Dad's favorite song
It's that time of year again. The yearly anniversary of Dad's passing. Dad actually happened on January 5th, 1999 and I've been tossing around ideas on how to honor his memory this year. Today while driving home from work I came up with the idea of introducing Dad to Daily Kos. I know he would love this site and I'm sure he would be a contributing writer.
Below the fold you will find a full copy of a speech I wrote for his memorial service in October 1999 or 2000 I honestly cannot remember which. It actually happened one day before what would have been his birthday that year. It was held at the Newberry Library where Dad spent countless hours researching the family history. It was a great experience. The speech is fairly long. I think it took me about 15 minutes to get through it, so there's a lot to read. I've become a better writer since then, but I want to present pretty much as I typed it with a few minor edits to protect identities of some friends and family.
Without further ado, I give you... Walter...
I miss my Father. He was my rock in an uncertain world. Irreplaceable is Walter. He was a passionate man. One who despised all forms of prejudice, greed, ignorance and hate. A man who marched for civil right in Georgia in the sixties. A man who cried when Martin Luther King was killed (my earliest memory of him crying). A lover of humor who laughed louder then anyone. Lover of jazz, seeker of knowledge, Atheist, Humanist. My father was an amazing, complex, loving, intense man. Those words only start to describe Walter. He was more a force of nature then a man. His life touched many people. I look around this room and see the legacy of Walter. Dad lived for friends and family.
Dad and I didn’t have the smoothest of relationships growing up. I suppose many teenagers fight with their parents at one time or another, and Dad and I were no different. Those confrontations aren’t relevant today other then to show how much our relationship grew. It took a lot of effort to reach the level of friendship we did, but I can honestly say that Dad became one of my closest friends. That friendship led to one of the proudest moments of my life, being best man at Dad and Sue’s wedding. But, it took a lot of work to get to that point. Dad used to love the Mark Twain quote, “ When I was thirteen, I was convinced my father was an idiot. When I was 18 I was amazed at how much he had learned.” Those words well describe our high school relationship. But the true friendship and respect happened even later. Dad and I did lunch every week for the last 10 years. The day always started the same way. “Where do you want to go today?” one of us would ask.
“I don’t know” would be the reply. “Do you have a taste for anything in particular?”
“No, the usual, lunch stuff, soup and a sandwich.”
This was the ritualistic greeting that would signal the beginning of our weekly get together. I would not trade those lunches for anything. For they were gold beyond mere money. I cherish those memories today. Our weekly lunches were my connection to something greater then me, my connection to the world. We would talk about anything, music, sports, politics, science, art… the list was endless. And the conversation was always lively. It was in those weekly lunches where I came to know the man named Walter, beyond the father who raised me. Those conversations taught me Dad’s love of people, hatred of ignorance and belief in a better world. Not merely my father, Dad was my mentor. And if one word best describes Dad it would be teacher. He was smarter then most people he met or interacted with, me included. To this day I consider him the smartest man I ever knew. In fact when I was a child I would tell friends I wanted to be the smartest man in the world when I grew up, that was because I wanted to be like Dad. His intelligence and love of debate often lead to confusion. People would be put off by this big blustery man who seemed to know everything. Our lunches were no exception. The conversations were often passionate, neither of us willing to budge from our positions. It was educational for both of us. It was a proud day for me when I would hear him espousing a viewpoint I had presented that week at lunch, now defending that which he had earlier attacked. Dad loved to debate and would have little time or use for opinions he considered to be wrong, but Dad could be so patient with someone trying to learn. He would explain things over and over again while teaching, never getting angry or frustrated, merely helping the student to understand. Toward the end of his life he was teaching a friend of his to read. She is an older woman, and when Dad found out she couldn’t read he took it on himself to teach her, just like dad, always trying to help…
Dad had many friends. He seemed to know everyone, and maybe within his circle he did. Dad loved people. You couldn’t go anywhere with him without him starting a conversation with a complete stranger. He tried to fill his life with people. He had so many events to go to that it was a good thing he was retired. He and Sue were constantly going to concerts, plays and fundraisers… The list seems to go on and on. Dad was a member of every major Museum in Chicago. He did volunteer work at the Field Museum and took classes to broaden himself. Toward the end of his life he took a class on creative writing and the essays he created about his life memories are priceless. The writing is simple and unpretentious, telling stories in a straightforward manner. The words hold that much more power for lack of fancy prose. They take me to another place, another time, when Dad was growing up or making changes in his life. He wrote about camp memories, how his grandmother got her nickname “Ganga”, the family’s move from Savannah to Washington, and many other things. Sue made copies for all of the children. They are among my most treasured possessions.
