No Filter

Most of this originated as a euology for my father, Norman Smith, who passed away two years ago a the age of 80. We had a complicated relationship. He was my biggest fan and harshest critic. He was my hero and my nemesis. I was blessed to have had an opportunity to come to terms with that, to be close to him and help him in his final weeks, and to honor him in the weeks after his death. Father’s Day will always be full of elegaic moments for those of us whose fathers are no longer here to celebrate with us. Still, it makes me smile to remember. Happy Father’s Day, “Dear Ol’ Dad”.

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There is an “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode about the wedding from hell, where Raymond has to toast the hapless couple. In it, he manages to turn a horribly awkward contentious occasion into a humorous and happy one by talking about editing; how we filter events and tend to remember the good stuff.   I actually started with that thought as I was forming ideas for this eulogy in my head, but had to laugh as I remembered the many times I said of Dad, especially the later years, just the opposite.  That Dad had no filter.  Now that might sound like a negative thing – and it did make me shake my head sometimes that he would just blurt out whatever popped into his head, like cheerily greeting my husband Kevin on our wedding day with, “Oh you must be Kevin. I recognize you by your chrome dome!”  But the more I thought about it, I realized that one of the things about Dad that was most endearing was that he had no filter. 

On the one hand he was a born worrier and a bit of a fusspot – old before his time. But he had this child-like quality – of curiosity, wonder, absolute glee when something tickled him, and especially in his last years, a genuine heartfelt appreciation for the kindness of others. If he was interested in something, he threw himself into it, 110%.  And if you showed an interest in the same thing, well he was mentor and pal for life. Because of this, he had sort of a Renaissance Man list of interests and outlets for his unique talents and energies – and as I found these last few months, a group of people for each facet of his life who loved him for what he brought to those relationships.

First there was his childhood family, especially his mother, Norma, brothers Lenny and Wes and “Sister”, Carolyn.  Growing up in the Great Depression, scarcity was a fact of life, but made more keen because of his parents divorcing while he was still a boy. Being the oldest, he took on the mantle of responsibility for his siblings at the tender age of 10. I have shed more than one tear as I’ve read the poignant letters in childhood scrawls of three little boys to their “Dear Mother” and letters from Papa to little ones too young to understand but promising that he would always love them and to please have “Brother” write a letter telling him what they each wanted for Christmas.  Later, brother became “Bubba” as the boys went to live and work with farm families and I have enjoyed the brotherly advice, admonitions and good natured teasing in their letters about all manner of teenage life in the 40s. School chums, trapping, haying, milking, girls, hiking, mischief and later a common love of airplanes and cars.  The folks they stayed with really did become family for Dad and he kept in touch with his beloved Jim Valley until the end. But his love for his family was a constant throughout his life. Some of my brothers’ and sister’s favorite times were the frequent trips to Syracuse and up north to visit our uncles and their families.  Cousins are always spelled FUN but we also reveled in our Dad having fun with his brothers, whether it was riding motorcycles, hunting or, my favorite, when they played guitar and sang together. He took care of his family – of Wes’s family when he died, of his mother as her health failed, of Carolyn when Grandmother died, and always worried if he was doing enough. No filter.

Next came the Army, basic training at Fort Dix, and almost before the ink was dry on the enlistment papers, off to the west coast and on to the hell hole of Korea.  In the midst of fear and carnage, his letters to his mother reflect a tenderness especially as he talks about the little kids who hang around the camp and do odd jobs.  In one letter, the 18 year old worldly big brother chides Lenny and Wes apparently for their notion that the two of them are going to acquire a plane and do some damage to those Commies.  He asks them if they are “gone” (nuts) and wonders not only where are they going to get the money, but where would they keep it?!  Wounded twice, the second time severely, he wrote of the action he saw and how a young Hawaiian friend died in his arms. Years later, he reunited with the boys he served with at several 24th Infantry Division events and proudly wore his military service pins and insignia on each of his considerable wardrobe of hats and caps. Those friendships forged in the fire of battle lasted throughout his life. No filter.

There were other passions and groups of “buddies” – his motorcycle buddies and Ham radio buddies, names that became as familiar to us as family – Hugo Ransley and Joe Greco, John Farler, Bob Skidmore, John Kohlmorgan, and many others.  He told me in his last weeks that his daily chats on the net were his lifeline.  It was through Ham radio that he had yet another nickname bestowed on him. To his CW (morse code) friends he was “Whew” or “Sir Percy”.  We grew up with the sound of that key going, especially late at night. From the many emails and letters remembering Dad it seems Whew came from Dad’s ability to send and receive Morse code so quickly, it left mere mortals saying “Whew!” One friend remarked that sending code was like speaking a foreign language with marbles in your mouth so conversations were usually pretty simple.  But Dad had the ability, even in morse code, to paint word pictures and really make the conversation personal. And so they all loved Norm because he had no filter.

