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Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
"No, really!"

My Favorite Bit of Paper Cup Philosophy

The Way I See It #76

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Friend to All Who Knew Him

The other evening I was happily participating in Cramcake's gratitude posts which had entertained me for several days. Writing items for which to be thankful comes pretty naturally to me. I am grateful for many, many small and larger things. I thought to type that I was thankful/grateful to have enjoyed Stepfather in my life, but I got all jumbly. I decided to go to Walgreens and distract myself awhile buying hair goo and other important items. I came home and tried to type again about my honor to have known Stepfather. I lost it. Shoulders heaving, sobbing out loud. And that's before I really got going. Clearly I could not stick this man simply on commentary somewhere, no matter how special the blog might be to me. I needed to write about him because it was clear I had some wires that were still live.

If the reader wants to split hairs, come on. Strictly speaking, technically, he was not my stepfather. There were some pieces missing in that process. But he was my mother's mate and I don't know what else I'd call him. Or consider him. I come from a family that does not fit many molds perfectly. So he was my Stepfather, OK? And a second grandpa to Amber - to my eternal gratitude. He entered my life in 1966. I was 13. He left it by death in 2001. At his death, he was watching with great anticipation as I headed for a life-changing moment to come in September of that year. He missed it, to my eternal sorrow. He'd have cheered for me.

He was born to a large Mormon family in Riverside, California, in 1914. He maintained that Riverside connection all his life, though he eventually moved many places far removed from the Inland Empire. I have never known a man of 80 who still had so many friends left from his childhood. I've met about 20 of them, ancient fellows who still thought they were young boys. He had a childhood friend who became a Cadillac dealer and provided many, many cars across the decades. One sport from his youth was one of the Graber sons, the Grabers of olive fame. Graber olives can now be purchased in many grocery stores around the country for $5-7 a can. They are a treat that will not be forgotten. Every holiday season for decades, some lucky contingent was dispatched to Graber's and hauled back cases and cases of the olives for which no money had changed hands. Little kids in my family would pop 10 of them onto fingertips and grin from ear to ear. A favorite story concerns the year Stepfather went to his 60th high school reunion. Ex and I asked him, bellowing, for he was quite deaf by this time, how he'd enjoyed himself. He had, indeed, but he was disappointed so many of the cute girls had put on weight. He said this in dead seriousness. Ex had to step outside to laugh, visions of plump 78-year-old women dancing in his head. For many years, my mother marveled at finding herself in Italy or Sweden or in some dark corner of Timbuktu and suddenly running into some group of Stepfather's dearest friends. It was uncanny.

He had an extreme case of rheumatic fever in his youth, and was troubled later by rheumatoid arthritis. When I met him, one of his legs was much shorter than the other and he wore the highest, most built-up shoe I'd ever seen. At least 6 inches. He ultimately had one of the earliest hip replacement surgeries in the nation, repeated a few times across the years. It is my sense he was probably an average-to-good student. His spelling was always, ummmm, curious. But he was a shining artist in many methods, stained glass in particular. I know family legends get a little slick, a little too smooth with the retelling, but this is approximately how it went. He was poor. There was no hope of higher education for him. I don't know if college scholarships existed at the time, but they surely were not common. So the story goes that he went to a nearby college (now a university) and connected with the right person whom he told that he had no money but had a burning desire to be an artist and teach art to others and if they would allow him to go to school, he would someday return and do something fine for the college. He graduated with the class of 1939. He did return and endow the university with the swimming pool and aquatic center that bear his name, construction beginning in 1996 with continued enhancements after his death.

