was a bittersweet experience for me as a boy when Mom would take
us to visit our old Georgia hometown, because I felt I should
have been growing up there. By the time I was a teenager, the
differences between me and my Georgia peers had become too stark
for me to enjoy the experience at all.
I had imprinted on
the landscape, however, on the vast fields relieved by dark
islands of pine and bordered by creeks which were overhung by
oaks and magnolias and haunted by alligators that moved unseen
through the black water. And my earliest memories cluster there:
screams and running as a bat flies down our house's chimney and
beats against the high ceiling; a long rattlesnake hanging dead
from a tree limb for all to see; the dust rising behind a red
tractor as my father disks-my sister and I are at the edge of the
field, trying to bash open the shell of a turtle to get at the
secret inside, and Dad appears above me as I lift the rock and
silently takes away the bleeding creature.
As a college
student, feeling uncomfortably rootless, I drove to Leesburg
myself. We had been gone fifteen years. In the town's only
grocery, I told the proprietor that we had lived on the Stage
Road Ranch. The man thought for a moment. Then he said that my
father's ability to estimate the weight of a pen of market steers
was the most remarkable he'd ever seen. I was proud that Dad's
competence was honored, even if for a rarified skill. I suspected
that he was remembered less fondly by my mother's close circle of
I had sworn never to return, because of
the emotions the place stirred up, but I visited again in middle
age, when a car trip took me through southwestern Georgia. I was
several years into my own farming apprenticeship by then. Still
ahead of me were larger farms, more powerful tractors, and a big
flock of sheep. If I hadn't yet grasped fully what drove me, I
was starting to better understand my father and his clashing
dreams of flight and rootedness.
I found myself talking
about him in Leesburg with a local couple. The woman was the
daughter of the mechanic who had serviced Dad's tractors. Her
husband was heir to a peanut and cotton plantation by then
managed primarily for quail hunting. They demanded of me, in an
indirect southern way, to explain my father. They looked at me
across the dinner table of their hunting lodge, waiting. Who
knows what they had heard from their parents-they were my age-but
undoubtedly it boiled down to his being an unfriendly Yankee. He
certainly hadn't socialized in the local way, telling funny
stories about foolish behavior, his own and that of others. I'm
sure he hadn't tried to fit in, had seemed aloof and humorless,
strangely driven by work.
My mother had tried and had
been accepted there, even loved. Taking in an outsider was an
historic event in a place where people born north of Americus,
only twenty miles away, were viewed with suspicion. But she
wasn't the question on the table. I searched for an adjective
that would help them place my father, that would define his
solitary nature without implying that it had anything to do with
them, because, of course, it didn't. I felt the usual pang of
guilt for discussing him at all, never mind critically, with
anyone outside the family. He needed interpreting, but doing so
felt like a betrayal. Explaining my father without diminishing
him would take hours, days-a lifetime. Yet the couple waited
politely for an answer.
got a neat tractor for the farm,” my younger brother Pete
reported over the telephone. I asked him for more details, but
Pete was a policeman and sportsman, not a farmer, and had grown
up in a Florida beach town. The excitement in his voice told me,
however, that Dad had gotten some sort of real tractor.
was 1978, and our father had retired as vice president of the
aerospace division of Pan American World Airways, in Cocoa Beach.
Upon buying a five-acre rectangle about ten miles inland from the
Atlantic Ocean, he went shopping for a tractor. He wanted to
start some sort of farm business on his new homestead, to return
to his first passion.
He bought a gleaming orange and
blue Kubota tractor, the product of a Japanese company so old it
made John Deere look like a sprout. On my next trip home, I made
my acquaintance with the import from Osaka. Although it was
small-tiny compared to even Ford's classic 1940s model 9N
tractor-this was clearly a serious piece of machinery and no
overgrown riding lawnmower. The Kubota B-6100E was poised
foursquare atop tires that gave it more than a foot of ground
clearance. Weighing in at just under 1,000 pounds, the tractor
gained additional ballast from the water filling its rear lug
tires. A tidy compartment on the side carried this notice: “Tool
Kit. Pull forcefully, and it will open.” Simple, rugged,
and small, the Kubota exuded the charm of a bantam rooster.
appeared that the diesel tractor was another of Florida's
introduced exotic species, although not yet as newsworthy as
walking catfish, smothering kudzu vines, or a newly escaped
aquarium plant called hydrilla that was choking the state's
freshwater rivers. Kubota's was the only compact diesel tractor
brand being sold in the U.S. in the late 1970s. The company had
met the need for compact, durable tractors for part-time farmers,
homesteaders, and horse owners. In another decade, such machines
would lead all tractor sales.
