Monday, November 9, 2009
In March 1967, Mrs. RWP and I were living in Poughkeepsie, New York, with our two young sons. I had been out of the Air Force for about eighteen months. I was 25 years old, about to turn 26. My mother had died of cancer almost ten years earlier. My dad, who had remarried, lived in Texas and was slowly dying of pancreatic cancer. Mrs. RWP and I had obtained an Eastern Air Lines credit card in November 1966, and we had flown to Texas with our little boys to be with the family at the time of my Dad’s operation. I had not been able to speak with my Dad since January because he had grown gradually weaker and was confined to his bed and no longer able to get to the telephone. Cell phones had not yet been invented; everything was land line in those days. I called every week and spoke with my stepmother, though, and I could hear the weariness in her voice.
At work on a Friday morning I received a call around 8:30 a.m. from my stepbrother Eddie in Texas.
“Bob,” he said, “your Dad is going downhill rapidly. You should probably think about planning to come to Texas soon.”
I thanked him for calling and alerted my supervisor that I might be taking some time off in the near future. At the supper table that night I said to Mrs. RWP, “I wonder how Dad is doing?” and she said, “Why don’t you give them a call?” It was a big deal in 1967 to call long distance, not nearly as common as today, and definitely not inexpensive. I dialed the number and heard my other stepbrother’s voice at the other end of the line. After making small talk for a couple of minutes, I said, “Bobby Gerald, how is Dad doing?”
“Well, Bob,” he said, sounding a little surprised, “he died at nine o’clock this morning. I thought you knew. We thought you were on your way here.”
To say I was in shock is putting it mildly. It really had not registered with me from talking to Eddie earlier that things were that bad. I could say I was busy with my new career and my family, but in reality I was young and stupid. I told Bobby Gerald I would be there the next day. Because our funds were low and the children were small, Mrs. RWP decided not to make the trip.
It was early Friday evening and the banks were closed until Monday. There were no automatic teller machines in 1967, so I drove to four different supermarkets in Poughkeepsie and wrote a check at each one for $25.00, the maximum. I called Eastern Air Lines and made a reservation for a flight out of Newark, New Jersey, ninety miles away, on Saturday morning.
After a two-hour drive to the airport, I handed the Eastern agent my credit card to pay for the round-trip ticket I had reserved. The charge was denied. A mixup in credit card processing had occurred, which eventually was straightened out a couple of weeks later, but at that moment, standing at the ticket desk at Newark airport, the only thing I could do was pay $88.00 cash for a one-way ticket to Dallas, Texas. I got on the plane with $12.00 in my pocket, not knowing how I was going to get back to New York after my Dad’s funeral.
My stepbrother met me at the Dallas airport in mid-afternoon and took me to my stepmother’s house. There seemed to be a party in progress. Everyone was laughing and talking, eating and drinking. It seemed out of place to me at the time, inappropriate, but in retrospect it was understandable; the tension of the previous couple of months had been broken and people were just relieved that the ordeal was over. It was a natural response to what had been a very stressful situation. I just couldn’t see it at the time.
After supper I asked when we were going to the funeral home. The laughter and talking stopped and everyone looked at me. “We went last night,” someone finally said. “We weren’t planning to go back tonight.” My oldest stepbrother said “I’ll take you” and he did.
Since I was the only one coming from a distance, the funeral had been planned for 3:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon at Coppell Methodist Church. I was very glad I had made that phone call on Friday night; otherwise, I would not have been there for my Dad’s funeral.
No one went to church on Sunday morning, and family members began to arrive at the house before noon. My stepmother had five brothers and four sisters and most of them lived in Dallas County. She was putting food on the table when she turned to me and said, “Bob, I think your Dad would like it if you sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ at the service.”
I was receiving shocks on a daily basis, it seemed. I had played the organ at funerals before and I had sung at funerals before, but never for someone in my immediate family. I walked out into the back yard to get some fresh air and to clear my head. Aunt Faye, who was thirteen years younger than my stepmother, was there. She took one look at me and asked me what was wrong.
“She wants me to sing at Dad’s funeral,” I said.
“Oh, my. Can you do it?” asked Aunt Faye.
“I don’t know,” I said, "but if I’m going to sing I need to go over to the church and familiarize myself with the organ and rehearse.”
Faye said, “I’ll take you.” We arrived at the church a few minutes after the morning service had ended. A Hammond organ sat at the right front corner of the sanctuary, facing the pulpit and perpendicular to the pews. I broke down twice while rehearsing.
On the drive back to the house, Faye said, “When will you be going back to New York?”
“Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “I have no idea.” I told her what had happened at the Newark Airport and said I was taking one thing at a time and right now I was just trying to get through the day of the funeral.
As we got out of the car Faye said, “I want to lend you the money,” and handed me one hundred dollars.
I thanked her and said, “I will have to pay it back to you a little each month.”
“That will be fine,” she said.
After the funeral, one more shock remained. One of my stepmother’s brothers came up to me and said, “That was great! It was just like in a Hollywood movie!”
He meant it as a compliment, I suppose, but it wasn’t really what I needed to hear at that moment.
I flew back to New York on Tuesday and began mailing a check to Aunt Faye each month for ten dollars. I mentioned that we were expecting another child. After the third month, I received a letter from her. In it were my three checks, uncashed, and a note saying she wanted me to consider the entire one hundred dollars as a gift from her for the new baby.
Aunt Faye died this week in California, where she lived with her son Danny. Her children Libby, Danny, and Larry, and her niece Janice accompanied her body back to Texas for burial there. She was in her eighties.
Shakespeare said, “The evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” It may have been so with Caesar, but I have written this post to honor Aunt Faye and to make sure the good in her is not going to be interred with her bones. The good in her became a part of my story and helped me when I needed it most. I will never forget her kindness.