Lives that intersect
This past week, I was sorting through some of my old boxes that my mom had recently foisted on me, or as she likes to say 'returned' to me. During my walk down memory lane, I came across old greeting cards that had been given to me over the years. As I read through them, I was struck by how few of my well wishers I am still in touch with. True, I am still very close friends with one of my grade school friends and a couple of my high school friends, but there are many other people who once figured prominently in my life, who I have lost touch with over the years. I wondered how that happens. How does one go from being in almost daily contact with someone to virtually dropping off the radar?
In the box, I also came across a commencement speech I had written for graduate school. In it, I mentioned the names of several of my class mates who had been such a big part of my masters program experience. With a jolt, I realized that I have lost touch with every single person who name I had taken such care to mention.
This led me to start thinking about how our lives sometime merely intersect with others. With some friends, our paths continue to cross throughout our lives, and the connection remains strong. But what is equally true, and perhaps a more common occurrence, is that we have friends that play key roles in a part of our lives until our paths diverge, perhaps never to meet again.
Then I started to think about other things, like what to feed my daughter for lunch, what groceries I needed to get, all the while contemplating the appearance of dust bunnies the size of small cats that have taken up residence on my living room floor.
Life and its daily details marched on.
This morning Colin had an early check in to work a trip. At 3:30 a.m., he gently awakened me as he always does before he leaves. This time, however, his face was serious and his sentence started with "I just wanted you to know before you saw the news." With the uncharacteristic seriousness of his tone, my heart started to race as I struggled to wipe the sleep from my eyes and the cobwebs from my mind. He paused, "Gerald Ford passed away last night." For a moment, I did not react, I was a little stunned. This wasn't what I imagined him saying. I guess in those fleeting seconds, I had conjured up horrible images of bad things happening to planes, either a crash or more terrorist attacks. Relieved that the news was not of that variety, I finally said "thanks for telling me." At the time, I found myself strangely devoid of emotion.
I struggled to go back to sleep, but it would not come easily. My mind drifted back over the chapters in my life that were written some 30 years earlier. My thoughts ensured that sleep would be hours off but my emotions continued to elude me.
When Sophia's cries awakened me mere hours later, I continued my emotional deep freeze. That is until I looked at the news myself. I saw the headlines and saw pictures of President Ford during his presidency. My emotions rose to the surface and my tears flowed freely. For me, he wasn't just President, he was my Uncle Jerry.
I wasn't related to him by blood. In my family, my parent's best friends were referred to as "Christmas Aunts and Uncles." Hence, my Mom's best friend, Kathi (whom I was named after) always has and always will be my Aunt Kathi. My father's best friend was Gerald Ford, so he was always Uncle Jerry to me.
My father and Jerry met in college and became close friends. As the years went by, they worked together on political campaigns and Jerry eventually made his way into the House of Representatives. While my father loved politics, his passion was writing. In between, he made his living building houses. Some time after World War II, my dad, Uncle Jerry, and another friend, formed a partnership and built a primitive ski cabin in Northern Michigan. Many years later, they replaced it with a more modern version. My mom still shudders at the thought of that original cabin. She told me that they stayed at the cabin the winter she was pregnant with me and it was awful. The wind howled through the poorly insulated log cabin and the nearest bathroom was the outhouse outside. I guess trudging her way through the hip deep snow when she was over 7 months pregnant was not her idea of a holiday.
When Ford served on the Warren Commission, investigating Kennedy's assassination, he brought my father in to be his 'special assistant'. When the Commission wrapped up, they co-wrote the book, "Portrait of the Assassin" relating their conclusions and beliefs about the assassination.
Time moved on and in the wake of Nixon's unraveling, Jerry found himself smack in the midst of an unthinkable crisis for the U.S. Presidency. Before he knew it, he was sworn in as Vice President. I was all of 7 years old when I attended his inauguration celebration in Lowell, Michigan. I didn't really understand what all the fuss was. He was just Uncle Jerry to me.
Before he, or anyone else knew it, he was President. It was a position that he never sought and probably rarely, if ever, imagined. My father joined his staff, once again as a 'special assistant.' The summer of 75' was a really amazing vacation for me. When my dad was meeting with Jerry, I was allowed to roam much of the White House at will. I played with Liberty (the Ford's Golden Retriever) and spent a small fortune of the tax payer's dollars making copies on the fancy copy machine. I'm not quite sure why the staff was so tolerant of my need to make endless coloring books or of my shenanigans in general, but if anyone complained, I never heard about it.
