Category Archives: Family

A Eulogy for Boots

(This was a eulogy I wrote for Robert Dove, my father-in-law. He passed away in May and the family held a memorial service in June. I was unable to attend, but wrote this, which my daughter, Layci Nelson, read. If I can get the video of that I will post it here later.)

Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t this a great day? Isn’t it wonderful, all of us here, all in one place, celebrating the life of Robert Michael Dove. Boots. Our friend, our father, our father-in-law, our grandfather, our great grandfather, our uncle, our great uncle, our brother, our husband, our brother in law . . .

His magic? He somehow had a way of making each one of us feel singularly special, as if we each mattered most in this world. Weren’t we lucky?

My first real memory of Boots was during my freshman year of college. I flew to Maryland during spring break to visit Darla. Boots pulled into Washington National Airport in his long, yellow Cadillac. He greeted me with his booming baritone, I slid into the leather passenger seat and thought, man am I lucky.

I remember that first week, and the constant chatter and noise: Boots calling to his family, and his constant hum and whistle, punctuated by the occasional holler. It was incessant, and also somehow comforting, especially having grown up in a quiet house, where passions were suppressed. Boots lived his emotions out loud. And I remember thinking: Isn’t he lucky?

There are millions of meaningful little stories, ones that spoke to the essence of this man and his compassion, and spoke to the regard with which he held everyone he met. The kind of memories that stick with us forever, peaking around corners to surprise us, like getting a wild card on your final turn.

He worked his way into our lives in profound ways. “I want to show you something,” he would say, and the thought he had put into that something were clear demonstrations of his inner complexity, and how much he truly cared about you. Once, he spent hours rigging up an orange picker to make it easier for me to reach the fruit at the top of his tree. He knew I loved those oranges.

Once, when Darla was a young girl, Boots, who had served for 10 years in the National Guard, took his daughter’s ponytail in his hand and asked: “Dee Dee, do you know how you get in a foxhole?” “No,” she replied. At that, he raised her ponytail and replied: “You lift up its tale.” For the next 30 years, every so often he would just grab her ponytail and say “you lift up its tale,” and they would have the kind of laugh you have when little experiences like that stack up like layers, forming an unbreakable bond.

For his son Robert, it was being able to share in his father’s music and actually play in The Memories with him; for Tim it was Saturday night drive-ins and fishing trips; for Shelly it was a picture of Casper that he once sent her, all colored in and glittering; for Susy it was a Valentine’s Day card after a heartbreak; for Darla it was a surprise 7-11 Slurpee in a time of stress, using every bit of money Boots had in his pocket; for Darleen it was how he told her he loved her “all the muches in the world.” It was Boots trying to revive the family’s frozen rabbit by placing it on the stove to thaw. And it was a million of these moments.

It was the nicknames — his wee, his flea, his weetzie, his pie, his Rob-bob.

Once, Boots and I were sitting together at a dance competition or recital or something, and he looked up at an Exit sign and said: “Do you see that?” He was fixated on it, imploring me to look at it again. “Look,” he said. “E Exit IT. Isn’t that fascinating? E Exit IT! Have you ever noticed that before?” I looked at him like he had two heads. “Look! E Exit IT. I’ve never noticed that,” he said. I didn’t know what that meant, or why it struck him, but it was always a source of great amusement between us. Whenever I was with him, I would find the Exit signs and say “there it is again,” and he would nod excitedly and laugh, and tell me he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t equally fascinated. I was; just not by the sign.

Boots constantly found surprise and joy in ordinary things. I think that’s what always made each one of us feel special in his presence: he could celebrate just about anything, and he did. Weren’t we lucky?

Boots believed in other things — UFOs and aliens. He believed in re-incarnation, describing in detail a point and a place during the Battle of Bull Run where he had previously met his death. I’ve always imagined that life would be far more interesting if we all were lucky enough to believe in the things Boots believed in.