My father, who stood
six-foot-two, had a big man's fondness for small, elegant tools.
He would perch on the Kubota, wearing a floppy white hat, and
drive around the property on various missions. The scene brought
to mind a photograph I had seen of him as a young man in
California, driving a midget racecar around a crowded racetrack.
He beeped the tractor's horn to summon my mother from the house
when he needed help. After a lifetime of lower-back problems, he
needed both the tractor and my mother to supply the muscle he no
longer possessed. Only five-foot-four, but with a strong back,
Mom could lift fifty-pound sacks of fertilizer.
called the tractor his new toy and noted its growing arsenal of
implements, including a mower, a disk harrow, a fertilizer
spreader, and a grader blade to smooth their unpaved driveway.
The Kubota, however, may have been the first farm machine he ever
bought that was scaled realistically for the size and income of
his enterprise. In 1952, on his first ranch, in California, he
had bought a new bulldozer to clear sagebrush, too impatient to
hire an operator; and later, in Georgia, at the ranch embedded in
my earliest memories, he had equipped the struggling startup
business with tractors, silage choppers, and even a huge,
dirt-moving pan that he used to build a pond rather than hiring
Now his retirement dream was to turn a slice of
sand, thin grass, and live oak trees into a garden farm, and to
raise a cash crop of some kind. Still thinking like a cattleman,
he first built a pole barn and a corral, and he even bought a
head-squeeze before deciding that he physically wasn't up to
running steers and didn't have the acreage for such an operation
anyway. He explored raising pygmy goats for the pet market-his
increasingly esoteric reading included Aids to Goatkeeping-and
his children enjoyed the image of Dad leading a herd of knee-high
While his research into farm
enterprises continued, he seeded buckwheat and then, dragging his
petite disk behind the Kubota, chopped the plants into the thin
soil to add organic matter. He built a trellis and planted
muscadines, the big southern slip-skin grapes, testing them as a
potential market crop. In winter, he sowed annual ryegrass into
all the fields, turning the farm into an emerald swatch in the
khaki landscape. He got the mania for soil improvement out of his
system with the realization that he didn't need fertile earth for
the enterprise he had settled on. He had decided to go into the
nursery business and would raise trees in plastic pots on top of
the ground. He devoured horticulture manuals, took classes at the
local two-year college, and visited growers. He installed an
elaborate irrigation system, and Coral Tree Farm was in business.
Immediately his plants began dying. He had his well
tested and learned that the water was almost as salty as
seawater. We all thought this meant the end of his latest dream.
He simply switched to native plants, mostly live oak trees and
wax myrtle shrubs, which had evolved to tolerate salinity. Dad
thereby stumbled into Florida's native plant movement.
State officials and many gardeners and ecologists were disgusted
with imports from Australia, Africa, and Brazil that had escaped
suburbia and were displacing native species. Developers wanted
plants that needed less coddling. Homeowners wanted a
lower-maintenance, more natural landscape. Business at Coral Tree
Farm was good. Dad's vest-pocket farm actually made money, a
rarity in agriculture and a first for him.
On my frequent
visits, I saw oaks growing from acorns he had collected from
trees that shaded the property. Wax myrtles sprawled to catch the
sun with their thick, dull green leaves. He grew thousands of the
bushes by picking their gray seeds, roughly rolling them to
soften their tough shells, then sowing them in the shade. Dad
nurtured his plants and got amazing growth rates. When he wasn't
tending his nursery, he sipped iced tea in the house, looking out
the window for customers-who headed for the “Ring Bell for
Service” sign but who seldom had a chance to ring before he
was at their sides.
his nursery prospered for six years, Dad's health declined. The
business was too small for him to afford help and too large for
him to operate by himself. His heart was weakening and limiting
him physically. He decided to close another chapter. Not only
would he go out of business, he would sell the place they had
created--their cedar house, the duck pond, the poultry barn,
“Some people just retire,” I
told him. “They enjoy doing things around a place.”
