Forty Years

Forty years ago this morning, I was on my way to start my first day of student teaching. I took the Riverside Line out to Newton Center, and as I passed through the Longwood area, I looked out the window, and got a glimpse of the distinctive Deaconess Hospital garage. I’d been there several times, visiting my father, who was dying of cancer.

I made it to the school, checked in with the secretary, and was just talking with the cooperating teacher before the kids arrived, when the principal came in, pulled me aside, and told me that my Dad was gone. My uncle Kip was on his way to pick me up. I vaguely remember hugging Mum when I got home, and I think there were a couple of officers from the Boston Police there to offer their condolences and pick up his gun and badge.

I still wonder if I was passing by his hospital at the moment he died.


Five years ago, I wrote “Hard to Believe, and Not Hard to Believe“. This anniversary feels different. It has been a long time, and there has been more water over the bridge. Mum had her 80th birthday three years ago, and her stroke a year ago. Dad’s older brother George died this spring, at the age of 94. I still have all the memories of that horrible summer, but they’re more distant somehow.

In any case, when I remember, I prefer to remember the time before. I remember going downstairs to watch him paint. I remember him explaining how he created the roundedness of the ship sails by curving the edges and adding shadows in the corners.

I remember him passing along his love of photography to me. My uncle Tom sent back a set of darkroom equipment from Japan while he was overseas; Dad helped me set it up. In hindsight, I wonder if Tom had sent the equipment to Dad, and Dad gave it to me. Dad taught me how to use his cameras, how to set the aperture and shutter speed; and how to use the rangefinder, and him letting me use his cameras. (I also remember him blowing up at me while he was trying to show me how to use the Polaroid; I had trouble seeing the frame marks at first).

I remember the weenie roasts up in the Blue Hills. He must have set up half a dozen sites over the years before settling on one that he liked by a small brook. The weenie roasts were quintessential Dad, combining his love of the outdoors, how great he was with kids — and it wasn’t just his own kids, there were often neighbors and/or cousins along — and his disregard for rules.

I remember helping him in the garden. For the last decade or so of his life, he was really into vegetable gardening. He dug out a small plot by the porch, and enlarged it a couple of years later. The soil here isn’t great, so he added bags and bags full of cow manure, and took great pride in his tomatoes.

I really wish he had lived to see his grandchildren. Dad was so good with kids.

I wish he had lived long enough to go shooting with me with my cameras. I think using an SLR instead of a rangefinder would have been a revelation for him. And interchangeable lenses! I would have loved to have seen what he could have done with a telephoto. And now digital. A couple of years ago, I was in the hold of HMS Victory, taking pictures with existing light. He would have loved that whole day — the ship visits, the photography, everything.

Two years before he died, he and Mum had their twentieth anniversary, so we decided to have a surprise party for them. I used his camera to take pictures of the party. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the flash, so I had to use existing light and a slow shutter speed. I got a couple of pictures of them opening packages:

Dad opening package
Mum and Dad at their twentieth anniversary, as Jimmy and Philip look on.