Remembering …

“Dad” © R.L. Herron

For a life well lived. March 3, 1922 – July 7, 2009

(The photo above is one I took of Dad in the back yard of his home, several years ago. It’s one of my favorite shots of him).

I’m proud to say Vestel was my father. Many of you knew him simply as “Lee” – which is how he was known to all but close family for most of his adult life. He was not overly fond of his given name “Vestel”. With apologies to my late grandparents, I can’t say that I blame him.

I first want to thank all the kind people who have been providing so much help, especially to my Mother. A special thanks to Lisa for her beautiful and heartfelt singing of the 23rd Psalm, and to Nalin for his playing of the Prelude in C to Für Elise today. I know Pop enjoyed it.

I also want to thank everyone who came here to the funeral service. We often need help to say a last goodbye. It’s awfully hard to do alone, and your presence here is greatly appreciated.

I want to stress this is really NOT a sad, sorrowful occasion, even though it may feel that way right now. In the final years of his life, Dad suffered many different health-related problems, but he suffered in silence and seldom complained, because that was the kind of man he was. His suffering has finally ended and he is at peace.

We are here not to mourn his passing, but to celebrate his life.

Dad’s not here, and I already miss him, but I believe his spirit is with us and he’s in a better place. It’s a place where he sees and hears well again, where he can walk and run while he waits for us, and – best of all – he can even play a round of golf again, which I know was his version of Paradise.

Dad came from a large family. He had eleven aunts and uncles, and there were six kids in his immediate family, where he was the only boy. Poor guy!

He grew up in Tennessee in an area that, even today, is still largely rural. He learned the value of hard work – not because he wanted to – because he didn’t have a choice.

When I was little, he would tell me about his youth, growing up without electricity or running water; lighting the house with candles or kerosene lamps; heating it with a fireplace or the wood stove; milking cows before dawn and storing the milk in a cave to keep it cool; or plowing rocky fields on a hillside, behind a mule. He often told me these things right after I had complained about mowing the front lawn.

His stories weren’t stories for him, they were memories.

His family was always a big part of his life. In fact, he spent his last ten years tracing his family heritage, generation by generation, back to 1770 in this country. He traced Mom’s, through her father, to 1736. He never said it in so many words, but I think he felt proud to be a real American, since our family was here long before the country was a country!

He served as a Master Sergeant in the 100th Infantry Division in Europe, during WWII. He never spoke much about it, saying he saw things that were probably better left unseen and unsaid. I know from the history books he was in some of the most brutal fighting in France and Germany, during some very dark days.

He was wounded serving his country and he also received the Bronze Star for valor. Because of some lost paperwork, it took the Army almost sixty years to actually send him the medal. He had the campaign ribbon, but the medal itself didn’t arrive until 2005!

In a way, I was glad it happened that way. Otherwise, I might never have known about it. He was quite proud of it, and the way it arrived gave us all a chance to tell him we were quite proud of him, too.

The most important thing about his war experience, certainly as far as my sister and I are concerned, is that he survived those awful war years and came home to meet our Mother.

Exactly how they met is not really clear. I’ve heard stories about a “chocolate pie box lunch” at a picnic social. He did say Mom wouldn’t let him walk her home that day, but that was another topic he never spoke much about.

I did ask him a few years ago why he didn’t insist on walking her home, and he said he couldn’t – she just ran off. When I asked why he didn’t chase her, he replied: “Didn’t you ever see a hillbilly girl run?”

I don’t know a whole lot more about their courtship, but I can surmise it was a pretty darn good pie and that – at some point – she stopped running. They were married for over 63 years.

Seeking a better life, Dad moved us to Detroit when I was an infant. He went to work in Chrysler’s Hamtramck plant (later to be known as GM’s Poletown). Growing up in his house, he always seemed larger than life.

I don’t remember when it was I first realized he was shorter and smaller than me.

He was fond of asking me if I remembered going to the doctor when I was very small, because they were concerned I wasn’t eating enough. The doctor told him to leave me alone. There was nothing wrong. I would eat when I was hungry.

Even though I was far too young to remember the doctor visit, Dad told me about it so often it’s almost like a memory. And you just have to look at me now to know the doctor was right.

I do remember walking home from a Saturday movie matinee one spring afternoon – I must have been nine. It was only a half mile away, but I was supposed to wait outside the theater for Dad to return and pick me up.

Well, the movie got out a few minutes early and I waited for what seemed to be an unduly long time (about 30 seconds) before deciding to just walk home. After all, I was nine, and I knew where home was.

Dad showed up, right on time, and waited for me to come out. When I didn’t, he went in looking for me. I was nowhere to be seen and he had absolutely no way of knowing what happened to me. This was the 1950’s, long before cell phones. He rushed home, frantic.

Now, because I was walking home while he searched the theater, I had arrived before him. I still remember hearing his worried comments to my mother when he walked in, and then his one-syllable response to being told I was already home.

I never knew until that moment that a question could also be an exclamation. But it was a lesson I remember most because I realized how worried he had been, and how much he cared for me.

Dad taught me many important lessons about family, commitment and right-and-wrong. One of the lessons that stood out for me, as I sat down to write this, was the time I broke Mrs. Murphy’s window playing baseball with other boys in the neighborhood.

As the ball crashed through the glass, the meaningless phrase: “No dibs on windows” suddenly took on meaning, as every other kid in the yard quickly disappeared.

I was standing all alone, amazed at how fast a yard full of screaming, yelling kids could become an empty, silent lot.

I debated about slipping silently away too.