He said nothing but shook his head, looked away, saying it all:
that wasn't for him. He would never putter, do nothing but
relax-all of that a living death to him. He engaged with the
outside world exclusively through work. He would expand his work
as a consultant for Pan American. Still, I would like to think my
parents might have stayed on the farm, entering a new phase of my
father's form of retirement, if a developer hadn't bought the
pinewoods beside them and constructed a twenty-four-hour truck
Wax myrtle, oaks, and slash pines couldn't
shield the farm from the glare of floodlights or from the noise
of trucks grinding gears at three o'clock in the morning. The
farm's fate seemed peculiarly Floridian and particularly cruel.
My father got the owner to erect a six-foot fence, but the chain
link that replaced a woven-wire cattle fence only emphasized how
much had changed. Finally, Dad sold Coral Tree Farm to the
developer, and my parents prepared to move away.
suggested I take the Kubota. She knew I needed a tractor for the
nine acres my wife and I had purchased that winter in Indiana. At
first Dad was puzzled by the idea, which involved my flying to
Florida and hauling the little tractor eight hundred miles north.
“You're welcome to it,” he said, “but don't
take it for sentimental reasons.”
He had no desire
to see a tool enshrined as a memento of something that was gone.
To him, the tractor was simply a machine that had served its
purpose well and should be sold with the farm. While his
suspicion was correct-we were all sentimental about the Kubota,
or at least the image of him upon it, busy with tasks-I needed
it. Mom was more practical than either of us, knowing that my
father would lack the patience to recoup the tractor's resale
value and knowing that I couldn't afford to buy machinery for
what it would cost me to tow Dad's to Indiana. By the time I
arrived in Florida, one might have thought giving me the tractor
had been his idea by the pleasure he took in handing it over.
“How many years do you think the Kubota is good
for?” I asked.
“It should last as long as you
do,” he said.
The Kubota's paint, once tangerine,
had faded to a salmon, and there were rust bubbles on the hood.
But its engine ran as confidently as ever. A diesel is good for
at least five thousand hours before a major overhaul. Dad showed
me how to operate the tractor and how to attach the mower that it
pulled. We loaded the equipment in a U-Haul truck, and I drove
the tractor onto a trailer. Early the next morning I headed
The next time I
saw my parents, the story of Chuck and Rosie had taken an
unexpected twist. They were living apart, Mom in an apartment in
Orlando and Dad in a one-bedroom condominium near the beach in
Cape Canaveral. Rosie had helped him find the condo after telling
him, upon the sale of the nursery, that she was leaving him. He
was dumbfounded. Rosie had left him before, and had divorced him
three times, it was true, but it had been decades since the last
“I want to be the captain of my ship for
once,” she said.
“I can't believe you're
doing this at sixty-eight years old,” he said.
just watch me. Have I ever said I was going to do something I
Mom had no trouble recalling this
conversation for her children, but she didn't explain to me her
need to break away. My older sister, acknowledging that Dad
hadn't consulted Mom about the farm's sale, told her that her
response was nevertheless out of scale. But it seemed that she
had to separate from what she had always said was hard to take,
“If I don't get out I will die,”
she said to my sister. “I have to save myself.”
visited him at his condo, but she never stayed there. “He's
nervous as a cat when I'm there,” she told me. I imagine
this was because he feared criticism of his domestic skills. The
place was spotless, though. He didn't cook, and ate all his meals
out-“He can't boil water,” Mom said-and he had a
My father had a quality of exile. A visitor
from another world who had been stranded when his world had
flickered, dimmed, and died, he was apart from other people. We
didn't have a sense of his moving through life with us. We
respected his separateness, however. Once in Georgia, when I was
about five, Mom had ordered Dad to punish me for pulling all
their books out of the bookshelves. She was pregnant and didn't
feel up to whipping me herself. He spanked me, went into their
bedroom, sat down on the bed, and cried. “I've proved I can
beat up a five-year-old,” he said. She didn't ask him to
discipline me again for years. He would have been a nice balance
to her hot temper, but he was an infrequent visitor to the
domestic sphere, in a relationship with Rosie but relating to his
children almost exclusively through her.
