The Memorial Chain

by Edward A. Dougherty

At the end of May, from New Mexico, Julie called Michael in Bucks County outside Philadelphia who called me in upstate New York to say that we were going to make a “chain of stories” about our Dad to commemorate the 19th anniversary of his death. One of my seven siblings would call, we’d exchange stories, and I’d call the next one in line. Get something ready. June 4th was just days away.

What story should I relate?

The time he and I were driving to the Reunion and met up for lunch somewhere in Jersey with Moose? Afterward, he and Moose, like leap-frogging teenagers, passed each other on the highway, heads rigidly straight and eyes riveted on the road, but one time Dad gave Moose a big fat finger as he zoomed by and another Moose cradled the trophy the Reunion golf tournament winner would go home with—the image already indicating who that prize was going to.

The time he slapped me? Right across the face. We lived in the Wayne house, so I had to be in primary school. It’s not much of a story since I can’t recall what occasioned it or what happened afterward. What’s remarkable, though, is that it’s the only time I ever recall him raising a hand to me. Mom threatened when any of us got to be too much: “You wait until your father gets home,” and we would then face the music. But being the seventh of eight kids, I got the mellower version of the Enforcer, and I remember him always being fair and reasonable. So that story won’t work.

The message he wrote on a poem I’d sent him? A bad piece, thinking about it now, but as a son’s letter to his father, it has a sincerity that doesn’t embarrass me. Much.  The poem starts, “You used to scare me” but lets him know that “I am drawn to you, learning.” Written when I was in college, I may have been lifting my gaze from my own self to recognize and honor others’ perspectives; I like to think so. The poem shifts to an awareness of my father’s mortality and ends with an  invitation to make new memories. He sent the original back to me, with that line about his death circled in a black flair, with this note: “Not to worry I talked to My Lord & He said I can’t take it with me so I told Him I’m not going. Love Dad.” That’s the story. I started searching for this document; it was perfect. Dad’s faith, humor, and distinctive communication style were all there.

His way of communicating suited his business career. My father worked for IBM for nearly thirty years, starting in the 1950s, when computers weren’t quite as common as they are now. Big Blue, as IBM was known, was a family-oriented institution. Although it moved up-and-coming employees, like my dad, as regularly as the military, it also hosted picnics in the summer and holiday parties in December. IBM also meant lifetime employment, or at least that was the code, until relatively recently. Put these two together and you get a network of IBMers who stayed in touch professionally, took vacations together through incentive programs, and welcomed newly relocated members of the tribe to the area. Keeping in touch was very important to my father. Because his company was loyal to him, he was a company man. A salesman, like his father, he went on to manage sales teams. This IBM legacy carried into the next generation, too, so that at one point or another three of my siblings worked for the computer giant, and a fourth is an engineer but liaisons with sales teams for another tech-related outfit.

The IBM and business world genes skipped me, though. My father and I are very different people. When I announced my desire to be a writer and to major in English, he urged that I study teaching as well. Just in case. Have a fall-back. Or Journalism, he suggested. Actually, he didn’t suggest exactly. His way of communicating often involved questions. It was a chess match, and he’d lead with something open-ended. “What do you know about journalism?” he’d ask, drawing out my queen. And when I had to concede that I knew nothing, he could point out that it was worth finding out. “You don’t know it’s not for you, then.” Checkmate. Questions were his hallmark. Once, after dark in the summer, still around the long dinner table, now joined by some of my older brothers’ and sisters’ friends, my father elicited conversation, starting with his trademark declaration, “I’ve got a question.” It could be anything from classics like “If you could have dinner with anyone living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and why?” to “When do you think a person is in ‘the prime of life’?” This night, the sea air breezed through the jalousie windows, making candles flicker. I don’t recall the question, but I know everyone chimed in, and he’d maestro the conversation, drawing people in, letting the shy know they were coming up and wouldn’t escape. I was still in grade school, but he asked me what I thought. Who knows what I said. Inevitably, someone tried to turn tables, “Mr. Doc, what do you think? When do you think the prime of life is?” But he’d rope in someone else before answering, if at all. It went on for hours, if I remember right. The sunset light dimmed into actual night, and eventually my siblings and friends headed out. But they stayed and talked a long while. When he took his turn, he always answered that question the same way. “Right now,” he’d say. “I’m in the prime of life right now.” Years later, after my oldest brother’s bachelor party, one of his friends recalled that summer evening on the porch, and said he’d never seen anything like it. Who hangs out with their parents like that? During the summer!? I remember his astonishment when he underscored that “he even asked you what you thought—and you were a kid.”

