Monday, January 02, 2012

Eulogy for My Distant Father

Son and father

Family Background
Below is a version, with some additions, of remarks I made the last week in December at my Dad’s funeral in Paris, Tennessee.  My intentions had been not to give a eulogy; but when the African-American leader of his funeral service asked for folks to come up, no one else was forthcoming; and I felt his 84-year-life should not pass without some summary by someone who did know him much of that time.

My father owned a furniture store where he worked 6+ days a week for almost 65 years; and he was still there daily within a week of his death.  The store was a large portion of his life.  The rest of his time was mostly devoted to holding civic positions of leadership within Paris, Tennessee & Henry County.  I doubt more than a handful of people within that County today do not know him personally.  He was Mr. Paris in many ways. 

While gracious, generous, and gregarious to the public, my father was mostly sullen, silent, absent, and extremely controlling within the family home (at least during the years I was growing up).  I never heard him express sentiments of love -- to me, my brother or my mother.   He took zero interest in my many activities, never praised to my face my various accomplishments, and only outwardly cared if I brought home anything less than an “A” on every subject (which I rarely/never did).  He set many rules and boundaries that I dared not cross, and punishments were frequent and severe for a kid who actually was seen by everyone else (including my Mother) as one never got in trouble.

His estimation of me grew 100-fold when I introduced in 1978 my bride-to-be.  He really liked her and her family a lot and seemed to see me through her in a new light.  Our relationship got a little more friendly, like good acquaintances; but our phone conversations for the next 20+ years centered on three subjects: weather, the ‘boys’ (his 3 grandsons, whom he did seem to adore), and his/my business.

When I came out 24 years later and divorced my wife (with whom I am on great terms as still-best friends), he did not speak to me for three years.  (I actually think the divorce was a bigger sin in his eyes than even ‘being a homosexual’.)  To his credit and through much coaxing from his present (second) wife, he did resume our ‘acquaintanceship’ almost seven years ago and finally met three years ago and totally seemed to accept Ed as my current spouse – much also to Ed’s credit and the way he approached and treated my Dad.

So with this background, here is my eulogy to Edward Lee Reynolds, Senior to my Junior.

Eulogy for a Father Acquaintance
 “Good morning.  I am the other son, the one from the Left Coast of the US.  I am the one that is in many ways opposite and different from my Dad, especially when it comes to our views of politics.  His Republican, conservative self smirked and railed against my Democratic, liberal stance; but we also learned just to avoid a whole set of topics where we both knew nothing could be gained by going there.

Dad behind the counter of his store.
As many of you may know, my Dad and I were actually never very close as father-son and certainly not as friends.  I cannot today stand here and recount intimate, fun moments we shared as I grew up.  I have no such memories.  My Dad was not a family man.  He was a business and community-service man.  His persona as a business and community leader was something I observed from afar; his persona within our home was one most others might not have recognized if they had seen it.

But, as I reflect on my Dad’s influence on me, there are definitely important and positive legacies.   First and foremost, I shop only local retail to the extent possible, paying more in our downtown Palo Alto stores instead of going to the local malls.  I think every piece of furniture in our house is American-made, not a small feat in today’s world.  And as my present spouse can verify, I tend more often than not to pick up the check whenever we take friends to dinner, and I love to entertain in a big way, something I always saw my Dad do as I grew up.

I also learned by watching him that being a leader in the community is important.  Giving back to that community and its organizations was a part of his life and is very much a part of mine.  He seemed to like to hear about positions of leadership I had taken and to listen intently to issues I was helping them confront, although he did not tend to make any comments or ask any questions.  I also learned from him that helping others less fortunate was our obligation.  My Dad insisted I spend each Christmas Eve (all through college and even after wife and I were married) delivering several score of large fruit and food baskets to widows, elderly couples, and poorer folks – all of which he eagerly and in a very jolly mood assembled at his furniture store all morning of the 24th.

When I told my ex-wife about my Dad’s death, she tearfully recounted to me her lasting memory of my Dad and the practice he made in giving credit to anyone who walked into his furniture store, no matter the color of skin or the economic status.  As long as a customer was working hard in whatever he/she was doing, as long as they were sincere in promising to back up their small down-payment with weekly/monthly payments (sometime only a few dollars a time), he/she could have delivered that new couch, washer, or bedroom set.  And usually, he would throw in a new lamp, a picture for the wall, or a couple of throw pillows for free.  Now I remember here in Paris when there were two water fountains and two sets of bathrooms at the courthouse.  I remember when all the drug stores took out the seats in their soda fountains and when the movie house shut down rather than having people of mixed races sit together.   But I can never remember a time when an African American walked into my Dad’s store and did not get a huge smile, a hand-shake (and in later years, probably a hug), and store-credit account to buy a new or used piece of furniture.  While I cringed sometimes when my Dad used the wrong words to describe a person of color, I never felt he had anything but respect and even love for the local African American community.  Recently, I even found out from his wife that he wrote every year substantial checks to each African American church in Paris, contributions that particularly have been helpful in the last few, lean years.

In Judaism, which is one of the ways my Dad and I were very different, we are commanded to ‘repair the world’ around us while on this earth.  I believe my Dad did that and left me with a legacy I now try to follow.  I only learned it by watching him.  He did not instruct me or encourage me to do so, but he provided a powerful example.

Son, son-in-law, father
When Ed and I visited my Dad in November, one of the last things he said to me was in fact one of the most intimate, loving remarks I had ever heard him say.  He came over to me, grabbed by shoulders, and said, “Eddie, I want you to know the best thing we (meaning my Mom and he) did in this life was to have the best five grandchildren ever.  Each of them is so accomplished.  Each is a good person.  I am so proud of all five of them.  I want you to tell your Mother (whom he divorced 23 years ago) that I said this.  I want her to know I believe this.

So, I stand here today with a lifetime of some regrets about my and my Dad’s lack of relationship with me, but I also stand before you proud of the many things he accomplished for many of you here and for thousands of others in this community.  May the lives he touched be a lasting legacy of the good he did on this earth, and may we all say, “Amen.”


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Frank said...

Very touching eulogy and what must have provided you a sense of closure and peace. Very best to you and your husband in the New Year.

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khunbaobao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
khunbaobao said...

A thoughtful post, which brought back memories of my own father's passing a few years ago. Our relationships with our fathers were slightly different, but the "gay" factor can't help but add a different dynamic to them - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse - and I'm happy to see you seem at peace with it. I don't speak of personal items often on my blog (it deals with my times in Thailand) but I don't to out of my way to shy away from them, either. Glad to have found you. I'll check in more often.

Unknown said...

Amen. Thank you! Perfectly said. You really helped pit things into words

Unknown said...

Amen. Thank you! Perfectly said. You really helped pit things into words

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