He played the numbers, guessing at the results through a combination of license plates, birthdays and digits he would see in his dreams. He won a little money here and there–money he was quick to give away, spend on more lottery tickets, or use to pay a bill, but he never got rich. He would curse the television, or blame the volunteer who picked the balls when he didn’t win, but I always thought he played more for the hope and anticipation rather than the actual money. Because if his luck was dry at 7:30 every weekday night when those lottery balls were drawn, it was full and rich for the other 23 hours and 59 minutes.

He met the love of his life for a fleeting moment in the summer of 1958, only to run into her again by chance in November of that same year on a snowy day, on a street in Washington D.C. Weren’t they lucky?

He got into the National Guard when he was 16 and he sent money back home to his mom to help provide for his younger siblings. Weren’t they lucky? He survived an explosion in a boiler room, dragging himself out into the snow and managed to save his own life. Aren’t we all lucky?

He was my father-in-law, but so much more than that. My own father grew up fishing as a boy in Montana, and yet it was Boots who bought me my first fishing pole. My father was an exquisite carpenter, and yet it was Boots who bought me my first tools. Thanks to Boots, I forced my own father to do some of those things with me. I wonder if Boots knew any of that.

Some of my favorite moments were simply playing cards, for hours on end, cigarette smoke swirling, a couple of beers Boots always set aside for me. Whenever he got a good card he’d say “Oh, HELLO!”

The Boots I saw was the kind of man who would get down on the floor with his grandchildren to play, yell with them at the characters on TV, help them build whatever they could imagine in their heads, and proudly display the end result in the most prominent place he could find. I was always afraid to let my boys use power tools, but I would come over to Boots’ house and see them with an electric saw or drilling holes and making the best of Boots’ treasure trove of screws and washers and knickknacks my boys would use to accessorize their concoctions.

Once, Joshua was dead set on building a throne, and it was a notion I quickly dismissed . . . but not Boots. Josh built that throne with his biggest cheerleader egging him on. Boots knew how to help, but also how to make the kids feel like the projects were their own. Josh is now prone to make 22-foot dragons, 5-foot 3D castles. His room is a cavern and a showcase for his enormous imagination. It hasn’t escaped me that left to my own devices, I would have squashed Joshua’s creativity, where Boots threw fuel on that beautiful fire.

If I’m honest, there have been times during our lives together that Boots was a better father to my own kids than I was. More than anything, he taught me that it’s never too late. How lucky was I.

From the very beginning Boots shared a special bond with Joshua. He has the same bond with all of his grandchildren, of course, but Joshua required a special guiding hand back in those days. If you were telling a three-year-old Joshua that you were changing the round tire, he would argue with you about whether it was really round. His favorite word, spoken resolutely, was “no.” Boots was one of the very few people who “got” Joshua. He called Josh “my little wee.” I remember trying to call Joshua that a few times, and he would have none of it. That was his grandfather’s special name. There will never be a Dumbledore for Joshua like Boots was, and he always will be. Even from beyond this earth, the bonds Boots built are unbreakable.

Who didn’t feel that bond? When he first became sick, the kids at his crossing guard station made him pictures and cards. You see, he didn’t just direct the kids through traffic and to school, he knew their names, he encouraged them, he teased them, he played with them. He made them feel special. They KNEW they were lucky.

I came over to visit with him after his cancer diagnosis. He had decided he wouldn’t receive treatment. It was just he and I that day. He switched off his movie and put on the Maryland game, because he knew that’s what I’d want to see. He told me what a great life he had. He had his friends and his family and that that’s all a man needs. He told me that he was happy, that he had no regrets. He said: “I’ve been so lucky.” Weren’t WE lucky?

With each recovery Boots found new life and brought new joy. I’ve never seen anyone live their final days with such grace, grabbing each of them in his warm embrace. He bragged to his visitors about the marvels of modern medicine, his amazing wheelchair, the incredible hospice staff, the promise of a motorized scooter, which he wanted to use to race his aged neighbors. He discovered the iPad and Facetime. He would call you just to see how YOU were.

Even knowing each shallow, oxygen-assisted breath could be his last, he breathed life into everyone. All around him were friends and family who looked upon him as someone who was dying, but this was a man who was truly living.

E-Exit-IT, Boots. I think I get it now. It IS fascinating.