Conversation was my father’s art form. Long before restaurant servers started coming to the table to introduce themselves and welcome us like it was their house, pledging to “take care of you tonight,” my father spoke to wait staff personally. He’d ask their name, and then address them, always by name. He’d also address cashiers, back when they had to key in each item’s price, asking, “What do you like most about your job?” And he’d look at their tag and call them by name when they answered. It was always, “What do you like most?” or “What are the top three reasons?” But notice that he directed the person working the checkout to answer toward the positive. He engaged people personally and, with the deft gesture of a practiced craftsman, turned them toward the good.

He once told me about a technique he evolved to motivate a manager or other employee to buy-into some project he wanted them on. Instead of telling them how it would affect their prospects for promotion or stressing the importance or urgency of the enterprise, he’d start by saying, “I need your help with something…”

At his funeral, my brother Chris eulogized him by noting that our father wasn’t the kind found tinkering in the garage. We didn’t learn to fix the lawn mower from him. He was fascinated by what makes people tick. He sought to discover what their goals and interests are. His people skills included a sense of humor. He had the kind of humor that included joke-telling that could match any situation to a story with a punch line. “That reminds me,” he’d launch in, “ of Stosh in the trenches of World War I.” Or he’d ask if you’d heard about the guy who tried out for community theater. (“Hark! The cannons are roaring!”)  If someone offered him an after-dinner drink, port, say or sherry, off he went. (“Sherry by all means…”) But he also had the kind of wit that could jot a note on a poem and in few words express so much

The problem with my contribution to the chain of stories that Julie proposed was that I couldn’t find the copy of the poem with Dad’s retort. I intended to scan it and email it to whoever called, and so put a physical link in the electronic chain. As I reflected on the poem, especially that bit in the middle about Dad dying, I recalled that at times, I found his optimism relentless and social engagement exhausting. Maybe this is just a lingering feeling from the vantage point of a brooding teenage. And I did my share of brooding. But I hope there’s something more to it than that. I hope I do more than “brood.” In my writing, I seek to honor the world in ways that demand an honesty that honors “negative” aspects of life such as death, deadening working conditions, and longing without relief. As I’ve grown to claim my temperament, I no longer see myself as moody or touchy but reflective, but looking back I know I spent hours in high school and college in my room reading, journaling, strumming my guitar, or writing poetry. Confounding behavior for such a socially adept man as my father, I’m sure.

Maybe that poem and those mixed emotions wouldn’t work after all. With folders and files spread out on my desk, I considered other stories I could share. I remembered an incident that had no real significance, except that it happened and out of the countless daily occurrences of anyone’s childhood, it’s a little remarkable when one stands out in memory when so many others have drifted away completely. It was a Saturday, and I was in grade school, so the house was still full of my older siblings. Why he chose me to do errands, I don’t know, but it was just the two of us. Such precious time. Whatever other stops we made in Wayne that day are lost to me, but we had to pick up dry cleaning, which was next to the drug store. In Wayne back then there was a Rexall’s, which still had a counter with stools and actual fountain drinks, but we didn’t go there. We went to the now-typical strip-mall style drug store. It was in the same line-up as the Acme, and it was new and shiny, not like the worn down Rexall’s over on North Wayne Avenue. The key to the whole story is the rack of candy at the checkout. In a family of eight kids, we didn’t have chips or pretzels or candy lying around. My Dad bought a Heath Bar. A single one. Then he told me, “Heath’s are my favorite, and the best thing about these,” he said removing the brownish wrapper, “is that they come with two pieces.” That’s it, really. That’s the whole story.

