Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eulogy For My Father

Eulogy For My Father
Robert A. Vance 1923-2009

One of the things I learned in my years of work as a family counselor for a hospice organization is that each member of a family has an equally valid, and often very different, piece of the over-all story of the family member who has died. I learned that parts of the story that are difficult to tell and hear are as important as the parts that are full of the spirit of life that fills each and every one of us and is expressed in deeply spiritual and loving ways. We needn’t tell every part, but it is important to acknowledge the totality of all the pieces. Without all of the pieces we are left with a flat, paper doll, version of the person whom we have loved; not a living, breathing, complex and miraculous individual of whom there exists not a single duplicate in the entire universe.

Family legacies and stories are similarly complex and go back much further than any living memory. The birth of the good and the bad in our families precedes, by far, our very limited ability or willingness to recall.

I was born in the city where all of my sisters and I were raised because of the sudden death, one month before my birth, of my father’s father. At that time my Dad and Mom moved back to Mt. Clemens, Michigan from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania due to my father’s overwhelming loyalty to his mother; loyalty that came from years of the kinds of family struggle that were typical during the Great Depression.

My grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades who built the home where I was raised and where he died. He was, in Alcoholics Anonymous parlance, one of the early “Friends of Bill”, and in spite of his constant battle with alcoholism, I believe his early death in his fifties from heart disease was a direct result of the nature of the disease of alcoholism. He had served in the trenches in France in WW1 and was apparently, as is common among men who suffer what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, very reluctant to speak about the horrors he had seen. He was not a very nice drunk.

My father and his mother, my grandmother, from what I can gather, were often forced to rely very heavily upon each other in order to survive even when Dad was very young. My father sold honey door-to-door from a wagon during the Depression to help the family get by. He was an only child. He went on to become the first person to attend college in a family that has roots in this country that go back to the Revolution and before. One of our earliest ancestors was among the Hessian German mercenary soldiers hired by the British to fight the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This ancestor was captured by George Washington’s troops during the battle that included Washington’s famous Delaware River crossing. He was subsequently made a prisoner-of-war in a camp where, I have learned, Thomas Jefferson probably visited. Jefferson was homesick for things European and found it among the Hessians there. Our ancestor, like many of those Hessians, switched sides to help the American cause because they were treated better as American prisoners-of-war than they had been by the Brits.

My mother likewise showed incredible strength and resourcefulness as a child growing up. She could pick up almost any string instrument and play it and made sure each one of us learned an instrument and/or sang in choirs. Sometimes I believe her near perfect pitch and love for music were among the big reasons she survived, rather spectacularly, her own father’s unsettled inner conflicts and his resulting cruelties. She survived as well due to the enduring strength and resourcefulness of her mother and her mother’s Iowa farmer father and mother, my great grandfather and grandmother. Among my earliest memories are the family visits to their farm south of Des Moines, and then again to the small house where my great grandparents lived after they left the farm and into which my sisters and I released a jar of captured fireflies that glowed off and on throughout the night. That same night my great grandparents were heard giggling in their bed.

That my father and mother found one another is one of those necessary and true miracles of two people who need exactly one another to become the best adults they could and who, by fortune and fate, heal each others’ childhood wounds by becoming each others’ greatest aspiration. They completed one another.

One of my parents’ goals in raising children was to be better at parenting than their parents had been. I believe they accomplished that goal. One of the goals that I believe I share with my sisters has been to be better at child-rearing than my mother and father were. I believe this has been a goal met as well. I challenge our succeeding generations with that same task: be better at raising your children than we have been. If you never have children then I challenge you to work in the world even better than your parents have. Don’t be satisfied with what was done before. I challenge you with this task in honor of my father’s and my mother’s legacy. It is what they wished for, for all of us. It is the way we can make the world better.