He was a plumber and a crossing guard and a painter and a singer. He always said he never had an enemy. He loved his bird Ricky and his dogs Tammy and Muffy and ET and Pommy and Tonka, and they adored him. His eyebrows were like caterpillars and they came alive when he slept, twitching with his dreams; and he could snore the paint off the walls. He believed he was in the Battle of Bull Run and he believed in aliens and he believed he was always one night away from winning the lottery.

But more than that, he believed in us. We were each his Oh HELLO.

Weren’t we lucky? AREN’T we lucky?


Blinded By False Redemption

Buddy Gray visited our family twice a year to tune our small, humble piano. For an hour his jokes and his loud southern twang and the promise of pitch descended onto the silent pallor of our Maryland home. Upon finishing, Buddy would always sing one of his own Christian songs, banging recklessly in marvelous opposition to our own timidity, his notes resonating well past supper.

Our home felt empty for days after he left, even with four children, a dog and a cat. I think my mother bought one of Buddy’s records but it was nothing like having him in person, his squat, home-fed Pillsbury body jumping off the bench in rhythm to his song, momentarily transforming our living room into a Godful honky-tonk. He played so loudly I couldn’t make out the words, just the magic feeling behind them, but maybe that was just our walls vibrating with the thrum.

Buddy Gray was blind, the result of an accident when he was much younger. Alabama was his home. He had a wife and children — girls, I think — but he traveled to southern Maryland every six months to tune and repair pianos and to preach his gospel of redemption. I was an easy convert, compelled now to search unsuccessfully for trouble to be redeemed of. I could never picture myself at 13 or 14 with long hair, using drugs and women.

Then again I couldn’t picture Buddy Gray that way either, but I was always looking for affirmations not just of God’s existence, but his willful involvement, tweaking and correcting us each toward a better path. Or at least guiding the Lakers past the Celtics.

Our piano was handed down through generations, and moved from New Jersey to California to Maryland to Alabama to Florida before settling in northern Virginia with my sister, the only one who took an active interest in playing. Linda gave up the piano shortly after being forced into a recital, a frightening experience for someone never comfortable with a spotlight being poured onto her developing interests. Her legs shook so badly during the performance I was surprised her notes didn’t also quiver.

There was nothing remarkable about our piano, a Wurlitzer console that belonged to our grandfather. It’s the kind you would expect to find propped up against a dining room wall in the 1940s. Its body is a faded, crackling yellow, and its brown, wooden roll top cover blankets the keys. Buddy would shake his head when he tuned it, imploring my mother to continue its maintenance, under his care of course, every six months. She would nod her ascent violently, probably wondering how to enlist the support of my cheap, unsympathetic father. Come to think of it, I’m certain the piano lessons we children so often protested fortified an argument we were never privy to.

I hated playing the piano, but Buddy’s visits sometimes made me reconsider.

The first time Buddy was to come to our home, my mother warned us about his blindness, and as with most things like this (race, heritage, handicap) she taught us to celebrate the difference rather than gawk or cower or judge. I remember not wanting to stare. My sisters and I gathered around and watched Buddy work, his big burgundy satchel’s shiny leather reminding me of something a doctor might bring to a house call, only bigger and practically bursting with the weight of his tools.

He would practically disappear into the piano’s insides, placing his odd rubber wedges among the sets of strings that corresponded to a key, and then he would pound a note and apply his tuning lever to the pins to adjust the string, which stretched like a cat’s meow, or the accent of his voice, now quietly packed away, replaced by a mystical concentration. Buddy would insist on absolute silence, and in time we would scatter back to our lives until it was time for him to play his encore.

I don’t remember Buddy using anything like a chromatic tuner. Occasionally he’d bring out a tuning fork, but his ear was so locked in he could hear things we couldn’t. Note by note he would go, moving his wedges, pounding a key, tweaking a string until it was properly tamed. Sometimes he would revisit a pesky string and strive for a perfect sound that escaped us all. I’d never met a piano tuner before, and haven’t since, but I imagined him to be the best at his craft, such was the spellbinding impact on me.

