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June 17, 2024

What They Should Have Said

By Sand Pilarski

My father's obituary announced that he had been born on May 25, 1923, and that he died on September 17 , 1998. The little column told that he had served in the military during World War Two, that he was a lifelong resident of Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, and that he was survived by his wife, his two daughters, and granddaughter.

I have a copy of this death notice in my personal files, and as I read it I see nothing at all of the man I knew. Obituaries are more like legal notices, written just to say that the body is gone, this body, that body, everybody reduced to two dates in time and a dry sentence or two to pay a kind of tribute to what public service the person may have rendered. Sometimes, if the deceased was famous, or very wealthy, or very prestigious, the obituary tells more of the story of his or her accomplishments, but still, the words are black and white, flat and angular, two dimensional. To read my father's obituary was to read nearly any obituary of any older man in any small town in the area.

In a perfect world, obituaries ought to be written by people who knew the man or woman who died, who could distinguish the character and the traits; the notice of death ought to give the reader an inkling of what was now missing from the world. I wanted to do this for my dad, this week of Dia de los Muertos, a day for remembering how the now dead once were living.

My father's full name was Donald Eugene Quay, and though I only ever heard people call him "Don", my mother alleges that his mother and his aunts all called him "Gene". He was born illegitimately in a time which looked down upon children whose mother was unmarried, and never in his life did he find out who his father was. Anna, his mother, gave birth to him when she was about sixteen, for unknown reasons refusing to marry the father of her child. As I think about their household, I begin to see the eccentricities that surrounded my father, and wish that he was still here to answer the questions I have, or that I had given thought to such questions while he was still alive. Like this: he wasn't supposed to call his mother "Mom" -- he always called her "Ann". And while I can superimpose a motive on that, such as, she didn't want to be reminded of her teenaged affair, that would not explain why he called none of his aunts "Aunt", but only by their family nicknames. The woman who did the most in his raising was his spinster aunt Viola, whom he called "Sis" just as her brothers and sisters did.

They lived across the street from the road leading down a hill to the town dump, in a rented house. (Dad was actually born without the benefit of a hospital or attending doctor, in the next house down the street.) The house was a small bungalow with a low attic. There were two bedrooms, and one extra tiny room that certainly would have served someone as a bedroom, but was barely big enough for a small bed and small chest of drawers. It did have two windows, however, one looking out the side of the house towards the dump down the hill and to the high wheatfields of Manbeck Heights on the other side of the creek. The other looked out at the back yard.

By all outward appearances of house and habitat and social ill-repute, one could believe that their poverty would be echoed in their manner and mentality, but again, a tantalizing puzzle presents itself: my father, though almost certainly spoiled and petted by his mother and aunts (he was a very pretty little boy) and allowed to run wild much of the time, was phenomenally well read and had beautiful handwriting. His aunt bought him books for his birthdays, an amazing expenditure in a household in which one slice of ham for a meal was considered plenty for a family of four.

He managed to finish high school for two reasons: one, he was tall for his time and place (six foot two inches) and was reasonably good at basketball, and therefore his coach and teachers were motivated to notice him; and two, the principal of his school offered him the opportunity to work while he was in high school, thus saving him from having to drop out to find a job to help support his household. What the work was, I have no idea. What kind of grades he had, I never learned. I don't know that he never talked about these things because he was ashamed of what he may or may not have done -- I think it more likely that he just didn't think about them much when they were past. Anything not particularly interesting had no hold on his mind. He wasn't much of a chronicler.

What he was -- was up to trouble. He had a light of mischief that would often become present in his blue eyes. A photograph I have of him when he was about three years old already has flickers of wickedness playing about the depths of his little smiling face. Now, the successful pranks and misdeeds of his youth -- those he did remember and tell me about, still laughing hard about them, even while warning me not to try to repeat them.

Like the time he convinced his aunt, Sis, to accompany him while he conducted an experiment in the back yard, an experiment involving a cherry bomb and the two-holed outhouse. Amazingly, she agreed to "see what would happen" when young Gene lit the fuse of the explosive and dropped it through the seat-hole and into the pit of excrement. "Oh, hell," he would sputter through laughter, "it blew shit everywhere!" and then laugh so hard at remembering Sis's anger he could no longer speak.

Many of his stories included his friend Layton, who was apparently more like a partner in crime than other friends. Layton and his younger brother Duane lived in a row house down town on Front Street. Such are the strange coincidences of life that, as a second grader I met a girl named Cathy who became my closest friend for many years. She and I were both astounded to discover that her father was the very same Duane whom Layton and my father locked out of the house in his underwear. And one day my granddaughter will read this and discover that the rocking chair in her nursery was given to me by my father, who bought it from Layton and Duane's mother.