Instead, I went home and told Dad. Believe me, there was nothing noble about it. I wanted to run away and never say a word. But I knew it was not a matter of if he found out. He would find out, and it would be far better for me if I owned up to it right away.

Dad walked me over to Mrs. Murphy’s house and made me tell her what I had done. I can still remember standing on her front steps, telling her I broke her window, surprised at myself for being there.

Then Dad told her I would pay for it myself, out of my own paper route and allowance money, and I was even more surprised.

But I had learned several things: (1) the need to be careful around someone else’s property; (2) there are always consequences to your actions; and (3) how to own up to mistakes, and make them right.

I also learned most of my friends were not likely to bail me out of a jam, but that’s another story and a different lesson.

I also remember Dad taking me to a police auction, hoping to find a bicycle he could afford. He bid on several neat-looking bikes, but always stopped bidding long before he could get one. I didn’t understand why.

Finally, near the end of the auction, they wheeled out this ugly, battered, rusty old red-and-black relic. It had been painted with house paint, had two flat tires, a bent rim and a broken chain. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get a bike at all, and I could feel Dad’s hand squeezing my shoulder.

I thought he was encouraging me, so as soon as the bidding opened I shouted “12 dollars!” – to which they promptly shouted, “Sold!” It was a lot of money in the 1950s, and more than they ever expected to get for that piece of junk.

Dad never said anything. He knew how much I wanted a bike – even that broken-down ugly one. So, he just paid them and we walked home together beside that wobbly old bike, with its loose chain clanking. Years later, I learned $12.00 was nearly all the money Dad had in his pocket until payday.

Fast forward several years, and I clearly remember being sixteen, having my first driver’s license and somehow getting Dad’s permission to use his brand new car – a 1964 Plymouth Sport Fury (a “hot” car back then) to go to my sophomore class picnic.

I arrived at the park and was showing off in the gravel parking lot for my friends (and some forever-to-be-unknown girls in cute bathing suits). I almost hit a tree and did manage to bend the tie-rod on a curb. The front wheels did a nice little toe-in because of it.

I managed to get it to a nearby dealer, scraping major amounts of rubber off the outside of each front tire, and my friends and I (all except the one the dealership manager made stay in his shop) spent the whole day back at the class picnic trying to borrow enough money to get it fixed, so Dad wouldn’t have to find out.

Somehow we did and, despite what I learned in the baseball-through-Mrs. Murphy’s-window incident, it took me almost twenty years to tell Dad about it.

I also remember the very next summer having to tell Dad I “sort of bumped” another car on my first date with the pretty girl who would eventually become my wife. It was just the tiniest bit of a paint scratch, barely enough to see, but I was anticipating a volcanic eruption when I got home and told him – and I already knew I had to tell him.

Dad did, in fact, bolt out of the house with a flashlight. There was really nothing to see, but he was out in the driveway for a long time.

At that moment I was more worried that Mary Lu was home thinking I was a putz, but I was also very glad I had not yet mentioned the tie-rod incident from the summer before. (For my own three sons, I know you’re now grown, but if there’s anything similar you ever wanted to tell me some day, but never have, later today would probably be a good time).

As mentioned a moment ago, golf was Dad’s passion. He taught me how to play when I was eleven, and some of my favorite times with him were on the golf course. He was always helpful and encouraging. Whenever I hit a bad shot, he would tell me: “Don’t worry, it’s the next shot that counts.”

I knew he was only trying to help, but I finally had to tell him: “do you have to say that after every shot?”

Most of all, I remember my father being a strong example of hard work, ethical, honest behavior, love of family and charitable friendship. I can truly say, I was always proud of “my old man.”

For the last several years, Dad’s health was slipping. Each new episode meant fewer things he could do and I honestly don’t think he would have lasted this long, if not for the devoted care Mom gave him.

I think the worst of it for him was when he was no longer able to play golf. He really loved that game. When he was first forced to go on dialysis, he even went so far as to reschedule his sessions so they wouldn’t interfere with his golf league.

He finally had to give it up, but he never stopped talking about it.

Yet, he seldom complained as he got weaker. When you asked him, he would always say he felt just fine – he just wished he could get his legs stronger so they would support him better than they did.

And instead of worrying about himself, he was worried about Mom. One of the best gifts he gave us was his love and devotion to Mom, and Mom to him. Such an example of true and selfless love is a great legacy for all his family.

I’ve left out a lot, but I have just one more thing to mention.

Dad used to kid with his friends, neighbors, even his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, that he was just twenty-six. He was fond of saying “he had just passed the 61st anniversary of his 26th birthday.”

It only recently occurred to me what a compliment that really was to his family. He was twenty-six when “his” family began, first with me, then my sister and eventually seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, all of whom he loved very much.

Saying he was “still 26” marked a moment that was obviously a special time in his life; one more indication of his love for all of us. I’m going to miss hearing him say that.

At some point, Pop ceased being larger-than-life and became merely life-sized. But even at life size, he was still a giant of a man. His every action said to his family “I love you” – and I will always be grateful I took the time to say, “I love you too, Dad.”


4 Responses to “Remembering …”

  1. Kathy Lynn Hall Says:

    Thank you for sending me this. It’s lovely and helps me not to feel so alone. I’m sure your Dad would be so proud of you.


  2. Liz Says:

    I lost my Mom this past July 6, and she was 86. Reading this beautiful piece about your dad–someone of her generation–brought back many good memories of her. Thank you.


  3. juanital Says:

    What a wonderful tribute, walk down memory lane and real life story…So touching…Thank you for sharing…You have a wonderful way of putting your words down so that you can relate!


  4. Wigan Blue Says:

    I like your Dad, Ron. Thank you for introducing him to me. Best Regards


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