Eulogy for my father
Many of you already know about my father's passing a number of weeks ago. My actual eulogy was a combination of hand-written notes and improvisation, as it was hard for me to sit down and focus behind a keyboard. What follows here is the "best guess" transcription I could do from memory...
EULOGY FOR GEORGE DAWSON McDANIEL, Jr.
July 19, 1942-Sept. 24, 2017
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Memorial brunch held at The Logan Inn, New Hope, PA
Thank you all for coming. I know some of you traveled a long distance to be here, and for some others, it’s been a very long time. I know my dad would appreciate it. I look around the room and see some faces I’ve either never seen before, or haven’t seen in many years. It’s nice to be reunited with old friends. But today, I consider you all family.
I want to thank Bill Burke, my dad’s friend and handyman, for all his help and hard work over the years. Bill, your friendship meant the world to him, and he loved having you over as an excuse to cook fancy meals. I know he paid you for your cleaning services, but honestly, you would have gone over there just for the free lunches, right?
I want to thank Avis Weeks, our former next door neighbor in Bridgewater, New Jersey, whom I haven’t seen in almost 20 years. Avis, it’s wonderful to see you again.
I want to thank Walker Brown, my dad’s lifelong friend, for everything he’s done for us these past few weeks. Putting up with my dad couldn’t have been easy, but putting up with his children while dealing with the estate must be damn near impossible. I’m sorry Walker isn’t here today, due to other obligations, but I know he’s with us in spirit.
I want to thank my sister, Heather, for being there for our father when I could not. As some of you may know, I was in transit cross-country when dad passed, but I’m glad Heather was at his side when the time came. Heather, I hope your presence gave him comfort.
I get pretty nervous when making speeches, so I had to write down a few notes to help me – hope you don’t mind. It’s rather long-winded, as I have a tendency to ramble on a bit. If ever you become bored or tired by my speech, I encourage you to partake in some of the wine and mimosas we have on hand for you here. Today’s proceedings are being charged by the bottle, so if the final bill is astronomical, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. So please – drink up! I should have just enough on my credit card to cover it.
Okay…enough with the cute jokes. Time for me to start being thoughtful. This is a memorial, after all.
When my mother died in 2006, I wrote her eulogy the morning of her funeral. Those were pretty tough circumstances, but finding the words for her came very easily; I knew exactly what to say. But for my father, this is not so – even though I’ve been secretly preparing myself for this moment for a very long time.
I’m roughly the same age dad was when he lost his own father, and I understand the harsh truth that you’re never too old to be an orphan. We always see ourselves as children when it comes to our parents, and however old we become, deep down we still feel like little kids. With my parents now gone, life is a big wake up call. I’m no longer growing up; I’m growing old. When I screw up or find myself in trouble, I no longer have the comfort of my dad’s presence or wisdom to rely on. I’ll have to stand on my own two feet now, but the ground beneath them feels pretty shaky.
So…how do I begin to describe my father? The most common term I’ve heard is loveable curmudgeon, and that description’s pretty accurate. (Show of hands? Yup -- told ya.) It’s funny: soon after my move to Los Angeles over twenty years ago, I saw the film AS GOOD AS IT GETS, and was tempted to sue writer/director James L. Brooks for copyright infringement of my father’s life story. If Jack Nicholson’s character had a younger brother -- more curmudgeonly charming and even more forcefully blunt – George McDaniel, Jr. would have been a great candidate. He was a loveable curmudgeon. He certainly dished out curmudgeonly love.
Dad was not just a man, he was an experience. Like the best rides at an old amusement park, dad was, by turns, jolting, funny, and maddening – oh God, how maddening! He could be nauseating, but fun. He could sometimes break down and keep you waiting, testing your patience for hours on end. But when all was said and done, you’re grateful for the experience, and it lingers forever among your most cherished memories.
Dad was one of the smartest people I ever knew, but that’s not to say he always had the best judgment. Cases in point: For my senior prom in high school, I wanted to wear a traditional black tuxedo – something to compliment the colors of my date’s dress. But dad, hearing this, wanted to be contrary by insisting I get a white tuxedo, like something like Barry Manilow would have worn. “This is my prom, dad,” I said, “not the Copacabana.”
There was “the bending couch” incident. Dad and I had to move a large couch up a flight of very narrow stairs, and dad assured me he had measured it to make sure it’d fit around the bend of the hallway. After struggling to get the couch up to the top, dad realized it wasn’t working. He went from, “Yeah, I measured it,” to “I did a rough estimate,” to “Maybe it’ll bend.” Mind you, I was holding up this couch the whole time, carrying most of the weight, as dad was busy grasping reality at a snail’s pace. And so the couch was fated for storage.
But dad had good judgement, too – my mother was the best example. They met on a blind date, and later married March 15, 1969. I’d often joke to mom that she should have heeded the Shakespearean advice “Beware the Ides of March!” but then I’d never have been born.
Dad, despite his curmudgeonly demeanor, also had a serious soft spot for animals – a sensitive trait that must have rubbed off from my mother. No McDaniel household could be complete without a beloved pet cat scratching furniture or shedding fur somewhere.
There was one cat, Joe – the stray cat who adopted us -- whom my mother nicknamed “The Terminator”. Joe was about 20 pounds of fur, muscle, and cattitude, and was so territorial that he’d even beat up the neighbors’ dogs. (Sorry, Avis. Scooter was such a cute dog. I miss her.) Dad begrudgingly took Joe to the vet every time he was injured in a fight. There were a lot of fights, and dad would address Joe by the amount of money he’d spent on his increasing vet bills. “$300 Joe…”, “$600 Joe…”, “$2500 Joe…” I don’t know what the final price tag was, but I’m sure it was worth several car payments.