By the time I met him (1966), he was a very wealthy man whose net worth would increase exponentially throughout his life. He worked hard to make that happen. No longer teaching in the classroom at L.A. City College, he'd had an exciting life and he still had 35 years to go. He had owned bars in the far southeastern stretches of California. Once he went on a circuit to collect the receipts and one of the bars was held up while he was there. The robber shot Stepfather and every time he ever told the story, he spoke not of fear or pain. He marveled for the rest of his days that the blast blew him right out of his shoes. He owned a very large rose farm in San Diego County - the flower growing capital of the world at the time. He owned vast tracts of land in Las Vegas and had already started building houses there. He piloted his own planes and he owned fine sportfishing vessels that grew in size and luxury with each new purchase. He was generous to a fault. He enjoyed feeding people, entertaining them, taking them out to sea and up into the wild blue.
Some small minded people in my mother's own family still spew poison about Stepfather bankrolling her. They are mistaken. He taught her how to make her own money and she was a good student. In the early 1970s, my mother called to say that if Ex and I wanted to own a home at a much younger age than most Californians, we might want to come over to Las Vegas for just a short time and start making money. Our cottage industry was lovely. Stepfather built houses, my mother sold them, I escrowed them, Ex was the landscape contractor. Stepfather put up a lot of houses each year. Life was pretty exciting. When Ex and I finally decided to marry, Stepfather flew his plane over, completely stuffed with yellow roses, my wedding signature flower. For these flowers, no money exchanged hands. It took multiple florists to arrange these in time for the wedding. When my mother's alcoholism made her life unmanageable, he curtailed enjoying his own cocktails and took her to AA meetings. When Las Vegas busted, following the heady boom, he told us we were right to run for the coast to get jobs. We were too young to have a big enough cushion to carry us through a bust.

Some of my fondest memories include Stepfather's many kindnesses to my Granny. He called her Mary Belle, which no other human could get by with. She detested the "Belle" part of her name. I recall the summer when he had 75 houses completed except for the toilets. There was a toilet shortage. Seriously. Stepfather secured a sizable stack of Elvis Presley tickets which he parlayed into porcelain fixtures from California and other locations. We closed the deals on our houses while others sat throneless throughout the valley. Stepfather knew about some beautiful hams, as lean as poultry, and shaped rather like a football, maybe somewhat larger. I'd like a nickel for every one of those hams I've tucked under my arm alongside him, cans of olives, too, and gallons of good liquor. We'd take holiday gifts to each and every employee of each and every subcontractor at each construction site. That's how he felt it should be. The 1980s ensued. Ex and I jumped up to our necks into union work. Mom and Stepfather languished in Las Vegas half of the time and on the coast the other half. When Las Vegas was booming, they built. For years and years and years.

Amber was born in 1990. My mother and I were in the middle of a bitter, but temporary estrangement and she did not meet her only grandchild until the little girl was 5 - about to enter kindergarten. Of course, meeting Grandma also meant meeting Step. He liked Amber and she liked him. It was as simple as that. When she was 5 and taking bowling lessons, he produced a leather bowling bag, shoes and a swirly purple ball. When she sold Girl Scout cookies, he bought so many boxes he took them all to Father Beno's soup kitchen to treat the clients. He talked with her. Why do some people not know or know how to talk to children? He contributed a shocking sum of money to her education trust fund so she could go to Harvard or Yale or the local business college, as it pleased her. But the best thing he did for her, by far, was take her out on the boat. Oh, yeah, we went, too. We'd take her out of school for a month, get special assignments designed to play on what she'd be doing on the boat (different species of fish seen, weather faxes, GPS readings, keeping the diesel engines in good order) and we were gone. She knew by the age of 8 that she wanted to spend her life in and on the water. She never considered anything else. She was a brilliant student, and will be working as either an oceanographer or a marine biologist with master's degrees in both, before she is 25. Amber, an only child, has always been just a little reserved. Not chilly or hostile. It just takes her awhile to feel secure. She also has a soft, tender voice as her father did. Stepfather was very deaf by the time she was born. We taught her to stand directly in front of him, make and keep eye contact and holler. She did it! They were grand friends.

Late in Stepfather's life, he learned about McDonald's. He did love a chocolate shake and my mother took him for a large one every Tuesday. I don't know why Tuesday. It has nothing to do with the story. Some months before he died, she pulled into the driveway between errands on a Tuesday afternoon to the shocking sight of lots and lots of police cars, fire trucks and paramedic vehicles. What the heezy? Oh, we all knew he was done. One didn't have to be clairvoyant. He was 87 and he wasn't squeezing all the good things out of life any longer. He and Mom had only realized a couple of years previously that he was 20 years older than she and their lives weren't going to end at a similar time. He was tired. He'd packed about 107 years of life into that 87 years. When she went out on errands that morning, he'd gone to his stained glass studio where the .357 magnum was secreted in his workbench. He shot himself in the chest as he had planned to do, but it did not kill him. No amount of money or fast talk would keep him out of the psych ward. "Mom, do you need me, specifically, to go with you?" "No, I think Ex would handle it better." Agreed! I couldn't go. I stayed home with my little child. When Ex came home, he sobbed. Stepfather sat in a wheelchair, doped up, head hanging. He might have been dead. My mother wrung her hands. Ex stepped up and said, "Stepfather, we love you. What were you thinking?" "Ex, I'm an old, old man. Five years ago, I wouldn't have missed." He died of natural causes, at home, fewer than 90 days later. He and I had a little fun going on. On 9-11-01, the 9-11, my life was going to change. He was rooting for me. I'm sad he did not share in my success. He died on 7-11-01, not such a lucky date for him or us.

