(read at their interment August 23, 2002)
Our family is small - see it all here: My son Joseph, my daughter Mika, Jo Lawless my life partner, and me. My parents were private people who didn't believe in pushing themselves into the lives of those who might not desire it. They were stubborn about keeping to themselves: staying home; not asking for help; and figuring out what they needed to know by asking only each other, by reading and studying, by trial and error, by engineering principles, and by what they learned from their parents - they did everything by their own devices.
What they accomplished they accomplished alone; what they built was filled with their mistakes only. They depended on no one. They lived this way until the very moments they died. They had a partnership that was special and strange.
They had few ambitions beyond living simple, private lives. They weren't interested in seeing the world, and hardly wanted to see this country. They didn't go to restaurants, they went to movies only when I was a kid, they didn't like to fly and did so maybe once each. They were self-reliant in the extreme.
You might think from such a description that they were stern ascetics with a strict philosophy in which everything was taken seriously. No. Not in the least. If you walked past their house in the evening you would likely hear laughter - loud, unrestrained, and gleeful laughter. When things went wrong, they would shrug it off and move on as best they could. They didn't labor over difficulties, but rather would try to work things out while finding the humorous in the situations.
Who were they? History books won't record anything about them, and with so few friends and almost no relatives, human memories won't hold on to them for very long either.
Here are their stories as I heard them.
My mother was born on October 27, 1915. This was a fact she allowed to remain vague. When my father died 3 years ago, she told me she was about to be 78, when in fact she was about to be 84. On their marriage certificate, my father was listed as 23 years old and my mother 24, when in fact she was 31.
She was born in Peabody, and she and her parents soon moved up to a farm her parents bought in Merrimac. They had a modest farmhouse and a good-sized barn. They raised dairy cows, growing almost all the feed for the cattle and other animals themselves and using a pair of horses as engines. They grew extensive gardens and canned for Winter. They had chickens for eggs and meat, and sometimes they raised turkeys and pigs.
My mother had an older brother named Connie, who was my grandmother's favorite, while my mother was her father's. These grandparents came from the Ukraine, but they weren't alone because one of my grandfather's neighbors from the old country purchased the farm across the road.
When the Depression came, my grandfather supplemented their income by brewing moonshine. Thursday nights the police chief and other townsfolk came by to play cards and have a sip or two; the chief usually took a jar home just in case. My mother's job - she twice told me and once denied - was to bury the jars out in the woods and to fetch them when her father asked.
My mother's childhood was during a time when Ukrainians, Poles, and other Eastern Europeans were escaping to the East Coast, and in a town that did not easily embrace newcomers with strange names, languages, and customs.
When my mother was in the first grade, she and her brother would take the "bus" to school in Merrimac. The bus really was a flatbed truck with a canvas covering. Not long after school started, my grandfather noticed that the dogs would follow the truck down the road, coming back a few minutes later with something dark and limp in their mouths and they would lay down to eat. It was the bread from my mother's and her brother's sandwiches. In their house they ate Russian rye and other heavy, dark-grained breads, but most of the other children ate white bread. My mother and her brother spoke Ukrainian along with English, and they had funny last names. To minimize teasing at school, they threw the bread out the back of the truck a half-mile from the farm. And dogs learn fast
My grandfather decided that his children were not going to suffer any further such indignities, and every day he gave them each $1.25 to go to a local restaurant for lunch. This solved the "foreigner's bread" problem, but it singled out my mother and her brother as either rich or too good for the other kids. My mother grew to dislike being different from other people, and she tended to retreat from others so that her differences would not offend or stand out. When I knew her she never liked restaurants - she never went to one as best I can recall between 1955 and 2002.
My mother learned lessons thoroughly. Her most difficult lesson came when her father was kicked one evening by one of his two work horses - Blackie. Well, the horse's name wasn't Blackie but something like it that would not be proper to say in civilized company these days - times were different then. It was in 1937. He was unharnessing the horses and some horseflies were harassing them. My grandfather knew to be careful around Blackie who spooked easily, but he stepped behind him anyway, and the kick ruptured his spleen.
