Monday, June 19, 2006

The Late Homer T

Dad was named Homer after his grandfather, and he hated it (Mom called him "Humpy," but that's another story). So when I was born he named me after a soap opera popular in the late 1930s, "Just Plain Bill." His grandfather's father had no doubt read the classics. But he failed to provide his son with a middle name. Young Homer, so the family story goes, decided to pick his own, and chose the T after a certain Mr. Taylor he liked. My dad became Homer T Yaryan II. And there the name ended.

The last time I celebrated Father's Day with him was when this picture was taken in Bayonet Point, Florida, north of St. Petersburg, not long before he died thirteen years ago. Mom had made two tee shirts for us and you can almost read the one I'm wearing. Other than "Father's," I don't remember what it said. But it was a nice touch. Because he was following the Chicago Cubs baseball games on TV, I got him the hat. I had flown from California to visit him with my then wife and two youngest kids, Molly and Nicki. Various ailments, from congestive heart failure to emphysema, were beginning to take their toll.

Dad was a fraternal twin, and he and Ted lost their father to tuberculosis at the age of two. Neither got along with their step-father and he sent them off to military school in New Mexico at a young age. Uncle Ted and Dad were like two halves of a whole person. Ted was skinny and unhealthy, as well as artistic and charming. Dad was muscular and physical, the strong, silent type; one of his first jobs was as a lifeguard. Ted became an actor and appeared in small roles on Broadway. Dad was a traveling salesman for much of his working life. He sold glue to make plywood for furniture. And he married and raised two boys, while Ted was a homosexual whose long-term partner was an alcoholic.

At the age of six I developed asthma and was unable to take part in most sports. Because Dad was an enthusiastic sports fan all his life, I felt like I had failed him. I compensated by learning to read early, and taking up the clarinet. But after his death, my mother told me that Dad had worried deeply about my ill health, and when I played in a band for dances in junior high school he was often in the back of the hall, listening.

I was a rebellious teenager and we fought often. Or rather, I was the one who argued about his rules; he was a man of few words and little outward emotion. When I was 15 I peroxided my hair against his wishes. My mother's only response was a tense: "Wait till your father gets home." He came into my room with a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut off my newly blond (it was kind of reddish) hair. Neither of us spoke. The next morning he took me to the barber to have the rough edges smoothed out into a butch, his favored look anyway because it was "clean cut." I had the last laugh, though. When I let my hair grow out into a long "duck tail," it was half blond and half black. But Dad had made his point.

After high school, I didn't spend much more time at home. I was anxious to spread my wings, and I didn't think my father would appreciate my career choices. He forbid me from taking acting lessons because he thought my friend who had recommended the teacher was gay. My early career involved frequent job changes, of which he disapproved. Dad felt loyalty to an employer was important (an idea whose time has passed). He and my mother and brother returned to North Carolina from California, and I worked in New York, Pasadena, San Francisco and London. I married and we gave him a grandson, then another. Visits were few and phone calls irregular. I realize now that for many years I did not share myself openly with my Dad, fearing or imagining his disapproval.

In his later years, Dad mellowed considerably. He was a total wimp as a grandfather, letting his three grandsons and granddaughter, when they were small, do anything, from crawling all over him to eating up the refrigerator's supply of ice cream. He became pure love, and all his judgments melted away. I wished I'd known that man when I was small.

The father I remember growing up with was never sick. Even when it was obvious that he was ill, he would deny it and muscle through. Dad was the epitome of a macho man. But after two heart attacks, his attitude changed. During the last couple of years he was surrounded by pills. And he was a very good patient, doing everything the doctor prescribed. He loved the hardware store and the mall where he walked and talked with other men his age. Until he no longer had the strength.

After his death, my mother, brother and I presided over a memorial service in their home in Florida. The room was full of Dad's former golf and bridge partners and all of them had wonderful stories to tell about his friendliness, kindness and generosity. The next day we stood on a boat dock on Tampa Bay and I dropped his ashes into the waters where Dad had sailed as a boy.

On this day, when I wait for my distant children to phone, I am thinking about you Homer T and remembering what a wonderful father you were. I miss you.

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