some guys, almost an Irish Wake)
But on my way back from the celebration to the hotel, I pondered it a bit and began to fear that my story might, somehow, have come off as somehow critical of Alden. But I meant nothing of the sort… I am absolutely certain that, had he been standing there, at the top of the Devil’s Drop, he would have, as always, have been the voice of reason (particularly with his mastery of mathematics and physics): “Jacky [I hated being addressed as ‘Jacky,’ but back then, it was what it was]…Jacky, are you sure this is a good idea?” Alas, on that particular occasion, he was not there with me. Again….a little blood; no foul.
But the point I was trying to make is that sometimes little boys don’t have the voice of reason standing at our shoulders. And have to get banged up a little bit in order to become the men we will later be. Lord knows, that wasn’t the last time something like that happened.
When Mom asked me to speak, I panicked, but at the same time pondered the old saying, “It takes a village.” I’m not sure if that was divine inspiration or manic panic. I thought about how my many times staying with Alden and Judy, how, it seemed to me that their home was never empty. There always seemed to be folks in and out. Their home, for decades, was the epicenter of a rich and meaningful village for many people, myself included.
Back then, as now, I marveled at that, as it was contrary to my experience in South Carolina. Not necessarily bad, just different. In the 1970s and 1980s, being a child of a single-parent household was the exception to the rule. For many years, all of my peers lived in ‘traditional’ nuclear households. And some of their parents didn’t know quite what to make of me. But as the years went on, many, many! of them stepped in to help. I can name a dozen without even thinking about it…. So while, early on, I felt cursed by fact that my father was so sick, later I became blessed by a plethora of surrogate fathers and mothers, who helped make up for it.
My dad was denied the opportunity to be the dad he wanted to be. In some ways, I still feel bitter about that. And I was, it seemed at the time, denied the dad I needed. But, again, the silver lining to that dark cloud was that, well, ‘It took a village,’ and ‘the village’ stepped in.
But, throughout my life, I always knew that Alden Webster was the man who led the charge. He and Judy created their own ‘village,’ in which many of us benefited. He was the first, of many fine men and women who helped turn me in to the man I now am. And I will always be eternally grateful for that.