“Well, then, ask me your questions. I won’t be around forever.”
That’s what Floyd told me a few years ago when I said that just when we get old enough to ask the right questions of our parents and grandparents, they’re all gone. Floyd was true to his word and did not last forever. He is now gone, six months short of his one-hundredth birthday. I was assured he died without pain and without lingering more than just a few days. As a rabbi friend told me once about the way my mother died instantly from a stroke … she was taken with the kiss of God. I was forever grateful that she was granted this tender mercy and I am now equally grateful that Floyd also returned to the stuff that dreams and stars are made of in the twinkling of an eye.
Floyd was special to me. He was a kind and quiet man of considerable wisdom. My wife Jody and I had grown especially close to him this past decade. Floyd was a man of integrity and honor. I can only hope to be able to live up to his legacy. I know I have shared my thoughts about Floyd on numerous occasions here on the Dew, but I ask your indulgence one more time to pay homage to this grand old man.
Floyd was the husband of my late first cousin who was also of an earlier generation than I. They were married over seventy years, and I think Floyd has just been waiting these past several years since Mildred died to be with her again in whatever sense that fit his definition. I understand that a friend of his was with him near the end and told him Mildred was just down the hall of the nursing home and wasn’t going anywhere till he was ready. According to his friend, he seemed to relax and gain comfort.
When my wife Jody and I would make the two-hour plus trip to see him several times a year, we would always bring him a special lunch, although he never would give us a clue as to what he liked. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t really care. I don’t eat much anyway.” Once the meal was served, though, Floyd always finished his plate and kept room for whatever home-made dessert Jody had brought. Jody had used Fuji apples once to make baked apples with cinnamon candies, since Mildred always liked to serve him such treats. The apples were too chewy and not tender like they should have been. He ate his without complaining, but was clear in letting us know later that Golden Delicious was the correct type of apple for that dish. The next time we came he had been to the orchard and had more than a few bags of Golden Delicious for us to take home. He also had an oversized jar of cinnamon candy hearts for Jody to put on the top of the apples the next time she made them. We had had trouble finding them in the grocery earlier and jokingly told Floyd there was a shortage because he had the market cornered.
I liked to ask Floyd questions about his earlier life and what recollections he had of my ancestors. My grandfather’s first wife had died shortly after giving birth to Earl, who was to be Mildred’s father. My grandfather married a second time almost a decade later and helped raise another family. One of those children was my mother, who would have been Mildred’s aunt. My mother was born in 1909, just ten years before Mildred. Despite time and distance, they became friends early on and remained so until my mother passed in 1995.
Floyd and Mildred were married in 1939 when he was at Case Western University in Cleveland finishing his graduate degrees in library science and history. Like so many other young adults at the time, shortly thereafter they spent the war years apart. Floyd’s education proved to be most fortuitous when he and other troops who had arrived in the South Pacific were being culled out for deployment to various units. His good buddy standing beside him in line was pointed toward the infantry while Floyd was sent to New Caledonia to help set up a library at a rest and recuperation center.
When Mildred was slipping deeper and deeper into the dementia that finally enveloped her, Floyd would read from the letters they exchanged during those awful years. Organized as he was, he had all the letters arranged chronologically so he could read one letter full of questions and then its partner trying to supply the answers. I regret that I never asked how long it took on average for letters from Morgantown, West Virginia, to make it to New Caledonia and then back again to resume the cycle. A few years ago he told me he didn’t know what he was to do with the letters. When I said I would take them for safekeeping, he quickly vetoed that idea since they were too private. I then suggested he donate them to that branch of the Library of Congress which collects memorabilia from WWII veterans. He went so far as to talk with the lady in charge, but never followed through. When I asked him later what he had finally decided, he stared at me for a moment and then said, “I burned them.”
When he returned from the war, he brought back a number of large pieces of silk that had maps printed on them. Pilots would use them since they did not crease. Floyd’s plan was for Mildred to make something of them. For whatever reason, they stayed in a box for many years awaiting whatever reincarnation that was in store for them. One day out of the blue, Floyd gave two to Jody, saying one was for her and another for her son Aaron, a commercial pilot. We were all happy that Aaron and his friend Shannon were able to meet Floyd this last spring when we visited.
Although Floyd was growing increasingly deaf, he tried to be alert to our arrival and come out to greet us. On one visit, he told us of the rule of the three steps of decency when guests come to visit. If at all possible, you should greet your guests when they drive up. While in your house, you should treat them as special friends with all courtesies. And finally, when it’s time to leave, you should accompany them to their car. Even in the coldest weather and over our protests, Floyd would come out to our car to say good-bye and wave. On our last visit, he looked especially frail, but he continued his independent living, cooked for himself, and kept house. He toyed with the idea of having a housekeeper and someone to bring in his meals, but chose in the end that he didn’t want his privacy violated.
He and Mildred had no children and leave few relatives behind. He told me once that he’d resisted as best he could feeling sorry for himself since he lost Mildred, the social presence in the family who made sure he got out regularly to see people. But it was a tough couple of years without her. Toward the end, he stuck mostly to himself, though. His mind was strong despite his age and his body pretty agile for a man of his years. In fact at lunch earlier this year, he dropped to the floor in search of a hearing aid that had fallen out of his ear. He found it, put it back in place, and almost popped back into his chair.
I think he’s been ready to go for some time and confided that he longed to be part of Mildred’s presence again. He volunteered once to us that she would frequently appear to him, a soothing but mute presence that gave him comfort. We sat and listened without comment but with smiles of happiness for what he had found in his own memories.
It is with heavy hearts that Jody and I will travel to Quincy, Pennsylvania, this Saturday to pay our last respects and to say goodbye. Floyd has been cremated and his ashes mixed with those of Mildred. They will be buried together in a small family plot in northern Ohio, not far from where the man who was to be the grandfather of Mildred and me first got off the train from his home in Virginia nearly 125 years ago. Floyd and I often wondered how life would have played out if my grandfather had not argued with his father on a farm near Winchester and stormed off to find his fortune elsewhere.
I leave Floyd with a poem by Dan Albergotti entitled Inside:
“In the lake, the cottonmouth. In the sea, the shark.
In the soil, the growing seed. In the tree, the lark.
In the dark, the insects’ call. In the light, the trust.
In the child, the weight of years. In the steel, the rust.
In the dust, the memory. In the air, your soul.
In my head, the unsaid words. In the diamond, coal.
In the hole, your polished box. In the earth, the quake.
In my blood, your vessel ran. In these lines, its wake.”