To finish I want to share something I sent out to my email list after my father died and a couple of the responses I received:

‘My father died yesterday. He had a stroke while opening holiday gifts at my sister's home in Pennsylvania. He was taken to an ICU unit at the local hospital where his condition deteriorated over the week. He died peacefully with people around him who loved him and who he loved, and with my sister Linda acting as midwife and shepherding him into whatever follows this life.

My father made an incredible life for himself after the early and unexpected death of his soul mate, my mother, in 1991. They met during WW2 when he was an Army Air Corps cadet expecting to be shipped overseas. They married a month after meeting. My grandmother, my mother's mother, routinely bragged about what a good looking couple they were. And boy, could they dance!

My father and mother went on to have four children and, in many ways, each of my parents served as healer for the other, deliverer, savior, good news, and best best friend.

In spite of a rough few years after her death that included serious, life threatening, health problems, as well as the death of his own mother in 1993, he went on in a way that could only be called inspirational... traveling the world, making friends every where he went through Elder Hostel, and cultivating an active respected role in his community and church. He lived on his own until the end and only recently began to tire of the harsh Northern Michigan winters.’


Grief is a necessarily solitary process I guess, since we all mourn a different loss when someone dies; one loses a friend, another loses and adversary; one loses a husband, the other a brother, the other a dad. Still, I think a man losing his father has some commonality of experience for all of us.

Kurt Colborn, Erie, Pennsylvania


My folks… …met right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and went together only six months, married, and they had met at a dance club. And over the years they were really into dancing too: like the couple who dances together stays together. It worked for them!

Balyn (Linda Balent), Boston Massachusetts


On occasions like this I am always reminded of the Serenity Prayer. I am sure you are aware of it.

It is good to note that he had a full and satisfying life. While opening a gift in this life he gifted himself with the ones to follow!! I am sure he leaves behind a grateful and loving family that misses him and will carry his legacy forward.

Chandra Chandrasekhar, Chennai, India


I understand how it feels when a parent dies.

I give you all of my heart and humanity for this transition.

It sounds like yr dad was a great man.

But, this is what I know.

You are a man filled with righteousness, justice, & compassion.

You are a man who has taken on the idea that you can make beauty by simple letters and trust.

You believe in beauty.

You believe in truth.

A son does not get this on his own.

It takes a great man to make a son who has the eyes for this sort of madness.

I go out in my yard tonight and say a hello and goodbye for your dad.

It is dark, I am sincere, I wish you well.

You are now free.

And more lonely.

Rob Hutton, Seattle, Washington


This poem was written to be read out loud during a Jewish memorial service for parents/relatives who have died .Yartzeit (Yart-zite) is the anniversary of the day that a loved one has died which is remembered each year. A Yartzeit candle is the candle someone lights once a year on that anniversary. One could call it a memorial candle. Hopefully, this poem brings the mind back to the love and good deeds that the deceased loved person has done in his/her life that live beyond the temporariness of life and geography and that reach to the next generation. –Diane Baum

One loving person
passes love on
father to son
sister & brother
mother to daughter
Like a stone thrown
in still water
rings ripple out
more and more
in widening circles
till they wash against shore
One loving person
doing good
it starts in the heart
begins to connect
from one's own place
in the neighborhood
and on to affect
the city the country
then out into space
One loving person
reaches out like a seed
and plants whole forests
from one good deed
One loving person
is a call
it echoes all
around the town
like a ringing bell
the sound travels outward
from listener to listener
from parent to child
to more children still
Like a candle for yartzeit
small but bright
throws its light
against the wall
down the hall
out the window
and into the night....

Diane Baum, Grand Rapids, Michigan

1 comment:

Iris Arenson-Fuller said...

Bob, as always, you have shared with me and everyone else, some touching and profound things that transcend the separateness in which people often choose to wrap themselves, and manage to unite us all. These are beautiful thoughts and feelings and I hope they have helped you to get them out, just as they will help readers grasp and understand things that we all need to know about life, love, and the continuity and legacies our families leave that will always be with us.