A few days later he went to the hospital in Amesbury, but there was nothing they could do. My mother was summoned to his side one afternoon. He told her that he was not going to be able to take care of her anymore, and that he was afraid that she was so good-hearted, so special that people would always be trying to take advantage of her. He told her to be careful and not allow people to use her. He died later that night.
There is only one clear photograph of him left: He is standing in a hayfield with a scythe, wearing clothes we'd expect to see on a farmer on the plains back in the 1860s. He looks strong and vital but approachable. He's cutting hay which he'd feed to the cows in Winter. He worked days as an autobody mechanic, and his specialty was making custom sheet metal for cars. His wife - my grandmother - and my mother and uncle would take care of the farm during the day while he went to Amesbury to work. My grandfather worked hard and he worked skillfully, and my mother would expect that of everyone close to her.
Seven years later the farmhouse burned down. It was Christmas, and one of the coldest days of that Winter. I guess that's why it took the fire trucks longer than it usually would to arrive. My mother and my grandmother tried to gather what they could, but the fire spread too fast to get much. That's why there are only a few pictures left. My mother had a cat she loved, and the cat was trapped inside. One of the firemen promised he would go in and save her cat. He never did - he never tried.
My mother learned that you cannot trust people in authority to either do the right thing or even tell the truth. And ever since, she's mistrusted politicians, the police, the military, and anyone in authority, and whenever they did something good she looked for the selfish reasons for it.
As she got older, she became more inclined to rely on herself and not impose on others. One could see her as a misanthrope, but I prefer to think of her as a skeptic of the first order. She was kind and polite, but reserved. And most of her stubbornness was spent on keeping to herself and not imposing her ideas, personality, problems, and triumphs on anyone who might not care to be privy to them.
In the 1930s, distant friends of my mother's family, Peter Norbut and his wife, moved into a house down the road from my mother, lured back to the rural life, having lived for a few years in Boston after owning a farm in Harvard. They wanted to retire in the countryside which they loved and be near friends of their family - other Eastern Europeans who shared their culture and values and with whom they could spend quiet evenings talking about the old country.
My father was born on January 15, 1923 - the only child of Lithuanians in South Boston. He was raised Catholic, but his mother pulled him out of the church when the parish priest told her that if she wanted her son to remain an altar boy, she needed to put more to the collection box on Sundays.
My father was the outgoing one, and while my mother would look at things in black and white, he looked at them in white only. Or technicolor. He was optimistic, energetic, and self-reliant to a fault. He would tackle any project with as much or little knowledge and experience as he had, and he'd make it work one way or another.
He was the ultimate engineer, except he was concerned only with making things work and not at all with how they looked or how elegant they were. He spent his childhood learning to play the trumpet while developing a deep interest in mechanical things, eventually graduating from a technical high school in South Boston.
He went hunting and fishing with his father. When hunting, my father's job was the beater: Going into the junipers out at the Norbut farm in Harvard and driving out the rabbits, which my grandfather would try to shoot. His skill level steadily dropped for a couple years until he couldn't hit a thing, and the hunting stopped.
My grandfather died in 1935 when my father was twelve, and though he was loved by my father and my grandmother, neither one of them could remember where he was buried when I asked in 1970 - and I still don't know.
It wasn't until 1997 when I interviewed my father on tape on a ferry boat on Lake Winnepesauke that I learned his father worked at the Murray Soda Fountain Supply Company and later bought produce from truck farms outside Boston and would sell it off the back of a flatbed truck in South Boston to make ends meet. When my grandfather had to start selling produce, my grandmother went to work for the first time at a cable company where they made wires and other sorts of cables. She later remarried, to a man we called Mike.
I think it wasn't that my father didn't want me to know much about his life, but that to him things that weren't important were easily forgotten, and the details of what happened yesterday were not as interesting as the current project or the next one. He considered himself ordinary, but he wanted to have a life full of happiness and enjoyment. Tinkering was the most fun to him, and it showed.
My mother said she didn't know much more about his childhood and family than I did.