During each visit we thought we knew Buddy better. He would reach out his hands, guessing at how tall my sisters and I had grown since his last visit, always a little taller than his hands reasoned. My mother quizzed him about his life in Alabama. His wife. His kids. His works in the name of God.

When Buddy was finished tuning, he’d boldly proclaim the piano good as new. I could never tell the difference. But it never really mattered. He was larger than life. Full of life. He told stories of the evil of booze and drugs. Buddy’s was a turnaround story, about a bad man who had embraced Christianity, life and family, and changed. The man we saw here, tuning our piano. I wanted some of his God.

Years later when I had a driver’s license it was somehow arranged that I would drive for Buddy during his visits. I don’t know whether he inquired or my parents suggested, but one bright morning in the summer of my 17th year I found myself driving down the highway to Waldorf, Maryland, where Buddy was staying with friends for his two weeks of piano tuning. It would be easy money and I would get to know Buddy even better, listening to his stories and soaking up his wisdom.

I’m sure I arrived early that first day, but Buddy was already up making phone calls and confirming appointments for later in the week. Some of the family was awake, and they had that weary look of the morning. But it might have been that they’d already had their fill of Buddy’s loud echoes.

We set out and Buddy set the rules. His goal was to get in and out of each house within an hour so that we could maximize the day. He had each day planned with the precision of his beloved pianos. His appointments were handwritten in a spiral-bound notebook, which held the schedule and addresses in his eerily precise penmanship, but it was all in his head anyway. He was like that.

I would drive him, guide him to the house and to the piano, his hand on my elbow, and then I was free for the hour, free to listen to him tune or to read or snoop around. I listened to him chat with his clients, filling the room as he had done so many times at my own house.

The allure of that faded quickly in the first couple days. I suppose there are stories you can only hear so many times.

Buddy Gray taught me the uncanny power of the blind. He had grown up in southern Maryland, but he had been blind for at least 20 years before I met him. Yet he knew every turn on every road we drove. He would give me a few directions and after driving on a highway for more than 20 minutes, he would suddenly announce that our next turn was in 500 yards.

My gasp must have been audible because then he started doing it more, just to prove that first one wasn’t a fluke. And then he would just laugh. I would never know those roads or have turn by turn directions in my head like Buddy did. His sight was intuitive, unexplainable.

And Buddy knew about sound. I don’t just mean singing on pitch and tuning a piano or being able to play a song by ear, though he was pretty good at all that. He could also throw his voice. I had an old Chevy Camaro with a 350 V8 engine and it just barreled down the road, growling as it went. That car meant business and on some of the hilly, windy back roads that led to those big colonial-era estates, I would just start to let the car take over.

Buddy would let me go for a while; I suppose even a blind man knows what’s fun for a young boy. But one time I heard a siren and all feeling left my body. I frantically searched my mirrors, and seeing nothing I finally pulled over, confused and scared. Buddy just laughed. He’d been whistling that siren and somehow threw the sound of it behind me. He was like that.

Sometimes the houses we visited would be empty, the door unlocked and a check sitting on the piano. In other houses maids or housekeepers would greet us. But mostly there were families and they’d all take to Buddy like mine did. Many of them lived in gloriously large houses and the pianos were epic compared to the one we owned, gleaming like polished ebony trophies in their dedicated rooms.

Occasionally we would encounter a lost cause, a piano with its paint chipping away like a dilapidated, abandoned house. The owners of these were almost never home, and tuning them wasn’t really an option because the interior workings were usually even more diminished. We would quickly assess the situation and depart without bothering to take the check, but the mood was punished by the harsh judgement of Buddy Gray, who was intolerant of poorly kept instruments.

In hindsight it was likely just intolerance for having his time wasted, the wrath of which I would occasionally feel if I couldn’t find a road, or miscalculated a turn a few days into our time together.

We worked long hours and I would often return home well after dark, collapsing in my bed. When I dropped Buddy off, he would immediately take to the phones to reaffirm the next day’s appointments, call some of the homes he hoped to visit later in his tuning tour, having me read off the phone numbers one by one. He was relentless.

