Not good eatin’ (see below for details)
My father-in-law, Bob, recently passed away. He was 92. It has been a difficult time for our family and particularly my mother-in-law, as it always is when someone dearly loved is gone. I’ve been lucky with my “selection” of in-laws. Contrary to all the caricatures on film and in writing about such “relations”, mine have been/are pretty much fabulous. It certainly sets a high standard if I ever find myself in that same position. The problem of course is that you don’t get to choose in-laws. If you’re on the ball (and only partly immersed in a hormone-lubricated state of “amore”) you do a decent job of picking out a mate. The rest, as they say in southern Russia, is a crap shoot.
In a sense this has been a source of disappointment for me. Sometimes I wish I had a set of in-law horror stories to reference for my meager literary aspirations but sadly there isn’t much there for me to mine. And, I did present my future in-laws with the opportunity to look at me, at least initially, with wary eyes. I mean, what parents might not look a bit suspiciously at a divorced, older guy sniffing around their young, only recently become adult, daughter? Furthermore, here I was, an east coast, liberal leaning, Sierra Club member, and there he was, solid mid-Western, war vet, lifetime NRA member. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at least a cheap sitcom ripoff, right? But, I never got that sense. Perhaps I can attribute this to my in-laws outstanding open-mindedness or perhaps it should be attributed, as my wife might suggest, to my own noteworthy (but still charming I hope) total and complete obliviousness.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. It is an expression that many people love to hate. If I was Bob’s east coast liberal lemon then the lemonade he made was taking the liberal Sierra Club guy out to his hunting cabin in the woods and teaching him to shoot rifles and hand guns. And, taking him to his gun club on Sunday mornings for open trap shooting and teaching him to shoot clay pigeons. Or, taking him to his brother’s house at the end of deer hunting season while he and his buddies hung out drinking beer, watching the local butcher slicing up 3 deer that hung from the rafters of the garage. This latter social occasion took place only a couple of months after I had been introduced to him as his daughter’s suitor. In retrospect this had to have been some sort of test he administered to me. With my aforementioned obliviousness, I never had a clue. But, I must have passed the test. And, I found that shooting guns at targets (at least those without a heartbeat) was really fun! I only got really nervous on Sundays at the gun club when I worried that I’d embarrass Bob by accidentally shooting myself or one of his friends with a shot gun while I was trying to break clay pigeons.
Losing Bob was hard. My own Dad died when I was a young man and I occasionally complained to friends that my biggest beef with that (beyond the obvious one) was that I never got to complete an important part of growing up – the transition from knowing and relating to your Dad solely as a child to getting to understand him as an adult. I got to experience that, at least a bit, with Bob. We’d go out for a drive in the country (without his wife or mine) and end up at some bar in the middle of nowhere where the beer was 75¢ and the burgers were almost that cheap. We’d come back home and my wife would be put out. “He’s never taken me there, why did YOU get to go?” In the process, I got stories, e.g., from his childhood, where he and his brothers went out terrorizing the wild life, bringing home every imaginable creature for his Mom’s cook pot (it was the middle of the Great Depression and he was from a really big family). Invariably, the story would end with “(squirrel, turtle, duck, pheasant, etc) – they’re good eatin’ ”. The one exception I finally heard, which gave me considerable pause, was when Bob described catching muskrats but allowed that they weren’t so hot in the pot, so to speak. On the spot I made a lifelong vow to never eat muskrat. It’s a vow that I can’t imagine breaking, ever.
Bob was a WWII Navy vet, a member of “the greatest generation” (treasure these guys, not many are left) and while he didn’t tell stories about his time in the war, eventually, if you take enough drives in the country, spending time in obscure tiny bars drinking 75¢ beers, things do come out. Like seeing the ship on which you are cruising the Caribbean take a hit from a U Boat torpedo but which turns out to be a dud. He absolutely hated bananas, wouldn’t touch one (except maybe if the choice was between that and muskrat stew?). It turns out that he OD’d on them while in the Philippines serving on a PT Boat tender. He wouldn’t drink water – for years his only source of liquid was either coffee or “the nectar of the gods” (i.e., beer). I’m sure this had something to do with his experience in the war but I never connected the dots on that one. In his later years, he absolutely refused to leave town and the idea of getting on a cruise ship was anathema to him. It turns out that he literally had seen the world during the war, so what was the point? Atlantic, and Caribbean theaters? Been there. Indian Ocean theater? Done that. Pacific Theater? Ditto.
He was tough and really hated going to doctors. Refused, to the point of our exasperation, to go see one even after “minor” incidents like falling off the roof of a house while helping to reshingle it. Eventually though, Alzheimer’s got him. What a crappy disease. In some ways, the progression of the disease is like stripping paint off old furniture. One by one, layers of who you are, are removed. In the end only some core aspect remains. Sometimes this means, a layer of anger, impatience and/or frustration. Not so with Bob. In the end, what remained was a kind and generous individual. If you offered him a cookie he wanted you to have half of it regardless of whether he knew who you were. When I’d show up with my wife to visit him in the Memory Ward, I’d look him in the eye and he’d smile. However diminished by the disease, he was still in there.
In the end, when we’re gone, the best we can do is leave behind a few people who can tell a story or two about us that ends with a smile. With Bob, that will be no problem. Hey, have I ever told you about the Raccoon, the Neighbor’s Cat and the Trap? Ah, but that is a story best left for another time …