At work, he was the consummate professional – yet another place where being a fusspot was a good thing. His attention to detail was legend. I am sure he must have been a demanding supervisor in the lab but he was tailor made for the accuracy demanded of a Medical Technologist. He took his work very seriously but as I met people he had worked with in his field, doing DNA sample collecting until a few weeks before his death, I learned how very much his professionalism meant to the people he worked with. But more importantly, I learned how very human and compassionate he was with the people he drew blood from, especially the children. In his “kit” along with all the medical stuff and chain of evidence record keeping stuff, was a bag full of lollipops for the little ones.

Dad made no bones about the things he loved and the things he hated. His emotions were always front and center, like a child. Like a child he was easily hurt and easily tickled. He railed at the news on tv; cussed about folks he felt were not honorable or industrious.  He kept little treasures in boxes reminiscent of the boy for whom a pocket knife or a new pair of shoes was a king’s treasure.  He jealously rationed a jar of homemade sauerkraut and would rave for decades about a loaf of his favorite Russian black bread or pungent garlic-laced tabouli.

He loved deeply, my mother for the 50 years of their marriage, and then his dear friend, Fay; his extended family and friends, his children – sometimes as in Shakespeare’s words “not wisely but too well”.  His judgments could be harsh but I know in his last years he began to truly seek humility and temperance of the need to be right.

But we remember too that Dad really had no filter on his love for children, especially those for whom he did not have to wear his “responsible parent” hat. He gleefully teased little girls, whether cousins or my little sister’s friends, or neighbor kids. A young couple with a toddler who had been neighbors of Dad’s in Kentucky related to me how much they loved their Norm. It would never occur to him to be aloof, so he marched right over with a gift of apples and cornbread when they moved in and clearly reveled in the “lovin’ on him” by their little daughter. No filter on his emotions.

No filter in collecting antiques [I’m STILL finding bottles] or choices of music – he loved virtually every kind of music and would share it with you whether you were willing or not – and in the process conveyed a rich heritage of music to all of us and our children after us. No filter when he would listen in rapt attention and try to engage street musicians in conversation about guitar styles or when he would lose himself in some Chet Atkins or Allison Kraus recording. He would listen to music when he was taking his breathing treatments those last weeks and I really think they took him away to another place – closer to home.
So maybe it would not be such a bad thing if we did not filter so much, huh?

But one of the things he loved best, from childhood to his last days, was the outdoors, especially the woods and fields and lakes of upstate New York.  After he and Mom moved back to Kentucky in the 70s to “escape the rat race” as he said, he made almost annual trips north for apple season and a hike in the woods with one or more of us. His doctor’s directive after his bypass surgery to walk three miles a few times a week was one he embraced. We finally convinced him that he should get and learn how to use a cell phone when we realized we had an 80 year old man regularly traipsing through the woods alone.  He fed the birds religiously and watched them from his perch at his HAM radio desk, a bird identification guide where most people would have a thesaurus. He could name every one and mimic many of their calls, teaching anyone who would listen.

It was this love of the woods, of nature, that I think linked me and my father spiritually. He so appreciated Native American life and culture that he felt a kindred spirit with them as deep as the traditional religion he came to embrace late in life. He took such pride and pleasure in carving walking sticks for many of us. When we laid him to rest at last in his beloved “Happy Valley” it was fitting to return him to his ancestors beneath the twisted pine and to read the wisdom of those whose feet walked softly on the earth.

When you were born, you cried, and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice. White Elk  

May the stars carry your sadness away, May the flowers fill your heart with beauty, may hope forever wipe away your tears, And, above all, may silence make you strong. Chief Dan George

Dad, moccasins are no longer needed to protect your feet, no herbs needed to heal you, nor any walking stick to guide you for you are carried on wings of eagles.  You have your grandfather, Norman, and grandmother, Margaret, Uncle Bill, your father Donald, your beloved Mother Norma, sister Carolyn, and brother, Wesley, to welcome you, your Savior Christ to heal all your wounds and guide you into eternal life in the presence of the Creator.

As you disappear into the woods again we are glad to see you lean on your walking stick, turn and smile, and we know you are home.


About wisdomseason

Embracing both the hard scrabble self sufficiency and resilience of my ancestors and the burgeoning Information Age to help make family experience richer, healthier and happier. Maturity does not mean I cannot approach every day with the same excitement I felt as I swung my skinny legs over my bike on a summer morning, bag lunch in my basket, for a day of riding and hiking the woods and fields around my home in upstate New York or went blackberry picking in the heavy cicada song drenched afternoons at my grandmother's in Kentucky. Let's explore!
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