My father went to Boston University and studied music. His most extravagant undertaking was to start a music school - the Symphony Conservatory - in the Back Bay of Boston. Unfortunately for him and his partner, they opened the school right across Huntington Avenue from the New England Conservatory of Music. But they got students. My father taught voice, theory, trumpet, and coronet. When he was in college he played under Arthur Fiedler, and even 20 years after the music school closed he would point out some of the instructors at his school who were still in the Boston Pops.
They would record recitals on 78 rpm records, and there are still some, I think, in the attic in the garage. If I could have tracked down some of those students at the right time, I could have made some money with those records.
My father found that people were always asking to speak with his founding partner because at least they could pronounce his name. So in 1945 my father legally changed his name to John Paul Gabriel, Gabriel being his confirmation name. He was inducted in the Army the next day.
He was stationed in Boston, and his duties were to play trumpet at formal and informal gatherings. Nine months later, the Army decided it didn't need this particular trumpet player any more and honorably discharged him.
The Norbuts sold their farm in Harvard and moved into the second floor apartment just below my father and his mother. Then when times got a little better, they bought a place out on West Hadley Road in Merrimac. Soon after that, Mr Norbut died. The Norbuts held a funeral and invited two children of friends of the family: John P. Gabriel and Helen P. Sanuk.
Eastern European post-funeral celebrations feature food and drink, and my mother's choice for drink was beer. Having been brought up in what I take to be a strict Catholic house, my father found this odd and, in the way he would have the rest of his life of introducing himself to people, he commented on it to her in a teasing, probably flirting sort of way.
My mother was striking then: Sharp features, clear dark brown eyes, long, thick, luxurious hair, a dramatic figure, and confident as all get-out. She worked as an odd-shoe girl, handmaking partners for shoes with lost mates. She smoked and drank beer. My father was 23 and she was 31 - but I can't say for sure he ever knew her real age.
My mother was skeptical, sassy, talked hard, laughed hard, she worked for a living, she ran a working farm with only her mother to help, she'd had suitors all of whom she had scorned, she drove her own car, and she sat there with the men after a funeral drinking beer.
My father was balding but slim and handsome, had a smile that would melt any woman's facade, lived in the city, owned his own music school, was an artist and an engineer, was college educated, and was attentive but not overbearing. They both laughed the rest of the funeral away.
They met in June. In September, my father's mother told my father just to marry Helen because all he was doing was writing her every day. And on November 17, 1946 he did.
Earlier, while driving up the coast north of Salisbury toward Hampton Beach, my father saw a nice, small double-L house. It was one of those days in the Fall in New England when the air smells like the world is opening up to a new era, when somewhere behind the perfume of drying grass and falling leaves a faint trace of smoke is mixed in, and the wind is blowing warmly but with pockets of cool air floating in from the ocean. They had stopped by a drive-in stand in Merrimac to get fried clams, and then in Amesbury they pulled over for maple walnut ice cream. They were heading up the coast toward New Hampshire and Maine when he saw a little house by the ocean; the surf was washing up onto the cold sand - the water off the coast was green from its depth just offshore.
He stopped the car and pointed to the house and told her: One day I want to make you a house like that.
A year later he started in on that wish. They bought 17 acres across the road from my grandmother's farm. They started clearing out the property at a point close to my grandmother's house. My father had never built a house before, and he really didn't know how to do it. He started on the garage first, figuring he would work out the details there, and if the garage was bad, well, no harm done.
He started by digging a small basement by hand just large enough for a furnace, a hot water heater, and some canned goods storage - sort of a cold cellar for food. Around this pit he poured hand-mixed concrete right on unprepared ground dug down to the sand and leveled but without footers, rebar, or drainage. On the backside of the garage roof, he put the rafters in horizontally, spanning them between four of what would normally be called rafters. He noticed the rafters were a little squirrely when he nailed boards vertically on them, so he bought some books and after some study, put in proper rafters for the rest of the garage and house.