The bank of the creek at the bottom of the hill near my father's house was about five feet high on the north side, and low like a beach on the south side due to a bend in the stream. The hill itself was a good long stretch, with two steeper terraces near the creek. It was a prime treeless area for sled-riding in the winter snow, and it seemed only natural for Gene and Layton to see if they could get up enough speed to jump the creek entirely and land on the other side. They began at the top of the hill with a running start, and for added momentum, made the run double-decked. I believe that my father was the one on top; I suspect he was hedging his bets a little.

Even though the creek was only about six feet wide there, they didn't make it. "We came off that bank a hellin' and went straight down, kuh-wham! First the sled, then Layton, and then me," Dad said, using his big, long hands to demonstrate the pancaking fall. They broke the sled and scratched themselves up a bit on the ice and snow, and left a legend I remembered every time I visited the creek.

My father somehow could never remember whose idea things were. Was it he or Layton who thought up putting a brick in a paper bag on the sidewalk to watch an unsuspecting pedestrian kick it and get a painful surprise? Who was the mastermind who suggested sneaking off through the woods to steal pigeons from a farmer's barn?

Funny, stealing things as a joke seemed to follow him as a theme. While he was in the Philippine Islands near the end of World War Two, one of his favorite stories was about stealing a crate of eggs from the Marines' camp. Fresh eggs were in short supply, and any Navy man knows that Marines don't need all the eggs. Now he never said he stole the eggs; he always attributed these exploits to a nearly anonymous we. And when they got drunk one night and pretended to be an airplane on one of the runways, once again it was "We stole this jeep once..." I'm surprised they weren't trying to jump it over a jungle river.

I was camping with my parents one summer, and my father had made a repeated joke of picking up our beer cans and quickly draining them in order to cackle at our surprise and annoyance when we found them empty. The beer-stealing came to an abrupt end when he scooped up an abandoned beer can and gulped down a couple swallows of lukewarm bacon grease that my mother had poured into it for disposal. When he stopped gagging, he started swearing, and it was hours before he could see the humor at all.

Don Quay loved science fiction. The obituary in the paper never mentioned that, and yet it was a focal point of his activity from childhood all the way through to the end of his life. Boxes and boxes of old pulp science fiction magazines were stacked in the garage, nibbled at the edges by mice, and reeking of mustiness. But once he converted the attic of the house into two more bedrooms and closets, what undamaged magazines survived came back into the house, to be re-read many times. He subscribed to Analog, the science fiction monthly, and read it cover to cover the day it arrived. We picked up paperback science fiction, we checked science fiction out of the library, we subscribed to a science fiction book club. We, because he taught me to love the genre, too. "If you can read a book," he told me, "you can do anything." I don't think I ever found a science fiction book he hadn't already beaten me to reading.

Another thing that no one bothered to mention when he died was that he was a landscaper in a time and locale where formal landscaping was virtually unknown. People just planted bushes and trees "around." When my father and mother went into business with a nursery and greenhouse, my father took courses in landscaping and drew up plans to show clients what their plantings would look like. He did beautiful work!

In his later years, he stopped hunting. He'd learned how to hunt as a boy, when hunting meant a better meal on the table. He taught my mother to hunt, and tried to teach me, though I had no aptitude for it at all. We had a mixed breed dog called Raggs, and having been told by the veterinarian that she was likely a poodle and cocker spaniel mix, Don was convinced that she could perform as a sporting dog, and took her out and taught her to flush pheasants, though she couldn't smell a rabbit worth a damn. Raggs was his dog. Even though she spent hours trailing my explorations, she was my father's companion.

Every fall for many years, my parents went to Cape Hatteras for the excellent fishing. Standing on the beach with a surf-casting rod propped against his hip and gazing out to sea was a favorite pastime that seemed to suit my father. His size and strength made casting look easy and graceful, and he got a kick out of watching my mother sling her rod like a berserker with an overhead stroke with a claymore, the effort nearly knocking her into the surf. I believe my folks were still making the pilgrimage to their beloved Hatteras when Dad turned seventy.

When my father died, at 75, it wasn't unexpected. He'd developed colon cancer, and since my mother had been diagnosed with cancer on Christmas Day the year before, he'd spent his time taking care of her, and never noticed his own illness until it was too late. I miss him.

One thing makes me glad, however: I never was at odds with him, and we loved each other, and I never had even one regret for being his daughter.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-11-01
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