The story is brief, but it taught me a lesson that is so deeply coded in my nervous system, my very bloodstream, that I’m not sure I can name it. It has something to do with the fact that it was better to be sharing his favorite sweet than to have been given my own. It also marked me as distinctive in the family, special somehow, though both my mother and father were deliberate to reflect to each of us that we had our own god-given gifts and talents. Still, the light of his love shined on me that day, setting me apart from the others. No favorites, maybe, but I felt favored.

Having landed on my story, I waited for the call. But the anniversary of Dad’s death came and went. Nothing. I made a half-hearted attempt to find the poem again, but I started thinking I wouldn’t need it. The chain seemed to have been broken. Without Dad’s shepherding, the project probably got abandoned. My father was an organizer; he was on the phone, making arrangements, checking people’s progress. Quick, functional, but holding the network together. I still have one of his notes on IBM punch cards, from about year before his death in 1991. He must have kept a stash of those old computer cards, which were about the size of a regular business envelope but rounded at the corners. Often he’d sign them “KIT, Dad”—Keep in Touch. Never a full letter, like I still do, but lots of these quick KIT cards. Another hallmark of his management of details. And relationships. On this particular note, he gave me the itinerary he’d arranged. We were going to have Thanksgiving in Florida, where he and my mom had started going in the winter. At first, they avoided the inconveniences of winter, but as Dad’s lungs worsened with cancer, they sought warmth. Cold weather, even harsh air conditioning, would set him off coughing. The little note ends “It should be a great family get together.” No self-pity, not even any news of his health struggles. Just the efficiency of getting things done and bringing people together. In his absence, the family’s attempts to network has passed from sibling to sibling, each coordinating in his or her own way.  This time, though, I figured that organizing a chain of stories was just too much and had been abandoned.

And so, when my brother Tim did call, later in June, I was taken off guard. He traced the break and how Michael took it upon himself to mend it. Then I launched into my story of no significance that made me feel so special, even all these years later.

“Dad did the same thing with me once,” he replied.

No dry cleaner, but the same Heath Bar.

I was stunned. A special childhood moment with my father wasn’t all that special after all. Or maybe it was more important because with eight kids and a demanding work schedule, my father had to be more deliberate about making time for each child.

If it wasn’t enough to have my “distinctive” memory echoed, what’s more, we exchanged another similar experience with our father. Somehow it was just dad and his little son. For me, I traveled by train into Philadelphia, went to his office, then was toured around the city by one of Dad’s co-workers. (At the top of City Hall, where visitors could go up to the statue of Billy Penn, formerly the tallest point in the city, I hugged the wall. There was some discussion about whether a penny dropped at that height would kill a person.) Tim’s version had him arriving into the city via the airport from visiting relatives in Minnesota. We both ended up at Horn and Hardarts, which is like a Howard Johnson’s or Cracker Barrel as far as I can remember, on our way to a Phillies game at Veterans Stadium. Pretty common experiences, I guess, but one detail sets it apart from the typical father-and-son-at-the-ballgame story, and it was exactly the same for Tim and me: we both were little boys with big headaches. I felt so terrible that I couldn’t eat and had to lay down on the booth’s bench-like seat. My father tried to cheer me by letting me in on a secret; they call this place Bugle and Soft-arrow, he told me, not Horn and Hardarts. Again, his punning humor. And, again, I felt like I’d been initiated into a club. Of limited membership. But I still didn’t feel well. Later, at the game, aspirin had upset my empty stomach, so Dad gathered me up and we left the stadium before the ninth inning. Tim, too, recalls heading out of the Vet well before the game was over.

Hearing that my brother went through the same experience changed the memory, or at least the meaning of it. Relating these memories showed me that we are not video recorders that store and repeat experiences. Stories help reveal the meanings of what happens in our lives, and while the incident remains the same, these meanings change and grow. Maturing involves growing in sympathetic imagination, so that we can understand how another person feels in a situation, and this includes earlier versions of ourselves. As we develop the necessary distance to observe ourselves, we can add to our own perspective. I can still feel the pity party I want to throw as that let-down kid. This Phillies game story had always been How My Big Day with Dad Got Ruined. In addition, I can also feel the cool shadow of …what? embarrassment before my father? shame, even? It’s a shadow cast by the doubt that I was a disappointment to him, being who I am rather than who I think he wanted me to be. Both Tim and I must share this flicker of doubt. How many others in the family? How many other adults generally?

