Friday, October 31, 2008

What an Odd Choice of Words

The beginning of yesterday’s post about learning of my father’s death is not some strange metaphor that didn’t work. It’s literal. Following his instructions to the letter, dear J traveled from Alabama to our house with his ashes and rang our doorbell, which is the first we knew of his deteriorating health or his death. His (extensive) instructions, which she is lovingly carrying out, prescribed every step. It was an odd way to learn of a death, though completely consistent with the life that preceded it.

While a completely different experience, it reminded us of our experience with him and ashes when my stepmother died. I was in law school, and we’d been helping him with paperwork and arrangements. As an aside, this is how we came to be reading hospital bills for her surgery and hospital stay, and concluding there must be a secret guild of people trained to construct unintelligible medical bills. We couldn’t make heads nor tails of most of them and ended up hiring a specialist in reading medical bills to help us through the maze. It was a trial. Anyway, one day, my father asked me to go by the funeral home to sign some papers. Thinking it would be a short errand easily accomplished on my way to class at the law school, I set forth.

Instead of papers to sign, however, once I arrived, the funeral home receptionist handed me Dorothy’s ashes. In what looked for all the world like a two-pound coffee can covered with contact paper. A trick of memory or story-telling embellishment leaves me with the distinct feeling that the plastic lid even said “Folger’s,” though that seems unlikely. Arriving at the law school, it felt wrong to leave Dorothy in the car, so I took the can into the building with me. Waiting in the hallway for the door to open, classmates kept saying “hey, are you going to share?” and otherwise joshing about this odd package. Taking my seat, it felt incorrect to put Dorothy on the floor—disrespectful, somehow—so I put the can on the desk, which caused the professor to say, “Ms. Gunsalus, how nice of you to bring the coffee!” It was trying and awkward.

Leaving class and going to work, the dilemma re-presented itself: it didn't feel right to leave the can in the car, so I took it into my office with me. Same scenario: everyone who saw me carrying this coffee can commented on it in some way, the more so if they knew us well enough to know that we don’t drink coffee. In my discomfort with the circumstances, I finally resorted to saying to “It’s not coffee, it’s my stepmother.” There’s a conversation-stopper for you. It made for a good story, though, after the services were over, the ashes scattered and some time elapsed between the experience and the telling.

This is all a diversion from thinking about what it really means for my father to be dead. He was a complicated person of great accomplishment who powerfully affected the lives of many people.

A true son of the prairie, he grew up on a farm with smart, hard-working parents who had only elementary school educations. He told us stories about his father who had a gift for machinery, taking apart his tractor on the barn floor on a tarp, cleaning all the pieces and putting it back together to improve its performance. He learned to drive in a Model T. His mother, a woman of formidable will, raised and supported three children after his father’s death in a threshing machine accident when he was a senior in high school. An eagle scout, he started college at South Dakota State University, and then followed his scoutmaster to Cornell, finished college there, got a Ph.D. and became a faculty member. Over his career, he built an international reputation. From his South Dakota roots—never forgotten—he grew into a cosmopolitan, polished presence, teaching himself and many others about wine, music, travel, and life.

A better mentor, probably, than a father, he wasn’t an easy person to be close to: he had the highest of standards and required much of himself and those around him. Passing along what he experienced, his style wasn’t praise but criticism, always meant to spur greater accomplishment. As a small example—one of the smallest, actually—despite my bringing home all A’s from school one year, he asked me where the plusses were. As they didn’t offer plusses, I was crushed and felt unrecognized for my hard work. It almost surely wasn’t meant that way, and to be around him meant coming to terms with the dichotomy between intent and effect and dealing with it. Riding in a car with him one day as he cataloged my (many) failings, he saw a blind woman having trouble crossing the street. Pulling the car across the lanes of traffic at an angle, he got out, held up his hand, stopped all the traffic, went over and escorted the woman across the street. Returning to the car and permitting the traffic to start again, he returned to the excoriation of my conduct without missing a beat. As you can imagine, this style worked better with some personalities than with others.

We all were clothed and fed and got great educations, if not much emotional nurturing. We were exposed to wonderful people, places and experiences. Scores of students attest to horizons opened, opportunities provided and the excitement of the journey with deep gratitude and affection. He was capable of enormous kindness and stimulated tremendous loyalty. His work was meaningful and will be remembered.

You could leave a lesser legacy. We will hold a memorial service in the spring, as requested, once the crocuses are blooming.

1 comment:

  1. I met "Gunny" when he'd already retired, yet Tina's description resonates. fwiw, I too was profoundly effected by someone saying to me, after I'd earned an A from a particularly demanding teacher, "why wasn't it an A+?" Not only did Gunny think that everyone else could do better, he thought that even he himself could do better. Tina comes by her personality honestly! Shortly after I'd worked at NSF, Gunny kept asking, "when are you going to give me a grant?" I finally gave him the only grant ever made by the "Scheeline Science Foundation," a 5 cent payout from my pocket, with the stipulation it be used for the betterment of science and that no final report ever be filed. He gave me a wooden nickel from one of the local bars as a refund the next day, and to my knowledge the other conditions were met!