August 11, 2018 – Dad would have been 100 today.
It was not an age he expected to reach and when he died 20 years ago at 80, no other Jenks male in our line had lived so long. But by then he had been widowed for 15 years, had lost a limb to diabetic neuropathy, could barely move because of congestive heart failure and arthritis, and had been forced to give up his beloved pipe. Toward the end, I don’t think he welcomed each day with gladness.
Along with all my siblings and family, I miss him. That is, I miss him in a way. Now that I’m in my seventies, I look in the mirror and Elmore looks back. His hazel eyes squint quizzically at mine and some evenings, when I’m enjoying a slight libation of Jameson’s, it feels like I’m channeling him. He preferred Mount Vernon but I don’t think he’d scoff at more refined whiskey. The odd thing is, I didn’t even like whiskey until he died. Maybe I really am channeling him.
This may not be entirely metaphysical because Dad passed to me a host of genetic gifts, including heart disease and a tendency to diabetes. He also passed his mathematical and horticultural gifts along to my other siblings so none of us could say we were left out, and I was not the only one to get the diabetes DNA. All five of us channel him in different ways.
After I grew up, the main thing I had in common with Dad was the pipe. Sometimes we’d sit at a card table smoking our pipes and restricting our conversation to light topics because deep introspection made him uncomfortable. A few years before he died I transcribed his World War II diary and he enjoyed commenting on what he had written. He unraveled at least one wartime mystery he had never talked about before, a picture of him leaning on crutches with his right leg bandaged at the knee. When I was growing up he allowed me to think he had injured his knee in a training obstacle course, or by catching it in the webbing of a troop ship. Then one evening as the pipe smoke enveloped us in a mystical haze, I asked him again:
“How did you hurt your knee?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” he said immediately. “I was on a train in Australia, getting ready to ship out to a new post. There was this woman who came to see me off [perhaps Mary Fletcher, an Army nurse frequently mentioned in his diary]. They wouldn’t let her on the train so she came up to the window where I was. I knelt down so I could get my head out the window, and the train suddenly lurched forward. I hurt my knee and it hasn’t been the same since.”
Dad and my mother, also named Mary, married in 1941 just three weeks after Pearl Harbor and they were separated for three years while Dad served in Pacific theater. Millions in their generation looked for ways to assuage the loneliness of separation and when it was over they said little about it. Dad and Mom – who was 18 when they married so suddenly – are entitled to their discretion. But I have often wondered about the woman who came to the station to say her good-byes to Dad when he moved to another assignment.
Reading through Dad’s World War II diary again, I’m also reminded that the horror of war was a universal experience whether one was in combat, behind the lines, or back at home. Because so much of Dad resides in me, I find it impossible to imagine what he went through during the battle of Buna Gona, one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. Looking back, I have little doubt that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome throughout his adult life. He drank too much. He smoked too much. He was often depressed. And he had difficulty expressing his deepest feelings, which was another trait he passed along to some of his children.
But as his loved ones celebrate his centennial, I find that my favorite memories are of the Elmore who could smile and express his affection to his children in so many ways. I, for one, will never forget his laughter when we were so small he could lie on his back on the living room rug and hoist us aloft with his stocking feet before summersaulting us into pillows behind him. Or the space helmets and rocket control boards he created in his cellar shop because we couldn’t afford to order the toys peddled on Captain Video’s television program. Or his patience in taking us swimming several times a week each summer to our favorite lake. Or his willingness to join us in winter sledding and games.
My favorite pictures of Dad are of his beautiful smile, whether playing with a small dog on a foreign beach so near to the terror of battle, or laughing at himself because his weight on a sled had immobilized it in the snow.
More than anything else on his 100th birthday, I celebrate his ability to smile through all the complexities and challenges and travails of his life. Sometimes it wasn’t easy for him. But when he could manage it, his smile lit up all our lives.
You touched my heart