Family…What is a family? Is it merely a group of people who are related? Held together by genes and blood. In many cases it does not mean love, trust and happiness. Not so in the Laffer family. I can say without hesitation that I love my family. I would do anything for them. They hold me when I’m low, feed me when I’m hungry, clothe me when I’m naked (or merely the victim of bad taste) and shelter me from harm. Dad helped teach us all those things. His heart beat loudly and with great love for his family. There was nothing he would not do for us. He often carried me when I could not stand on my own. He was the best ally to have on you side in times of crises…
Several years ago I received as a gift the last of the family pets. Louis was a 110-pound dog who shed enough hair for two or three dogs his size. He was “given” to Dad and Mom by Denise, who had the choice of getting rid of Louis or being evicted from her apartment midway through her senior year in college. Dad didn’t want a large dog; he wanted freedom from pets, and all the attachments that come with them. However, he wanted Denise to graduate more then he wanted his freedom. So, he took Louis. After Dad met and married Sue, they wanted to buy a condo and were having trouble with the closing because of Louis’ size. Although they won the right to keep Louis they decided to give him up to avoid getting off on the wrong foot with their new neighbors. I wanted a dog, and Louis came to me. I loved that dog. But, as all dogs do, Louis got old and sick. I was forced to put him to sleep. Dad went with me that day. He held my hand, kept me going, paid the bill (thanx Dad) and helped me get through one of the hardest days of my life. I couldn’t have done it without him. He did all of this while managing not to break down himself. I know he was hurting. As Denise before him, Dad loved Louis and felt guilty for giving him away. But, on that day Dad suppressed his own pain and loss to carry me. He thanked me for taking care of the last of the “family” pets. Through it all I never saw him cry, though I’m sure he did later when he was alone, while we were together he suppressed it so he could be strong for me.
Arguably the worst time in my life (prior to January 1999) was October of 1996. Many years before I had lost the hearing in my left ear. It was unexplainable then, just as it was unexplainable in 1996 when I lost the hearing in my other ear. Dad took care of me for the long week while we waited to see if my hearing would return to normal. We ate dinner together almost every night. The following Monday Dad went with me to the hospital, where I was told to check in immediately. For the week I was in the hospital Dad fed my cat, brought me clothes, visited me every day and held my hand when I needed it. I was scared beyond words. My whole life was being ripped from its moorings. For the next few months, Dad went with me to many Doctors appointments in some cases even scheduling and paying for the appointments himself. Money was no object, I needed help and he provided it in any way he could. He even went with me to our regular barber the first time after the hearing loss, to make sure I was comfortable. He paid for my second hearing aid, encouraged me to seek therapy to aid in my emotional well being helped pay for the therapy and when I totaled my car the next summer; he bought me a new one. Dad made sure I had everything I needed during this terrible time. Without his support I would not be where I am today. I would still be bemoaning my fate, and cursing life for dealing me such a cruel hand. Instead I stand before you fully functional, succeeding in life and doing well in school. Dad helped encourage all of this, while being there when I needed a lift, emotionally or financially. Thanks Dad.
As good as Dad was in a crisis; it is the happy times that stick out in my mind. Little memories like Dad screaming “score, score” at the TV last fall when Ohio State was beating Michigan. Him greeting me at the door wearing plastic Bulls horns when I went over to have dinner and watch the Bulls in the playoffs. But, Dad knew how to throw a party. In fact, in the last few years Dad threw two great parties. The first one was over Thanksgiving, 1997 in Galveston Texas at Chery’s house. All 4 of the kids went to Texas. Denise brought her family. Chris brought Travis and for a whole week all of the kids, their families, Dad and Sue hung out. We went to NASA, visited the Galveston “Pyramids” (with a rain forest and other attractions) and in general had a great time. The highlight was Sue’s B-day party at a local Restaurant. Sue had a Lobster that defies description. Everyone was dressed up. It was a full-scale blowout. Later in the week at the Thanksgiving dinner we had 15 people sitting around the same table. Fernando’s kids flew in and a great time was had by all. It was family at its best. The vacation started out as Dad and Sue flying down to Texas to visit Chery and Fernando over Thanksgiving. It was Chery’s plan to invite Denise and family to come also. I secretly believe that it started out as a way to keep Dad and his immense energy occupied for the week he visited her. Dad helped it grow from there into all of us flying in. It worked out great. It had been a long time since all of the kids were together for a prolonged period. It was way cool to have all of us in one place at one time and it reverberates today in a stronger sense of family, a greater bond between my sisters and me. I used to feel that I did not know Chery and Christy that well as adults. Now, I do. We communicate regularly and care about each other; that is what family is all about. Dad knew that and it is through his example that I do to.
