Tuesday, November 27, 2012

About Wendell

My father passed away a year ago today. At his funeral I got up to speak. I had prepared some notes about him, but wasn't sure what I should read. I read a bit from my notes, but also from one of his journals from the era when my family first moved to Cape Cod.

I recently ran across the notes I had written about him and thought it made sense to post them here, today:

On my last drive down to the Cape while my father was still alive I thought about asking him what his secret was. How did he survive so long? Was there something I should know? It wasn’t an idle thought, like asking what he wants for lunch. It became imperative that I ask him right then. But my next thought was, If I did ask him this question, he would probably not answer me seriously. Wendell was a jokester, he could always find the humor in any situation. 

Dad was consistent. Every year for Christmas I could expect him to give me a book on writing. A used book of course. I don’t think Wendell bought a new book, ever, unless he had a gift certificate to a book store. I never thought about this but now it makes sense: buying a new book would admit that people actually wanted a new book over a used book. Why buy a book new when you could always wait until it was available used? Growing up during the Great Depression, my parents both learned to be thrifty. Maybe that’s why they went into the business of selling old, used, recycled items. 

Muriel and Wendell

Wendell was always hard to pin down. Who was this man? He was many things besides father and husband and brother and uncle and son. He was in the US Army Air Corp as a glider pilot in WWII. He was a painter and illustrator: when I was away at college he would send me cartoon panels depicting family tableaus that evoked a Doonesbury cartoon. He published cartoons in the New Yorker and wrote for Classics Illustrated. He, along with my mother, spent a summer’s worth of a honeymoon atop a California mountain as fire scouts. He was a nature lover, fashioning himself a modern-day Thoreau, moving with his family to a Cape Cod outpost in the early ‘60s—something not a lot of families were doing at the time.
Unreliable Narrator and Wendell
Wendell was a man of many talents. He was a humorist, publishing short pieces in the tone of Mark Twain or James Thurber. He wrote two novels. He kept journals throughout his life and published poetry. He had a mail-order business selling rare books and ephemera. He collected stamps. He was an itinerant home owner, and a snow bird who flew south to Florida during many a winter. 

He worked in the PR department of Madison Square Garden. He was a technical writer for a while. He taught English at Sea Pines private school for girls in Brewster, in the days before it was became an inn, and was the location of my parents' 50th anniversary party. He was an Ivy League grad, earning his bachelors in English at Cornell. I recently came across a certificate he was awarded after he completed a nature photography class.

He coined jargon for certain things. For example,
  • Tenderheart: a gentle dog that let my dad pet him. Also, braveheart.
  • Bunker. A child under the age of about five or six, usually a rambunctious boy.
  • Gummer. An older person. Although he stopped using this term when he was about 75.
  • Weakies. An exclamation, something he said when he stood up and his back was stiff or when you tweaked his knee.
  • Weirdoes. Bad drivers about whom he was always telling us kids to watch out for on the road.
  • Cussies. Customers.
I never did ask him his secret to life. But I imagine his answer would have been something like, “I watched the weirdoes on the road.”
Wendell at Mayo Duck Farm, Cape Cod, circa mid-60s