Of blessed memory, fathers and sons and friends

October 09, 2005|By C. FRASER SMITH

I went to a family reunion last week.

Formally, we call these passages funerals. That's what they are. But only partly. A friend's father had died. I didn't know the older man really well, but in a sense I did.

He was a lobbyist in Annapolis, a former newspaperman who still loved newspapers and reporters. He'd come by The Sun's office in the basement of the capitol building and stop for a bit. He'd push the gray fedora up on his forehead, shift the cigar a bit in his mouth and grin, sharing our secret.

There you guys are, pretending to work. Who's in trouble? Come out here and tell me what's hot. He was working at putting himself back in the frame, remembering how much fun it was with the deadline pressure and the fear of getting beaten by the competition.

One of his colleagues, another newspaperman, would walk by with the same slow march, stop and bark, "What are you fascists up to now?" I was never sure what he meant. I think it had something to do with our willingness - and his - to spill the blood of politicians. What fun! (Elected officials came by looking for the same information.)

Sitting in church, I thought of those State House moments. I wished I had spent more time with these men. Of course, I wished I had spent more time with my own father. We always want more, and we want it most when there is no more.

A consummate reporter like his father - driven to get it right and to write it with fairness - my friend had seen his old man's life flash before him almost literally. It was there on his father's glass-covered desk. There were favorite headlines; a memorable quote from H. L. Mencken; a tribute to FDR, the nation's all-time best president, offered as an non-rebuttable truth.

There was also something like a mass card that asked God to notice he had tried to live a life of integrity. The son had seen this appeal before. He understood it. But finally, a few years earlier, he had asked what it meant.

"It means," his father said, "that we're never going to have any money."

The audience, reporters and lobbyists and few politicians and friends, laughed. Here was a way of saying something you were proud of without taking on too many airs. It was a dour commentary on the way life was, a testament to the virtue of honest toil in the basements of majestic historic landmarks - a way of talking about what really matters. Here was reverence for country, respect for the grimy, noble process and a faith in all of it as deep as a schoolboy's.

Here was a man who once spent his last 20 bucks on a toy firetruck for his kid, the kid who was, at 50, eulogizing the father, reflecting the father's values, showing what a good job the father had done.

I remembered my own attempt to capture the essence of a parent. My mother had made the best chocolate cake. I remember the loss of that cake and so much else to the disease that takes us away before we die. Memory had flown, but not from us all.

Several friends, including the one who lost his father, had been there in church that day several years ago. They had walked up the street to Grace and St. Peter's to do what we do in close, extended families.

When the service ended this week, we stood outside next to the black limousines. We dread and cherish these moments. We pay our respects to the departed and to each other. We see love and lifetimes reflected in faces we know as well, almost, as we knew our parents. We remember how much we cared about the work we did (and still do) and how we had done it together.

We think about the people who put us on this road, people like the man with the cigar, the fedora and the smile.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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