The second get together was last Christmas in New Jersey at Denise’s house. Again all of the kids were there, Denise was 6 months pregnant, and Patrick and Charlotte were a little older then in Texas, so there was much running around and playing. Christy got saddled early on by the kids, who road her hard. She will forever remain “Uncle Horse” (as Charlotte named her) in my mind. There are two highlights for me that stick out from this trip. The first and most obvious is the dinner that Dad threw for an extended clan of Laffers at a local Inn. Prior to the dinner several of us went to visit the grave of my first ancestor in America. It is local to New Jersey. The cemetery is a smallish one with an Oak tree that must be 10 feet in diameter in the center. The branches would easily shade this entire group of people. This time we had an extended family get together. Uncle Bill, Aunt Lynn, the Pattersons and assorted cousins flew in to join our immediate family. A great time was had by all. A family portrait was taken to preserve the moment, all 20+ of smiling away. What a night, ensconced in family. It made me feel a part of something bigger. Like I came from somewhere, and had a place in the world. I know what I am. I am a Laffer. For Dad this was a natural concept. When he grew up he lived close to his Grandparents and extended family. He spoke often of wishing the family lived closer together so he could play a bigger role in the lives of his grandchildren and other family members. At the same time he realized that times have changed since he was a kid, that the advent of easy long distance travel made it less likely that a family would remain all in a single locale. His work on the family tree was a direct response to his need to feel closer to his roots and part of the greater community of humankind. The second and less obvious memory from New Jersey is Dad reading “The Night It Rained Toys”, which is a delightful children's Christmas tale about a feud between “a wicked old King, who didn’t like Christmas or anything” and Santa Claus. The story is a family Christmas tradition. Every year Dad would read it. This year was special for me, because he was reading it to Patrick and Charlotte, carrying on a tradition with another generation. I swear the whole house stopped and listened to Dad read this children’s tale. It brought back memories from times long gone, when I couldn’t sleep waiting for Santa to come. Every year Mom and Dad would wait until we had gone to bed to bring out the presents and stuff the stockings, so when we arose (never allowed before 7:00) it would seem that Santa had come. This year that task fell to Denise and Lou, and again the reins of parenthood were passed along to the next generation. It was the last time I will ever hear him read that book. It is something I will always remember…
Dad did not have a typical work life. He never really found his niche in the business world and retired in his fifties. Probably the job he liked best was teaching, but he hadn’t done that professionally in many years. Dad’s real work was more diverse. It involved research and community work on many levels. He was involved in Kiwanis when I was growing up, and it was through that involvement that I came to meet my first girlfriend, Sue, who remains one of my closest friends. He also was very involved in the local Jazz scene, even serving on the board of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. Dad was a member of many organizations that support human rights or promote critical thinking. He was proud to call himself a “card carrying member of the ACLU” and had a passion about free thought and education. He felt that the flow of ideas is the key to freedom, both personally and as a species. He was heavily involved in the Secular Humanist movement, and was never afraid to tell someone that he was an atheist. Dad believed that non-scientific approaches to the world were dangerous and delusional. To that end he worked hard at being involved in the “real world”. He never liked to accept simple metaphysical answers to complex problems. He believed in the ability of humankind to accomplish anything. In the last 10 years Dad and Sue took two trips to Egypt and Mexico. His tour groups spent a few days in Cancun and Cairo, but the majority of the trips were spent viewing the ancient buildings and pyramids. He later commented to me that Cancun was a boring tourist trap, but he had been fascinated by the ruins. In Dad’s mind they showed what an amazing animal the human species is. Dad also spent years volunteering at the Field Museum, and researching the family genealogy. I would tell everyone that Dad was not doing the family tree, he was building the family forest, that he was proving the “6 degrees of separation” theory empirically, because he would go to great lengths to find obscure relatives. I called the research a hobby one time. Dad corrected me saying it was his “life work”. At the time I laughed it off, but for Dad it was very serious. He wanted to know where he came from. To know that he was part of the physical world, that he had a history and that it mattered. The trips and research were his way of doing that. They both show how humans acted throughout history. For Dad being part of history, part of the greater community of humankind was what life was all about.
I don’t know if everyone here knows that tomorrow is Dad’s birthday, and it seems so appropriate that we are here celebrating his life. A giant birthday party with all of his friends and loved ones. The only thing missing is Dad. I would say he is here in spirit, but that would belittle his belief that there is no such thing. I feel his presence, but not in a spiritual way, more in the fact that here we all are. The legacy of Walter is here in this room in our love, friendship and memories. It is impossible to sum up a man’s life in one speech. What can I say about Walter? Father, Husband, Mentor, Atheist, Humorist, Humanist… Again, these words seem inadequate. Dad taught me to respect the world, love people and treat everyone equally. That in itself is the greatest gift he could have given me. I love my father and will miss him forever. I say with great pride and without any hesitation that I am my father’s son, and I would have it no other way.