One day, Joe went outside and didn’t come back. He was gone a few days when I returned home from college and put up signs asking for his whereabouts. I was only halfway down the block when a neighbor told me he’d seen Joe hit by a car. Dad took the news quietly, in very characteristic fashion. But my mom later told me that, shortly afterward, she’d heard dad crying in the shower.
Dad loved food – a trait I certainly inherited. It was not just eating, but cooking. He was very scrupulous and discerning in his ingredients. He had to get corn from Maximuck’s, chicken from Wegman’s, apple cider from Solebury Farms. A “single” grocery run could drive you mad. Oddly enough, he never cooked for us when we were kids, but once he moved to New Hope in 2000, it became something of an obsession.
One of our last meals together was at the Sergeantsville Inn, a historic landmark George Washington once slept in. Mom, dad, and I always loved their food and atmosphere. I was complimenting their meatloaf when dad grumpily uttered, “My meatloaf’s better.” “I don’t know, dad,” I smiled back, “I think it’s a tossup.” I watched dad’s face burn red with jealousy.
Dad loved antiques, and going to antique shows and auctions was his national pastime. Our house is filled with stuff; every item’s a treasure, with a little story and history behind it. Mom and dad bought seemingly countless old tea sets – which is rather odd, as neither of them ever drank tea.
Dad has a competitive nature, one that I didn’t always understand. Everything was a contest to him. When it’d take me 2 ½ hours to drive home from college, dad would insist, “Well, I could have done it in two.” “I didn’t know it was a race, dad,” I’d say. For the life of me, I don’t know what it was all for, or who he was trying to impress.
I can’t say we always got along. I can’t say there was never I time I doubted his love for me, or my love for him – especially once I became a teenager, and cynicism and bitterness took hold. We had our arguments. There was a bad one we had two or three years ago; I can’t remember what the argument was about, I just remember that we argued. (Some silly, petty, prideful thing, I’m sure.) An hour or two later we made amends. Dad said, “I do love you, Adam,” then added, “and I don’t just love you, I like you, too.” “Well you should,” I shot back. “I may not be the best son, but I am a wonderful person!” “I know you are,” dad said, “you got that from me!” And so we laughed, making the whole silly argument worth it.
There are good memories – many of them, and they shine brighter for me each passing day. And the reasons? My niece and nephew.
Hannah and T.J., you weren’t just the light of his life. You gave the twinkle back to his eyes. You gave him joy, and you gave him light.
I also think you gave him more time. He was debilitated by his illness, and struggled considerably the last few months. But when you were around, it was almost like he was his old self again. I don’t think he would have held on nearly as long without you around.
Seeing my dad interact with his grandchildren reminded me of the father I had growing up. He would read stories to us from a Disney anthology book – I still have it – and mimic the voices in the movies. (He was especially good with Baloo the bear.) Dad and I would go out on long drives, with no particular destination in mind. We’d take route 22 across New Jersey, driving towards the sunset, and end up at a Stewart’s for root beer, or some little neighborhood pizza place in the middle of nowhere, simply because dad liked the décor. All that mattered was our spending time together.
One time, there was a multimillion dollar lottery, and mom asked dad to get us some tickets. (The lottery was her retirement plan, after all.) By the time dad got around to looking, all the stores in New Jersey weren’t selling them anymore. We drove farther and farther west -- all the way to Bucks County, Pennsylvania! – where we finally secured some tickets. Alas, they had to opt for retirement plan B…but it made for a nice trip, and a nicer memory.
One of my favorite memories involved the Marion Ravenwood action figure, from the Kenner toy line of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I was a huge Indiana Jones fan, and this plastic figure was impossible to come by. (This was long before the advent of eBay and online shopping, remember.) I must have dragged dad to every toy store in the tri-state area for two or three years before we found her. It was on a Christmas trip to New York City, and we were visiting the old FAO Schwartz store. They didn’t have any figures for sale, but one was out of the box and used in a diorama toy display behind glass. My father pleaded with the manager and offered him more than twice the price value of the figure. And so I was victorious, and dad relieved. I still have that little action figure to this day.
Life wasn’t always easy for dad, and I didn’t always understand his personality. But now that I can recall my father as he was during the age I am now, I can relate to him more and more. By age 44, dad had done much more with his life than I had. He also endured more hardship. He lost a daughter, Mary, in 1989, who suffered lifelong health complications; she was only 16. Heather and I had our issues as well, and weren’t always the easiest kids to live with, much less bring up. But dad did his best under the circumstances.
However complex our relationship through the years, all that matters is that I loved him, I’m grateful for him, and I’m glad he was in my life. It was better with him in it.
I last saw him in July. I had planned to see him again in less than three months’ time. There were still some unresolved things we intended to discuss – business with the house, personal matters, more details about dad’s wishes – but it was not to be.
Of all the words that come to mind when I think of my dad, and there are many, one word can’t escape me: Regret.
Regret over which words were spoken and unspoken between us. Regret over the lack of time. Regret for my not being with him as often as I should have. I certainly tried, but in my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I tried enough.
Don’t let regret be a part of your eulogy. If you love someone, tell them. If you’ve hurt someone, apologize for it. If someone asks forgiveness, be receptive and try to forgive them.
We only live once in this world. Do what you can to be happy, and try to do it without hurting anyone. Make a difference that you lived at all…and matter.
I miss you, dad. I miss your wisdom, your humor, your guidance.
I miss your cooking!
Most of all, I miss your presence -- the way you’d drive me crazy, and your supernatural ability to prove me wrong.
But in your absence, we’ll have to make due with the memories we have, and remember you. I’m proud to have you as my father. I don’t know if you can hear me, but I hope you can.