respond to life the way other people did. Consequently everything
he did and said seemed significant to his children. We monitored
his activities. The area of the garage where he polished his
shoes was sacrosanct and fascinating. Other fathers talked with
their families, but not our father. Other families took vacations
together, I noticed. I envied their togetherness but knew that
was not his way. He cut short our only family trip, to the
Callaway Gardens resort in Georgia. He was supposed to be
recuperating there from his first heart attack, which almost
killed him in 1967, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his
What my father carried inside, what
reverberates to this day but which I hope ends with my
generation, was a shotgun blast in a Michigan farmhouse. He was
fourteen on the Thanksgiving morning he found his father's bloody
corpse on the bathroom floor. His submerged sadness formed the
emotional subcurrent of our family life. My mother, in whom Dad
confided what little he told anyone, tried to soften its effects.
Once, telling me of another of his losses, the death of his first
love when she was nineteen, Mom said his life was the saddest
story she had ever heard. Or, as my sister told me once when I
said something critical of him, “If you crawled inside his
head, you couldn't stand the pain.”
He needed to
exist in a parallel universe he controlled. He seemed to
recognize the comforts of our world, but these were unavailable
to him in his exile. When he moved into his condominium, he
started over as he always had, with a clean slate, retaining
nothing from Coral Tree Farm. Not a photograph. Not a
screwdriver. He even gave away the dog that had been my parents'
nursery companion. His pared-down life was epitomized by the
purchase of an electric weed-whacker for cutting a strip of grass
in front of his condo. He worried that swatch of grass with his
string trimmer. It seemed a ridiculous tool to me, though, as the
Kubota had been, it was exactly what he needed and signified a
new phase of his existence. On the day I visited, he buzzed the
grass, a two-minute job. A neighbor, an unshaven young man,
ambled past and hailed Dad warmly: “Hi, Charlie!”
was appalled and must have looked astonished. Charlie? This idiot
thought my father was like anyone else-an ordinary human,
undignified . . . mortal.
Indiana, the Kubota's home was a concrete-block storage unit on
the edge of our town. After the sun was up on weekend mornings, I
would drive from our house to the facility, get on the tractor
and accelerate to its top speed-eight and a half miles an
hour-and head down the blacktop road a mile to our new land. We
planned to build a house there and, in the meantime, I was
preparing the site. Actually I was beginning a long-delayed
apprenticeship in farming, though I didn't know it at the time.
Arriving at our land, I was always intimidated by how
tiny the tractor seemed out there in the field. Its lawn mower,
perfect for Dad's level, tamed plot, bogged down in my heavy
grass and struggled to slash through thistles, Johnson grass,
ironweed, and giant ragweed that reached eight feet tall in spots
and towered above me on the tractor. Often I felt exhilaration at
the rough wildness of my meadows, but my groundskeeping
experience had been suburban, and just as often I felt awed by
the power of plants and a slave to chlorophyll. Dad had told me
not to baby the tractor, but the jungle I faced made me fear a
breakdown. The tractor was really too small for my hilly acreage.
I lay in bed at night and studied the owner's manual, which was
written in quaint, formally awkward prose translated from
“How long does it take you to mow the
place?” a friend asked, thinking in terms of hours or days.
“Months,” I said of my endless cycle. “All
I look back on that time in amazement at
my energy, in pride at what I accomplished, and in regret at the
time I stole from my wife and two small children. Something had
been released in me, and the strength of it alarmed my wife. I
worked as if possessed, every spare moment devoted to our land: I
sowed pastures and planted thousands of trees, shrubs, and
perennial flowers; I grew a big garden and raised and sold
broiler chickens. On Sundays, exhausted, I would take our
children fishing in our pond.
It took me years to realize
how much my dreams sprang from my father's farming efforts and
from internalizing his loss of our Georgia farm when I was a boy.
It took me another decade to understand that my father's farming
was entwined with his own boyhood experiences of family pain and
loss. He hadn't encouraged me to take up his passion for
agriculture. But some families keep trying to express their wish
for a farmer, and early experiences and family stories turn the
genetic key in some children. I've noticed that to produce a
successful farmer, it takes a family about three generations of
throwing offspring at the dream.
