Thursday, February 22, 2007

In memoriam, Halsey DeWolf Howe

Last Wednesday, Valentine's Day, I was performing at the European School of Brussels. That was one of the days I was in the secondary school library--other days I was in the primary school. Near the end of the last session, I had a little extra time, so I told "The Twist-Mouth Family," a story that was one of my father's favorites. The last time I told stories at my parents' retirement community, my father sat on the side, resting his hand on his oxygen tank as I performed. I looked over at him in between stories and he twitched his mouth slightly, his request for that story.

My father died last Wednesday, at the time I was performing. No, I didn't intuitively know that he took his last breath while I was telling that story, though I knew it was possible, as he'd been in the hospital in his latest battle with COPD (emphysema and all that goes with it). I told it because I was thinking of him and I thought the kids would enjoy it. They did.

Dad was a storyteller in his own right. An Episcopal priest for almost 61 years, he told stories every Sunday. He had a commanding presence combined with a resonant voice. One of my cousins admitted to me at the funeral that as a child she was afraid of Dad--he could be so big and blustery at times. He had strong opinions. He loved a good joke, or even a bad one. At Christmas this year, he conducted his last church service. Before we went to the church, he said, "I'm not going to give a sermon." So of course, he gave a sermon. He started by saying, "I'm reminded of the old wheeze about the first baseball game: 'In the big-inning...'"

He told hundreds of family stories to me and to countless others. When I was younger, I didn't always listen, but I came to appreciate the richness he wanted to pass along. He was the main family historian, keeping records of births and deaths. Relatives came to listen to his anecdotes, to put the flesh on the bones of genealogy. Were these stories true? He laughed when I told him my answer to kids who ask that question: truth is immutable, facts are flexible.

At my parents' apartment, before and after the funeral, we all told stories about Dad. We'll keep telling them as long as people will listen, and probably even after.