Likely, I know (at least partially) why his children eschewed him. OK. So be it. Their experience was not mine. Mine, not theirs. Why did his grandchildren value him so little? Likely because of watching their parents' treatment of him. He was smart enough not to try to be my dad - I had one I valued tremendously, thank you very much. He was flawed. He was the best example I ever knew of a person who got up every day and went forth to do good things and to do things well.

Something that charmed me: A favored bit of videotape exists and - oh! - it charms me. It was the July 4th holiday and we were out at sea, pulling in so much fish that we'd press it on everyone we ever knew and Father Beno's soup kitchen. When we went onboard, Stepfather told Amber he had a little project for them to do to surprise everyone else aboard. She was about 5, big black eyes sparkling at the notion of a surprise project. They went off together into the galley and we all swore we weren't looking at them. Yes, the sound of the electric mixer and the eventual good smells told us they were likely baking a cake, and they were. It would be iced white with strawberries and blueberries to fashion an American flag. Captain Sean had free range on the boat. He had work to do nearly 24/7 and orders such as "don't come into the galley" did not apply to him. He grinned, watching the cooks and it is he who saw what had to be caught on videotape. It was loud on that vessel. Diesel engines roaring, excited anglers one-upping each other outside on deck, electric mixer going. Amber is a talker - one who feels compelled to communicate. Stepfather was as deaf as a post. On the tape, she stands on an ice chest next to Stepfather, the only way she could reach the countertop. The viewer can see her mouth moving and her head turning toward him. No response of any kind. She continued to crack eggs and her mouth continued to move, though she got no recognition. She figured it out for herself. Not missing a beat in her egg-cracking, she shot an elbow into Stepfather's ribs. He gave a little start and smiled at her. She engaged in her own version of sign language to get across whatever important cake-making message she felt so driven to deliver. He bobbed his head. They were having fun.


  1. This post is an outstanding recount of a life well lived, and that you loved him shows very plainly, and I can only imagine how difficult a post it must have been.

    After reading this, I almost feel like I knew him, at least briefly.

    After reading this, I wish I had known him.

  2. @ Matt ~ Uh-oh. Well done. I'm weepy again. I wish everyone had known him. Few would regret it. It was, indeed tough to write, but I'm peaceful now. Sad. Missing him. Peaceful. Thank you, Matt.

  3. I was reading most of this thinking, "Well, it's a nice little story about a nice old man". Then I came to the suicide attempt. I didn't see THAT coming. A lesser writer, I think, would have either left it out, so as to keep it a sweet little story, or, if sensationalism instead was what they were after, make the stepfather seem like a disturbed individual from 1914 onward. Knowing real life defies easy catagorization, you did neither. Instead, you described a decent, successful man, who, in spite of that success, arrived at a very dark place toward the end of his life. He spent a lifetime overcoming obsticles. I guess he saw the aging process as yet another obsticle to be overcome. I know he's been gone for over a decade, but sorry for your loss, anyway. 1914! Just think, he lived through both world wars, saw a man fly solo across the Atlantic, and another walk on the moon!

    By the way, the title of this post didn't show up on the sidebar. What's up with that?

  4. @ Kirk ~ Thank you so much. When I am telling the true stories from life, I try to keep them true and as balanced as I can. People are all/each just mixed bags of stuff. This is the first time I've really dealt with the loss of him. I don't want this to sound trite, but I was both busy at the time and still in my role as Cleopatra, the Queen of Denial. This was a good exercise for me.

    BTW, the one who really saw a lot of world was my Granny-O, born in 1899. Her brother sold newspapers in Knoxville, TN,and she always remembered him bringing home the edition that told of the sinking of the Titanic.

    Blogger! Grrr! Ever since I was irreverent in print about Blogger on Sunday, it has conspired to bite me. You can't believe what I had to do just to get my blog name on the sidebars, never mind the title! I'll think twice before accusing Blogger of eating boogers (in writing) again.

  5. A sweet and sad tale of a good man. You write him well.

  6. @ Tag ~ Oh, I thank you. He WAS a fine man. I miss him.