Had we stayed in
Georgia, Dad might have driven me away as many farmers do,
overworking and over-bossing their offspring. As it was, our
exodus to a Florida boom town when I was six colored my boyhood
darkly. I was shy and overly sensitive. I suffered from
nosebleeds and nightmares. I mourned the loss of the Georgia
farm, as I assumed he was doing, unaware that I had inherited a
more enormous loss, my father's boyhood trauma, of which he also
He was stoic, as remote as a mountain.
Sometimes, however, a startling current of warmth flowed from him
that was almost physically palpable, the way the Gulf Stream off
our beach coursed in a warm vein through the Atlantic's murky
coastal chop. When I was an angry teenager, he suggested I read
the newspaper comics page. And once he volunteered, “I'm
not an unhappy man.” Did two negatives make a positive? I
wasn't buying it. We had lost something large and important and
were toughing it out, like broken characters in a Hemingway
novel. I fantasized about returning to Georgia and buying our old
When I was seventeen I discovered, in a mall
bookstore, paperback reprints of Louis Bromfield's Pleasant
Valley and Malabar Farm, postwar bestsellers that were two of the
most romantic farming books ever published. When I showed them to
my father, he pointed to the originals in his library. The
hardback versions were elegantly bound in black cloth and
embossed with a Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being
passed from one hand to another.
almost two years apart, Rosie and Chuck reconciled. Rosie moved
out of her inland apartment and Chuck sold his beach condo, and
they met in the middle, settling into a stucco house with a
swimming pool in a new subdivision called Suntree, which was just
a couple of miles from their former nursery.
happy. Chuck worked as a consultant for Pan American's aerospace
division and maintained the lawn and cars. He talked of
eventually working with mentally disabled adults and of learning
to play the piano. I couldn't picture him in either activity and,
as always, I didn't know what to think when he spoke like a
regular person. This was partly because after the original
statement, issued like a bulletin from an alien shore, he wasn't
open for discussion and sank back into silence.
feel the need for closure. He desperately wanted to talk with his
surviving older sister, Mary, about their parents. He'd never
spoken to his children about them or his early life, except once
saying to me out of the blue about his father, his face a mask of
pain, “I hated him for years.”
originally from Massachusetts, was a wholesale food supplier,
stock market investor, and owner of a chain of restaurants in
Detroit. The family's city house was a mansion purchased from
Henry Ford. His mother, the daughter of a Minnesota lumberman,
was considered beautiful, her family's Irish features sharpened
by an infusion of American Indian. Her husband had forbidden her
to talk about the fact that her grandmother was an Indian, but
she told my father in confidence during an ocean passage.
1922, when my father was four years old, he and his mother were
in a train that wrecked on its way to Daytona Beach. The accident
disfigured her face and severed one ear. Doctors fashioned a
replacement ear, but it didn't appear normal, more like a flap of
flesh. Over the years she underwent thirty-seven operations on
her face. “You aren't beautiful anymore,” her husband
told her, and moved out of her bedroom.
after dinner, Chuck's parents went into separate rooms. It was a
nightly loyalty test-which one to follow? Eventually he was sent
away to an elegant boarding school to be reared by strangers.
School records show that he was involved in student council,
various sports, and the charity and dance committees. The school
was near the family's farm, but Chuck was able to go home even
less than students who lived far away. His father deteriorated
after the stock market crash of 1929, and shot himself on the
holiday morning he had promised to take his son rabbit hunting.
When Mary and her husband, Bob, had come once to visit at
Coral Tree Farm, Dad had been more nervous than I'd ever seen
him. I had never perceived that my father was an anxious man,
desperate in situations he couldn't control. I arrived as he was
showing them the pond, where Mom's geese and his wild ducks swam,
and he introduced them to me as “Uncle Mary and Aunt Bob.”
He and Mary had battled for decades. She had tried to stop his
cashing of his inheritance, intended to be held in a trust, but
which he needed to bankroll the California ranch.
is evil incarnate,” Chuck said once to Rosie. But he may
have imagined himself through her eyes-the little brother who had
squandered his share of their father's money in ranching, who
lived in tacky Florida in a crackerbox house with the Other
Woman. Mary had liked Chuck's first wife, another heiress, and
was patronizing toward Rosie, who responded with a poor girl's
Mary knew something of agriculture: she had been named a Michigan
Farmer of the Year for running the dairy at their father's
200-acre showplace-complete with ornate, brick Victorian barns
surrounded by white board fences-while the men were occupied in
World War II. She had remained in Bloomfield Hills, tended by
servants, cultivating her wealth. She joined her inheritance to a
fortune of robber baron proportions in marrying Bob, owner of the
ink company that supplied most of America's newspapers.