Sharing these stories with Tim didn’t cancel out these understandings but enhanced them, adding more. Knowing that my brother shared a similar experience and having grown older than my father was when these events occurred, I can imagine his perspective, now too. It’s a sad little glimpse into our father’s life. Here he was going to a ballgame, trying to make a special memory with one of his sons, and it turns out like a National Lampoon movie, minus the throwing up. Then, how many years later, he geared up again with his youngest son, and it happens all over again. I wonder if he thought he’d wasted his ticket money. Or maybe the Phils were tanking anyway, so leaving meant we wouldn’t creep along on Packer Avenue. Knowing my dad, if the game meant anything to him, he was also moved by love for his sons. And maybe, since Mom did most of the child rearing, he felt a little out of his depths when it came to the care and comfort of his own children.

Stories are powerful in the way they connect us to the past, but by letting the meanings unfold, their power remains fresh in the present as well. Rexall Drug stores are gone. There’s no more Vet, Horn & Hardarts, or computer punch cards. Even my father is gone. But the stories remain, in the living community that remembers and retells them. And the telling is also important. When Tim tells a joke that we all learned from our father, I still laugh. I enjoy Tim’s style, how he weaves it into the conversation, his selection and emphasis of details, and the buildup to the punch line. I enjoy watching others enjoy the joke. And in this way, it becomes more than a story. In fact, it’s not even about the joke: it’s about the people gathered in the present situation and the continuity.

Tim revealed this dimension to these reflections when he noted that Dad’s been gone for 19 years, but here we were still telling stories about him. What a legacy. A sign of just how big a personality he was. And how much affection we still regard him with. Telling the stories not only opened me to remembering a host of incidents that had gotten dusty over the years, the chain linked me to my father in a whole new way. I related to him, not only as the boy in the story but as a man myself. As if that were not enough, the exercise linked me to my brother in a whole new way.

“I wonder if my kids will be telling stories like this when I’m gone,” Tim mused.

“I’m sure they will,” I replied, fully confident.

When Tim was at IBM, some people called him The Clone. Tim, too, creates networks of people, especially his family, enjoying their company and bringing out their best. He certainly also has features that distinguish him from my father. I can see them more clearly, in part, because we are of the same generation. But one similarity between them stands out. He’s got my father’s bottomless well of situationally perfect jokes, as well as a story-telling style that you’d pay good money to hear. And he’s got a quick wit that sees the humor in a great many kinds of situations.

In fact, Tim’s sons might tell the story of my Dad’s 20th anniversary memorial, one year after the chain was forged. Mom had arranged for a Mass to be said for my father, and we all came in for it. Liz from Jersey, Julie from New Mexico, me from New York. Dad’s only surviving brother was there. Mom’s two brothers were there. Scads of cousins, spouses, nieces and nephews—and now their spouses and kids. We took up at least three full pews. The priest announced that the Mass was being offered for—I steeled my heart to hear it—“Alejandro Jimenez.” We glanced around. Were we at the wrong service? Did the priest take a name from the wrong list? We prayed for this stranger’s soul to be at rest and silently offered one for Dad too.

Later, outside the church, as we hugged and greeted each other, some of us compared notes to find out what happened. We were at the right Mass, it turns out, but the priest made a mistake. In the hubbub, Tim sidled up to Mom and asked her a question: “Did you keep your receipt?”

Edward A. Dougherty’s the author of 5 chapbooks, the latest of which is Backyard Passages (FootHills Publishing) as well as of the books Pilgrimage to a Gingko Tree (WordTech) and Part Darkness, Part Breath (Plain View Press).
After finishing his MFA in Creative Writing in Bowling Green, Ohio, Dougherty was poetry editor of the Mid-American Review. Then, he and his spouse traveled to Hiroshima to be volunteer directors of the World Friendship Center where they served for two and a half years, witnessing the fiftieth anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They now live and work in Corning, New York, a place defined by the confluence of three rivers and a glass company you may have heard of.