When I returned home to start school that fall, our teacher inevitably had everyone tell the class what they had done on their summer vacation. I happily rattled off my summer adventures, not realizing that to most kids they sounded far fetched. Not surprisingly, many of my class mates treated my story with skepticism. I was slow to 'get' that I didn't exactly have a 'normal' 3rd grade summer.
During this time, my father kept a diary about Ford's rise to the Presidency. It was beautifully written and clearly showed how proud my dad was of his friend. In an entry written around the time of Jerry's swearing in, my father writes of the first time he received a phone call from the newly minted President. My father couldn't quite believe everything that had just happened but was apparently reassured since Mr. President sounded just like his old friend. The journal is an interesting look into my dad's take on events as they unfolded and in later entries, my father fiercely defended Ford's decision to pardon Nixon.
April 14, 1976 rolled around and I eagerly prepared myself to travel to Washington D.C. to spend the Easter holiday with my dad. I couldn't wait to take one of my class mates on a special tour of the White House. We had tickets to go see the mime Marceau, Marceau and I was looking forward to spending time with my dad. All that changed on the afternoon of April 15th. My poor mom had to break the news to me that he had been killed in a car accident the night before. My life and my family's life was forever altered. It was difficult for me to comprehend the finality of his death and I was devastated. For the longest time, I clung to every and any connection to my dad.
In the years that followed, I would write to the Fords several times a year and I would always receive nice letters in response. In retrospect, a staff member likely wrote them, but it helped me to feel connected to my father and his life.
Around 9 or 10 years ago, I was hitting my 30s and I suddenly had questions about my father. I wanted to know more about him and what he was like, from an adult perspective (other than my Mom's). I sought out his friends to find out as much as I could. This led me to meeting with Jerry. His staff graciously arranged the meeting in Rancho Mirage and I toted my father's journal to the California desert, eager to hear what Jerry had to say and wanting to share with him some of my dad's writings about him, his presidency and the pardon.
When I entered the room, I was surprised to see how much Jerry had aged. He was probably baffled by a visit from the adult daughter of his good friend who died nearly 20 years ago. He was friendly and very polite, but I started to feel like I was talking to a stranger. In truth, by this time we were. I was no longer a little girl, and Jerry's life had continued forward since my dad's death. We made small talk for a while and I tried to get to the heart of the matter. In doing so, I motioned to the book I had set next to me and mentioned that I had found my dad's journal. I told him that the purpose of my visit was twofold, I wanted to learn more about what kind of person my dad was, hear some special memories about him from a good friend. I also wanted to have Jerry see some of the things my father had written about him.
Uncle Jerry became very intent on seeing what my dad had written. With his focus on the book, I was never able to get the information that I had been seeking. He continued to remain polite but I got the distinct impression that he was eager to be alone with that book.
I came away from the meeting feeling very disappointed. Few of my father's contemporaries were still alive and I had traveled so far to learn so little.
After that meeting, I pretty much stopped writing. I could see that our lives no longer intersected and I did not want our contact to be merely an obligation of the past.
Fast forward to the present....On Christmas Day, I jogged from my mom's house to my dad's headstone. As I read the inscription it dawned on me that if my father had still been alive he would now be 90 years old (my father was 19 years older than my mom). I had a good cry, told him I still missed him and wished that he had lived to meet my husband and my daughter. Then I jogged back to my mom's. I told her I had been at dad's grave and that I couldn't believe he would have been 90 years old. She nodded and said "his brother and sister are gone, so are most of his friends, but at least Uncle Jerry is still alive." Neither of us would have guessed how quickly that was about to change.
When I think of my unusual childhood, it sometimes feel like it happened to someone else. To be sure, they are my memories but the 39 year old I am bears little resemblence to the nine year old I was. Uncle Jerry was an everyday guy who found himself in extraordinary circumstances which resulted in one incredible ride. For a brief time, my family gained admittance to his unique adventure and got a view of the Presidency few ever get to see.
I admired President Ford because he was a decent family man who had great integrity and the courage of his convictions. Although my political leanings are more to the left than the right, I recognize that these are qualities that few of today's politicians posses, Republican or Democrat.
The local press has been speculated that President Ford will be laid to rest here in Grand Rapids and that service would likely be open to the public. I wondered whether I should attend. After all, I had not been in touch with him for nearly 10 years, did I really have a need or a right to go?
After giving it some thought, here is what I have concluded; while it is true that our lives no longer intersected, I will go because the roots of our respective histories are inextricably connected. I will go because he was a part of my life and still lives on in memories. I will because I owe it to the memory of my father. Someone should be present on my father's behalf, someone who knew how greatly he admired his friend who became President ...in fact, next to being there himself, I'm pretty sure my dad wouldn't have wanted it any other way.