He taught himself design, framing, carpentry, plastering, electric wiring, heating, plumbing, and painting. He dug the well by hand and the septic tank and leaching field too. But since he didn't know the strength of materials, he made everything with about twice as much material as an experienced builder would, and now, 55 years later, the house still stands, small, cute, and sturdy. It's the first house I lived in.
My birth was hard - forceps and a 24-hour labor. I was born about 100 yards from here. The doctors told my mother she might not survive another pregnancy. She had fallen off a ladder painting the new house when she was pregnant with me. When they brought the baby to her for the first time after her recovery, it was the wrong one - it was Pruneface, as my mother called that other baby. The doctors clucked that it was common for new mothers to believe they had been given the wrong babies. Their tongues slowed down considerably once my mother pointed out that her baby was a boy and Pruneface was a girl. The authorities were wrong again.
The music school failed and my father took a job making windows. Later he landed a job at Raytheon designing electronic circuits. He learned on the job there by self-study, and he eventually ended up a group leader managing 8 salaried and 120 hourly workers building circuits by hand. He became quite adept at designing for vacuum tubes, and he was one of the designers of the guidance system for the Hawk surface to air missile. He later led the effort to upgrade the guidance system to germanium transistor technology. The Hawk is still in use today.
His career went up and down after that: He was laid off from Raytheon and took odd jobs, including picking apples at Long's Farm in West Newbury. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern University the same year I graduated from there. He got a teaching credential and taught a couple of years at Whittier Technical High School in Haverhill. I think he went back to Raytheon. Then in 1973 he and my mother retired.
His career and how he approached it was like an experience he had once coming home from Northeastern one night - he mostly went to night classes there. It was raining in Boston and snowing up in Merrimac. Somewhere around Route 125 on 93 it turned from rain to freezing rain and after a short distance to snow. There had been snowfall all Winter, and the sides of the road were piled up snowbanks. He was in his 1966 Volkswagen, driving around 60 miles an hour up the highway where it was still raining when he noticed lots of red lights up ahead. He wasn't sure what was going on, but after a few seconds he put his foot on the brake, and nothing happened - he had entered the freezing rain zone, and the wheels were simply locked and sliding. He released the brake and tried to ease over to the right, thinking he could catch the snowbank with the right front of the car and slow down. And he indeed managed to move over and graze the snowbank, but instead of slowing down, the VW hopped up onto the snowbank, which was nearly solid ice, and he started sliding on the flat pan which was the Volkswagen's designers idea of a chassis. He was balanced, going about 50 miles per hour, and if he tipped too far to the right, he would drop down 50' into a gully.
The first of the car tail lights passed by.
He says that he moved his hands and arms from side to side to balance the car on the snowbank, but I think he said this appreciating a story more than the facts. After a few seconds, the last of the cars had been passed, so he leaned to the left, and the car slid down onto the road where the freezing rain had turned to snow, and he continued on, in some ways as if nothing extraordinary had happened, but with an experience to retell. A small bump in the road, and then it's all ok again.
We lived in the double-L house until I was 5 or 6 years old when we moved in with my grandmother across the road. My father and mother had started on the project of building us a larger house next door to the double L.
They worked on the house in the evenings and weekends. It had a proper basement that they dug using a tractor-pulled semi-manual scoop. They bought a pickup truck which we used to get loads of sand and gravel for the concrete and for hauling lumber and other parts. They cut down hemlock trees on my grandmother's side of the road, and an old boyfriend of my mother's milled the trees down to lumber: boards, 2" x 4"s, 4" x 4"s, and even larger. Hemlock has the property that you can build with it green, since it doesn't shrink while drying. On the other hand, hemlock has about a 5-minute rebound constant when distorted. This means that when you walk across a room in a hemlock-framed house, about 5 minutes later you can hear ghost footsteps retracing your route.
My father dug another well by hand.
I was a little too young to help effectively, but I recall trying to be of use by fetching and by shoveling sand into the cement mixer. My grandmother helped as well, and between the 4 of us we got the job done in 3 or 4 years. It was a reverse saltbox - the front of the house was 1-story, and it sloped up to a 2-story back. There were 2 bedrooms upstairs and one downstairs. The sloping roof made a cathedral ceiling. My father learned how to put fine finishes on the cabinets, and he even made the decorative oak bannister and posts without a router or special tools.
