I was the designated talker at the memorial service for my dad on Saturday. Here, more or less, is what I said:
I have a vivid memory from childhood of my dad explaining death to my brother Brian and me. We were in our living room in Brooklyn. I might have been eight or nine years old. Brian might have been six or seven. My dad was explaining that everyone eventually has to die. Everyone? I thought that surely there must be exceptions, like for our parents. And for a long time I was right.*
We almost lost our dad after a harrowing hospital experience in 2013: a knee replacement, followed by aspiration pneumonia. He was not expected to live, but he did. And because he did, he was able to have sixty-one years of marriage to his beloved wife Louise, our mom. He lived to see Brian and Susie celebrate fourteen years of marriage. He lived to see Elaine and me celebrate thirty years of marriage. Though he wasn’t able to attend the wedding, he was able to see his granddaughter Rachel marry her wonderful husband Seth, and he was able to meet Seth via FaceTime. (On the phone our dad would always ask Rachel, “How is Seth?” And she always answered, “Seth is the best.”) Our dad lived to see Rachel become an accomplished teacher and complete graduate coursework in education. He lived to see his grandson Ben become an accomplished teacher and prepare to begin graduate coursework in education. In February our dad met, this time in person, the light of Ben’s life, his girlfriend Mari. Our dad’s life lasted almost ten days past his eighty-seventh birthday — a good long time.
One of Brian’s earliest memories is of our dad leaving for work early in the morning. The last thing he would do before leaving was to put a handful of change in his pocket for paying busfare or calling our mom. Brian would always try to wake up early to hear the jingle and say goodbye. One of my earliest memories is of being carried around our living room on my dad’s shoulders so that I could reach up and touch the ceiling tiles.
You can see where this is going: our dad was a family man. Suffice it to say that he had found no model for this role in the memories of his own childhood. He figured it out for himself. Our parents had a book for exploring New York, Where Shall We Take the Kids? , and they took us everywhere — to museums and historical sites, and more museums and historical sites. We became the object of our neighbors’ skeptical amusement. Their idea of a good time seemed to be sitting in beach chairs or on parked cars. We were always going somewhere.
Our dad was a generous man in so many ways. He would bring us presents on Fridays, paydays. I especially remember Venus color-by-number sets. On Saturday mornings he would take us to Alan’s Stationery for art supplies. He engaged us in countless games of boxball, countless interludes of catch, countless throws of a Frisbee, countless trips to Owl’s Head Park in Brooklyn and Overpeck Park in New Jersey. He told us stories about Hitchville and Hoonisvooner — mad scientists, I think — and Lucifer the Fly, riding a fast ball in a World Series game. He brought Sgt. Pepper home for me in the summer of 1967, and he took me to my first concert, Pete Seeger, in 1969. Pete Seeger, not Frank Sinatra, because he was willing to honor my interests. (But I like Sinatra too.)
He was a kind and patient man, a gentle man: he never berated us, never made us feel small or ashamed. When I was a horrible failure in my first try at driver’s ed, with an ex-Marine phys-ed teacher for instructor, my dad took me out, night after night, to the empty parking lots in the manufacturing part of town to practice parallel parking and three-point turns. And when I went back for round two of driver’s ed, the ex-Marine told me “Your dad is a good teacher.”
He had an endless supply of his own jokes, some better than others, kept in a little notebook. How do they ship cod to the supermarket? C.O.D. When we had to bring a joke to class in third grade, he gave me one: Why did the doctor tell the expectant mother to drink Schaefer beer? Because she was having more than one. Yes, I stood up and told that joke in third grade.
I virtually never heard him use a four-letter word, not even when he was chopping out a shower stall, work that could lead to the invention of new and unusual curses. I can think of one exception: when he was in rehab after his knee replacement, he asked me on the phone, “Have you ever heard people use the expression ‘______ __’?” (Two words, second word up .) Yes, Dad, I said, but I’ve never heard you use it. Mind you, he was citing it, not really using it, as the only way to suggest his exasperation with a place where they brought him iced tea every morning, after he had asked for hot.
