There can be times in our lives, especially as teens, when our own parents are not the people to whom we turn for advice, companionship, reassurance, and support. Sometimes, we are lucky when there is another, more comfortable choice. This was the case with me when I was in high school, for sure. For several reasons, my beloved father struggled to be a present parent. But this post is not about him. It is about two other fathers, and their roles in my life. They were the fathers of two of my three closest high school friends. They have both died recently, after long, happy, productive, successful lives. George and Fred had much in common, from my innocent, teenage point of view. Their personalities were very different, but they were both kind, gentle, low-key, devoted to their families, and they both seemed to love me almost as their own. George was a tall, lanky man with huge hands, a sweet, understated way and a big, heart-warming smile. He died in November at 91. He was his family's photographer and historian. He catalogued the childhoods of his 5 beloved kids-two boys and three girls-and all their antics and activities and friends. He preserved their memories in a series of albums into which he lovingly pasted photo corners and inserted his black-and-white, and then color, and then Polaroid images. One of his greatest pleasures was to have someone (and that someone was frequently me) ask him to bring out the albums and go through them, page by page. My friend, Mary, is his third child. He knew that I didn't only want to see pictures beginning with her birth, however, because it was his love for his family shining off the pages that I wanted to see. I learned more about him through his photos than I could have by simply talking to him. He turned a blind eye to our teenage hijinx, knowing that if anything catastrophic were to happen, we would let him know. He loved to hear us talk, and had a hearty laugh that he generously bestowed on all of his children and their friends. His generosity of spirit was unrivaled, certainly in my world, and he made me feel welcome-for a minute, or an evening, or a week. When we were high school sophomores, we had a father-daughter barbecue and square dance in he parking lot of our school. At the last minute, my father was unable to make it. I was heartbroken. I called Mary to garner some sympathy, and she reassured me that I would survive. Moments later, my phone rang. It was George. He told me it would be his honor to take me with Mary to the party. That seemingly small gesture left a lasting impression on me. His greatest joy was to see his house filled with his kids, their friends, and their significant others. When Mary and I were in our early 20s, her family moved from my home town to Virginia, and it made me sad to say goodbye to George. After the move, Mary's older sister was getting married in Virginia and I drove down with Mary's then boyfriend (now husband of over three decades)for the festivities. I walked into the house and he offered his arms out to me for a classic George embrace and head tussle, looked me in the eye, and announced, "NOW the party's started!" He knew just what to say to each of us, to make us feel important. I loved him so dearly, and in his passing my only hope was that he knew that.
Fred was 94 when he died last week. His oldest grandchild, Jen, remarked that "heaven received a great, great man." My friend, Jamie, his oldest child, sent me a text shortly before his death that said, "he's leaving with no unfinished business or regrets." Fred was a happy, happy man. He moved through life with a light-hearted spirit and a kindness that was contagious. He was inspirational in his goodness-despite my teenage angst and no small amount of cynicism, I could never be a jerk around him. It would have done nothing but embarrass me in his presence. I never heard him yell at anyone, I never heard a harsh word, and I never even saw an angry look pass over his face. During one particular high school escapade involving Jamie and me, he arrived at the parking lot where we were hanging out at some ungodly hour, rolled down his car window, and made one simple pronouncement: "Knothead kids!" That was it. He saw we were safe, there was no harm done, and he went back home to bed, from where he had been summoned by Jamie's mother to go find us. His eyes sparkled with good humor and the belief that the next moment of fun was imminent. And it usually was. Fred was never insincere. He didn't fawn over people, or pay empty compliments. When he was proud of one of us, he'd say, "Ya done good, kid." Fred was more than just interested in what his kids did, he was enthusiastic. When his son drove across country with friends, Fred pinned a map of the U.S. on his kitchen wall, and tracked their progress across the country after the weekly calls. When I stopped by during this time, he was excitedly awaiting a progress call, and I could hear the joy in his voice as he got the update. It didn't occur to him to worry about the boys-he just knew they were having fun and experiencing the sweet smell of freedom. Fred was brilliant, handsome, sweet, and such fun. I admired him, I liked him, I enjoyed him, and I loved him. While I know he will be missed, I don't feel sad. The world is a much better place for his having lived, and he leaves behind an amazing legacy of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to whom he brought nothing but joy. R.I.P.