Over the next 3 years we added a couple of rooms off the back for my grandmother whose health was failing, and another bedroom off the other side of the back for more storage and for my mother who wanted a cooler bedroom. The foundation for my mother's new bedroom was really a fallout shelter built in secret and camouflaged by the addition.
My mother and my grandmother continued to operate the farm with help from my father and me. We had 15 dairy cows, 20 chickens, and an occasional pig. We sometimes raised turkeys and sold them around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Having a dairy farm meant milking cows morning and evening, properly storing the milk in a refrigerated storage tank until it was picked up, raising feed for the cows for Winter, moving cows in and out of the barn every day, feeding them grain to supplement their browsing, cleaning out their stalls, mowing hay and corn, drying out the hay and baling it and bringing it and the corn into the barn, going into Haverhill to buy old bread and bulky rolls for the chickens, buying grain, gathering eggs and cleaning them, and caring for sick and injured animals. We kept a couple of large gardens as well, supplying all our vegetables for the year - fresh in Summer and canned in Winter.
The cows browsing through the bushes on my parents' side of the road made for perfect blueberry growing conditions, and we would pick many, many quarts of blueberries, some we ate right away but most we canned for Winter. We also picked uncultivated grapes and made jam from them and sometimes grape juice.
After they finished the house and additions for my grandmother and mother, they dug a swimming pool. It was a concrete affair, a bit freeform. My father had built an arc-welder out of a scrap military transformer, and he welded together a strange superstructure from angle-iron which supported an aluminum roof in Winter, and part of that roof formed a wall between the road and the pool. We used the same scoop we used for the house foundation to dig the pool. Because our property was near swampy land, frogs would live in the pool; they'd usually sit evenly spaced with their bodies in the water and their snouts pointing out when we were not around, and they'd hop out and sit on the edge of the pool and watch when we were swimming.
The fate of the pool illustrates my parents' attitude toward authority. One day the fire chief dropped by and remarked that the water in the pool would come in handy if there were a fire nearby since the closest fireplug was 3 miles away. My parents agreed and told the chief of course they could use the water if there were a fire at our place or a neighbors'. But the chief went on: The fire department would fill the pool every Spring, and my parents should sign a permission form for the fire department saying they could use the water whenever they wanted as long as they replaced it.
My mother immediately balked, saying that we would fill the pool, and the fire department could use the water for fires. This "dispute," if you could call it that, persisted for several years until the Town wrote a letter to my parents telling them that unless they signed the permission letter, the Town would reassess the property and increase the taxes substantially based on the increased value of the property the pool created.
About a week later my father pulled out some sledgehammers and we all got to work breaking down the concrete pool lining. He cut down the support posts for the angle-iron superstructure, and we covered the pool over with dirt using the scoop. My mother wrote the Town a letter explaining the pool no longer existed. The fire chief came over and inspected the property and confirmed the pool was gone.
My mother never forgot a slight or misdeed. This was the same fire department that 30 years earlier took their time getting out to her mother's burning house on Christmas Eve, and that promised to save my mother's cat but never even tried. Her dilemma was that she would do everything she could to help her neighbors save their homes, belongings, and their lives, but would do nothing to help the fire department.
My mother's mother died first. She had a couple of strokes in the early 1960s, and my mother, weary of caring for her along with the farm, tried to put her in a nursing home. My grandmother had, I think, no concept of a nursing home. It wasn't a hospital, more closely resembling a prison or madhouse. She was forced to go there, and her reaction was to scream for help and try to escape. The other patients were afraid of her, and my mother felt extreme embarrassment both for how her mother acted at the home and then for actually putting her mother there in the first place. We brought her home about a week later, and she died in our house with the doctor at her bedside in about a year.
I was 13 years old, and my mother let me into the funeral home only once for about 30 minutes.
My father's mother and her husband Mike died in the early 1970s, but I didn't go to either of their funerals. My parents seemed uneasy with death by then and tried to keep me away from its presence. They seemed to want to pretend you should just turn and walk away from it, as if it were just another bump in the road.
