One of the great challenges of the writer is to get at the essence of a thing.
In poetry, we dwell on a thing’s essence to the point of near-saturation. In journalism, we collect hoards of information and then work hard to pull out the essence of it, much like the sculptor takes a block of material and carves away the excess to get at the object in his or her imagination.
With my father’s recent passing, I’ve been reflecting on essence and what it is that people leave behind when their physical bodies have passed from this world. Dad’s essence felt very strong to me in the days just before his death, as my mom, sister and I reflected on the essence of the man we loved and were drawing near to release.
In such times, details that perhaps seemed trivial before become prominent, and prominent things, like faults of the person, suddenly seem miniscule.
What rises to the surface, in my experience, is the essence of who that person was, and is. And what many of us find after the death of a loved one is that the outline of their essence becomes filled in with details supplied in part by the others they affected and loved in their lifetime — many of these things hidden to us at the time.
After gratefully receiving the many stories that have poured in through Facebook, email and in cards following Dad’s passing, the essence of my father is taking on a life of its own — a shape I could not have conceived without help.
Though many visuals might be included to express this accurately, the two that jump out at me now are these: black jelly beans and chocolate-covered ants.
The black jelly-bean story comes by way a Crystal, a girl who used to live on the reservation where I grew up, someone whose music-loving family eventually found its way to our home, where my mother taught piano lessons, and where my father would close his eyes as he listened to the melodies — sometimes with a tear in his eyes if one of his girls was at the keys. (Was it from the wrong notes, or simply because he loved hearing us play? Perhaps a bit of both.)
Either way, Crystal shared that just a couple days before my father passed, she and her parents had gone out for dinner and were talking about the music teachers they’d had through the years, and how whenever they’d go to our house for piano lessons, their little brother, Shane, 4 at the time, “would lean against the fence and have serious conversations with Mr. Beauclair” while waiting for his sisters to complete their lessons.
Inevitably, she continued, Mr. Beauclair would offer Shane, who had inevitably grown bored in the waiting, a handful of “poison;” i.e., black jelly beans.
“I think he still eats them today,” she said. “Every time I see a black jelly bean I will remember Mr. Beauclair and how our family became friends with all of you.”
Reading Crystal’s words called to mind a vague memory of this, and yet, the black jelly-bean story means something to me now, reminding me of my father’s capacity to always have one eye out for the young one not old enough to take part but who still has something to offer. I’m thinking being the youngest son in a family of nine kids might have played a part in his compassionate nature.
And then there’s the story of the other Shane, who was around 4 as well when he first moved next door to our house on the “East End” of town. Lacking a brother of my own, but wishing very much that I had one, I discovered Shane did a nice job of fitting the bill those years we lived on that dusty, gravel road just up the hill from the train tracks. He, too, shared a story recently involving Dad.
“This one time, as on many occasions,” Shane began, “I wandered over to play with Roxane and Camille, only this time, just Bob was home…on the back porch sitting in his chair. As usual, he struck up a conversation with me. I don’t really remember what he was saying for the longest time. I’m certain that was only because I had something on my mind to ask him.
“Of course he was always good for a ‘What do ya think?’ or a ‘Did you know’ or two,” Shane continued. “He always spoke with me like I was an adult and was precise about pointing out the obvious as well, like the fact that picking up an ant and eating it was sociably acceptable in some parts of the world. And of course, would I like to dip them in chocolate before trying them again? Oh, and don’t eat the big red ones!
“He was a smart man. My question this day however related to what he was doing out on the back porch by himself that sunny afternoon. His answer was, ‘Watching the grass grow. Soon, it will be tall enough for us to play hide and seek in!’”
“Smart man he was…and play hide and seek in the tall grass days later Camille, Roxane, Curtis and I did.”
Thank you, Crystal, thank you, Shane, for bringing me just a little closer to the essence of who my father was, and is.