I met her for the first time that evening at Coral Tree Farm, she
dispensed with me quickly and turned back to studying Chuck's
pond, a mere puddle but something she might inform him how to
improve. In profile, in the fading light, she looked Native
American, their mother's secret Cherokee blood at the surface.
Mom's report that Dad
was hosting Mary again surprised me that October. He had summoned
her to Florida. His urgent question was whether his parents had
been happy together before his mother was disfigured. Mary's
story wasn't pleasant: their father had collected their mother as
another beautiful possession. The marriage was sterile, their
father unable to love.
Rosie left the brother and sister
talking for hours on the patio. Chuck didn't seem upset
afterward. He had loved his mother and no longer hated his
father, and if Mary's assessment fell short of his hopes for
them, at least he no longer took it personally. Anyway, he was
happy-Rosie heard him tell Mary that. He said he finally knew
what was important. He said the past year at Suntree had been the
happiest of his life.
Two months later, we all gathered
at Mom and Dad's house, which inside was golden and red with her
Christmas decorations and comforting to us with the smells of her
cooking and the familiar dark Mediterranean furniture of our
childhood. There were grandchildren everywhere. Pete's daughter
swam with mine; the girls, both two years old, wary of a crab
image on the pool's bottom, fearing its ceramic claws would grab
their skinny legs and pull them into the depths.
Dad of my plans for our Indiana homestead and showed him
photographs. We planned to build a house overlooking our pond.
The only structure on the property was a tractor shed. I had
installed it after two mowing seasons in order to end the scary
experience of driving the Kubota on public roads. Dad asked how
his tractor was holding up, and by then I felt confident in
reporting that he was right: the tractor, turtle-like, would chug
Then Mom and my sister Meg gathered the boys-me,
David, and Pete-and told us that Dad's heart was working at only
eight percent capacity. He didn't know it was that bad, they
said-the doctor had told him twenty percent, bad enough. To get
through airports during his consulting trips, he repeatedly
popped nitroglycerin pills. He wanted to talk to us now, too.
Dad reclined in his armchair in the living room, his feet
up on an ottoman. He said his heart was failing but tried to
reassure us. “I'm not in pain,” he said. “I'm
not suffering like I would be with cancer.” I fell on him,
kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly,
without flinching or moving, his face slightly turned, still.
He'd never touched his sons beyond a handshake, never embraced.
On a Saturday night
almost exactly a year later, Meg called to say that Dad had
passed out while she and Dad and Mom were at dinner. By that
time, his heart must have barely been pumping blood to his brain.
He had revived, and they wanted to put him on the phone. In my
denial, it didn't sink in that surely I was about to talk with my
father for the last time. We had always had terse phone
conversations-me frustrated, needing more than he could give.
This time I was overwhelmed by our house construction and
distracted by the coming week.
“You really gave
everyone a scare,” I said. He replied, in a phrase that
epitomized his stoicism and the unselfconscious machismo of his
generation, “It goes with the territory.”
was under water when my father died. That's how I got the news,
while submerged. It was early the next Monday morning and,
getting ready for work, I had immersed myself in the bathtub to
wash my hair. There wasn't a shower in the rental house where we
were living while building our home. My wife's hand reached
through the water and jabbed at my shoulder and clutched at my
arm. I surfaced, looked at her.
“Your mother just
called,” she said. “Your father has collapsed and
they can't revive him.” She had just told me that Dad was
dead, but that's not what I heard. This was just another medical
emergency. He'd collapsed before. Mom had gone with Dad to the
hospital, where they would be able to take care of whatever was
But he'd died already, on the kitchen floor. She had
heard him make a sound, as if he had taken a blow. Rosie rushed
to Chuck's side.
“I'm okay,” he said. “Just
let me lie here.” She ran for the phone to call an
ambulance. “No, honey, don't,” he said. He had a
horror of being hooked to life support devices or becoming
disabled and dependent.