He was an independent man. He married a beautiful, smart, loving woman whose last name was not even remotely Irish-looking. Their courtship and their life together began on the Coney Island boardwalk, with the words “I’ll take the one on the left.” Our dad left his job as a union member for the much riskier prospect of self-employment as Leddy Ceramic Tile, and he succeeded greatly. His work may be found all over North Jersey, in Gloria Crest (where he worked long after Gloria Swanson’s day), in the houses of the great jazz pianists Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner (he got to listen to them practice all day), in Gene Shalit’s house, and in the houses of All My Children actresses Julia Barr and Debbi Morgan, whose autographed pictures made me a total hit with my All My Children-watching students.
Tile work was hard, punishing work, as Brian and I both know from working with our dad in summers, and in Brian’s case, after college as well. When Brian thought about learning the tile business, our dad discouraged him from pursuing such a difficult line of work, a “bone-weary livelihood,” as Brian describes it. As proud as our dad was of his work, and he was, he was also happy that we found other possibilities for making a living.
He was in every way meticulous. Customers would compliment him on the thoroughness with which he prepared written estimates. They would also tell him that their houses were cleaner when he left than before he arrived. He did his own taxes, no small feat for someone who is self-employed. He had beautiful printing and beautiful cursive, which I’ve tried and failed to emulate. His desk was and is amazingly organized, and he never needed to read a book about how to tidy up. He was a meticulous artist too, as you can see today, in pen and ink, in watercolors, in cut paper, and he created beautiful, witty, inventive work to share with his family in the form of cards. In another world, a savvy guidance counselor would have helped him to gain a scholarship to art school. Instead, his work with walls and floors became another kind of art.
Our dad’s greatest happiness, aside from his family and his work and his art, was music. He sang as he worked, leading many a homemaker to ask, “Mr. Leddy, are you a professional singer?” He whistled too, and I remember listening for that sound as he came down the walk at the end of the workday. He loved jazz and the Great American Songbook, especially as performed by Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé. We talked about Sinatra many times on the phone, always wondering how such a great singer could be a not-always-so-nice person. It’s to my dad that I owe my earliest musical memories: Miles Davis (Sketches of Spain , Kind of Blue ), Count Basie, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Big Joe Turner. Kind of Blue left home with me in 1980, with my dad’s permission. I still have it, the first pressing.
It’s great to know that my dad heard Billie Holiday at the Apollo, and Lionel Hampton (on a date with my mom) at Birdland. As a boy he attended a radio broadcast where he heard Gene Autry, and he loved WNEW’s Jonathan Schwartz. He had little use for TV but he loved old movies, at least really good ones, and he would often begin a phone conversation by asking if I had ever heard of an actor or actress, always someone obscure. And I would look up the name in Wikipedia and give him a report on the spot.
Our last conversation was on his birthday, July 27. I said something about a birthday being a big deal, and about every day being a big deal, every day a gift. He liked that. He asked if I had ever heard a singer named Pete McGuinness. I later found him on YouTube, and yes, he’s terrific. I was all set to tell my dad about it last Saturday. But when I called, he and my mom were already at the hospital, or on the way.
And speaking of hospitals and not-hospitals: our family is immensely grateful for the compassionate care our paterfamilias received at a not-hospital, Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, care beyond anything we could have imagined. We are so thankful that this wonderful man was able to come to the end of his life in a peaceful place, surrounded by his family. He was listening to us to the very end. We put on some Sinatra too. His last word, in response to things our mom said, was “Thanks.” Thank you , Dad. And thanks to everyone here, and to those who wanted to be here but were unable to come because of their own struggles.
The poet Ted Berrigan said something about life and death that I like. It’s somewhere in a poetry reading, in the talking between poems. Ted Berrigan said, “There are no dead people.” And he went on to explain: there are people who live outside your heart, walking around and talking, and there are people who live inside your heart. Jim Leddy, James Leddy, is living in our hearts right now, where he will always have a home.
August 8, 2015
Rachel and Ben put together a slideshow as a tribute to their grandfather. Two of his favorite songs played, as sung by his favorite singers, “Don’t Like Goodbyes” (Harold Arlen–Truman Capote), sung by Frank Sinatra, and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II), sung by Mel Tormé.
In lieu of flowers, our family requested that memorial gifts be made to Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, New Jersey.
And if you don’t get the Schaefer joke, see here.
James Leddy (1928–2015)