My exasperation with the pace and his persistence grew to match his impatience. Buddy liked to make the most of his waking hours. Even our stops for food were of the fast variety, and I built up a stomach of iron to march against the threat of too many Big Macs and french fries and milkshakes. When I returned home my Camaro’s back seat looked like a drug store parking lot and smelled like grease. I took solace from the monotony’s crescendo with a long, hard shower.

When Buddy and I finally got to know each other better, the things that once uplifted me about him grew oppressive, the jokes heard across the zip codes, the folksy wisdom of a recovered malcontent, the glory he gave to his God.

Over time, his interactions with me became jarring. He asked me what the woman whose piano we had just tuned looked like. At first I figured this was just that blind part of him trying to see. But in time, I measured more behind the inquisitions. In time, with use, he too fell out of tune.

Riding the high of one particular visit with one of his long-time clients he asked me to verify that the eldest daughter of the last client had developed breasts. He asked it innocently enough, as if his extra senses and his brilliant memory had calculated a maturation. Then he told me that I had merely confirmed what he already knew, the way he always knew.

I had somehow completely missed his deception. He admitted that he would pretend to reach out to see how tall a teenage girl had grown, but that he always purposely reached too low, for he would have easily heard the girl’s height by listening for the source of her voice. Buddy Gray had been eagerly feeling teenage breasts for years.

Turns out he was like that, too.

I don’t know why he told me about this habit, or did so conspiratorially, as if our perversions ran in harmony. He must have thought I was still in his thrall. His powers of perception had mysteriously failed him, or I had credited them too abundantly.

Buddy’s time in our lives was almost inconsequential. My parents and siblings are hard-pressed to remember any details about him, even the self-proclaimed redemption orchestrated by his glorious God.

Funny how I can’t get his song of hypocrisy out of my head.

A night in suburbia with Styx and new memories

It has become suburban habit to gather in gated communities on a summer night, congregating in a park beneath stars and moon and the steady sedation of bottled cocktails, awash in anticipation of some forgotten musician bent on squeezing a few final pennies from the remnants of our memories. Saturday night in Mission Viejo, CA, it was Dennis DeYoung, the former lead singer and songwriter for Styx. He played mostly Styx music, the sole exception being “Desert Moon,” a hit from his days as a solo artist.

Here’s are seven things I learned that night:

1.) DeYoung, at 66, is still an incredible vocalist. He doesn’t have the strength and range to sing every song, but he comes through with surprising vocal polish in those classic ballads, like “Lady” and “Babe.”

2.) All of the big wind-up songs — “Grand Illusion,” “Come Sail Away,” “Best of Times” — sound formulaic by today’s standards: the heavy dose of synthesizer, the perfunctory pause for the obligatory guitar solo, and the slow build up from drippingly sweet ballad to all-out guitar rock-outs.

3.) Not that DeYoung and Styx were ever, you know, Ozzie and Black Sabbath, but it’s still difficult to see him prancing around in a white pants and a vest, telling corny jokes and, it must be said, seeming more like Barry Manilow than long-haired rock star. It makes me cringe to think that, 25 years from now, my kids will have to watch Billy Corgan croon “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” with kick-line dancers or something.

4.) Of all the Styx hits, who would have guessed that “Mr. Roboto” would be the most anticipated? For me, though, it was “Renegade,” and the memory of it caught me a little by surprise.

5.) DeYoung wrote “Babe” as a gift for his wife and recorded it as a simple demo. Styx producers heard it and thought it might make for a hit. DeYoung met his wife when he was 17, and she 15, at a high school dance. They’ve been married for 43 years. I’m unclear, but dazzled that his marriage lasted through a successful musical career. Bravo.

6.) Suburbia is an easy target. It is sport to identify the archetype. But there is an unabashed spirit there, too, one that champions love of family and friends, even if the chicken wings come from Costco.

7.) Children will always surpass your expectations, and in ways you hadn’t imagined. As I drove my 20-something daughter home at the end of the night, after another painful week of family implosion, she reminded me that despite what often feels like the defiant daily refrain of failure, our family had accomplished incredible success. I drove off renewed, and in my head I heard Dennis DeYoung’s words from “Lady” again: “your hands build me up when I’m sinking.”