“Hang on,” she told
him, again beside him, holding his hand and looking into his
face, thinking, Something is wrong with his eyes, they aren't the
right color, they've lost their color.
I arrived at their house from the airport, Mom and I hugged,
weeping. “It's big,” she said, shaking her head.
She said Pete was going to take David and me to see Dad.
It wasn't allowed, she said, but Pete, as a cop, could get us
into that area of the hospital. After years of hearing her
criticize funerals as being barbaric, of the horror of open
caskets, I couldn't believe she was sending us to see Dad's body
in a morgue. “I think it's important that you go,”
she said. “For closure.” His wish was for there to be
no ceremony, to be cremated, to vanish.
hospital, frightened by the wildness of my grief, I wrote his
obituary for the local newspaper. I stayed up all night. I wrote
that he had been an aviator who made his first solo flight in
Detroit as a teenager, attended flight school in California, and
served as a bomber pilot in the war. I mentioned the utopian book
he wrote in 1948, Success Without Soil, about growing plants in
nutrient solutions inside greenhouses, a completely artificial
system in which to nurture life but one in which all variables
could be controlled. I wrote of his leadership of thousands of
workers at the Kennedy Space Center. I didn't write about his
sense of humor, rarely expressed but surprisingly silly; or his
humility, or the way, without trying, he commanded respect. I
didn't say that he was just passing through, a pilot who had
never really landed.
We gathered the next morning in the
living room, Rosie and all of his children, her four and his
first wife Jean's two, Ann and Chuck-Charles C. Gilbert III. Ann,
who had insisted on some kind of observance, read from the
Episcopal Service for the Dead. Aunt Mary was there, having come
from Michigan. Mary, fourteen years older than Dad and their
parents' last surviving child, looked stricken. Some of us said a
few things, Ann acting as mistress of ceremonies. Meg's husband,
also a pilot, mentioned Dad's membership in a secretive fraternal
order which Dad's hero Charles Lindbergh had helped establish.
The room resonated with Chuck's life, with us, looking at each
other, but especially with the wild years in California with Jean
and Rosie. There I was, named after his best friend, who had been
William Randolph Hearst's favorite pilot; and David, named after
another friend, a frequent weekend guest at Dad's desert ranch,
his former psychiatrist.
When I think of my father, I
never picture him at the house where he died. In my mind's eye I
see him walking into his nursery under the Florida sun, throwing
his damaged right leg forward from the hip, the leg withered from
chronic spinal problems; his blue eyes focused on the day's work,
his scarred heart barely beating.
New Year's Day, all the visitors gone, they parked and walked
down the curving dirt lane at Coral Tree Farm. Chuck had told
Rosie, one day when they were living there, that he wanted his
remains scattered under the oak tree beside the farm's well. The
new owner, the developer, had given permission. He was living
there and operating the nursery, which was weedy.
carried a square cardboard box. How does one go about spreading
ashes? he wondered. It didn't seem appropriate to dump them in a
heap. Rosie reached into the box. It's not like ashes at all, she
thought, sinking her fingers into the grainy material that was
like coarse fertilizer. She grabbed a handful, surprised by the
many white chips of bone, and opened her fist under the tree.
Then Pete walked around the trunk in a circle dispersing the
residue. His emotions felt like they were in a blender, and he
tried to keep them from rising and pushing out. He couldn't speak
in front of his mother without risking sobs.
developer bulldozed Coral Tree Farm. He flattened the cedar
house, the barn, the mossy trees. There, on the raw earth
adjacent to his truck terminal, he erected an office park and
paved the farm with concrete.
However, he spared our
father's oak. He had liked Chuck and had admired the way Chuck
had fought an impossible rear-guard action against him,
extracting concessions before the zoning board. He was forced to
build that fence between their properties, and he had ended up
buying trees and shrubs from Chuck to buffer the nursery from the
glaring lights of the industrial zone. Surely he knew that,
regardless, he'd ruined the old man's little Eden. Yet he noticed
that Chuck never complained but, instead, played the cards he had
Pete visits Dad's oak when he's traveling
through that part of the county. There's a picnic table beneath
the tree where the office workers take breaks. Nothing looks the
same, of course, but he walks around and thinks about Dad and the
farm, remembering the place in surprising detail. In his mind's
eye he can see everything beneath the surface, everything that