In 1964, my father contracted chicken pox and gave it to me. I recall we played a lot of chess while we were sick.
But for my father the chicken pox became encephalitis. My mother didn't know what it was, but when he became delirious she called the doctor, who shipped him directly to New England Medical Center in Boston because a famous brain specialist from out of state was visiting there then. They put my father in isolation and told us that he had 1 chance in 100 of living and if he lived, 1 chance in 1000 of not having severe brain damage.
We drove down to Boston every day after I got home from school. My mother would go in to talk to the doctors and watch my father through a window. I stayed out in the car. It was late Fall and it was cold; we sometimes had to park on Washington Street in the Combat Zone. With the odds my mother heard, she probably thought my father would die, and she wanted to shield me from it. But I would sit in the cold car for hours until it was dark.
My father probably experienced a second birth as he emerged from the delirium, and the nurse who cared for him became his second mother. When he came home, he was very different - more sentimental and quiet, less interested in detail work, less sure of his place in the world and his value. He made sentimental trips to childhood haunts. He sent applications to writing schools, he read literature, especially poetry.
My mother decided to shut down the farm since she couldn't run it by herself even with my help, and she went back to work for the first time since I was born, as a component tester at Westinghouse. After he returned to work his performance dropped and a few years later he was laid off. My mother started to wonder whether she got her husband back or someone else. The authorities had been wrong in warning her that her husband might not live, but they had been right that he could be different.
Over a period of a couple of years he returned to his old self. But the economy required drastic steps. We already had sold my grandmother's house and 3 acres with it. We spent a summer building a house on the foundation of the farmhouse that burned down. We sold that house to a young couple along with an acre of land. We didn't have the farm anymore, but we still had an immense garden and canned extensively. One year we put up 300 quarts of tomatoes, 50 quarts of beans, 30 quarts of dill pickles, and 20 quarts of bread and butter pickles.
Around 1966 they bought about a half an acre of land in Chocorua, New Hampshire. Our pastime was hiking the White Mountains and camping in a travel trailer. We would film some of our hikes and usually once a week we'd watch one of them while listening to Dvorak's New World Symphony.
My mother was quite a wheeler/dealer when it came to land. She got half-price on the lots in Chocorua. On the Cape she negotiated 6 acres down from $6000 to $1200.
In Chocorua we built a small 1-room cabin with a screened-in porch that we converted to a 2-room. Later my father added a second floor, then an extra bedroom, then a dining room, a vestibule, and a garage. He did all the plumbing, wiring, septic work, and heating himself. By using extensions, a tripod, and a pulley system, we dug a 40' well using a hand-operated rotating post-hole digger.
Later after I was in grad school in California, he put in a second well: He dug a 30' 3' x 3' hole by installing interlocking concrete slabs to form a column as he dug down. At the bottom he pounded a well bit down another 30'. The professional well drillers I had replace that well were in awe of the work.
About that same time, they bought some land down in Florida, and they built a small camp down there.
While I was in high school I made stencils of the letters in "Gabriel" using letter models from the Boston Sunday Globe, and made a name sign on an old board. Years later my father found those stencils and used them to trace our name on a decorative board he cut out of walnut. He carved the letters into the board and painted them white. He put some hooks into the overhang in the Chocorua house, and they'd put the sign out whenever they were there.
When I went to college, I managed through scholarships and working in the cooperative program at Northeastern University to not need support from my parents. When I went to grad school, it was the same story. This meant they could retire in 1973. My father was 50 and my mother 58. They sold the house and remaining land in Merrimac and moved to Chocorua, spending each Winter in Florida.
I moved farther and farther West, and my visits and talks with them thinned out.
As time went on, my mother's knees got worse and worse. She had an injury when she was a girl, falling through a floor in the upper level of the horse barn. Her foot had caught the fall and probably some of her knee ligaments were torn. She always walked with a very slight limp, and an orthopedic surgeon's attempt at repairing the damage when she was in her 40s didn't work well. As time passed, her good knee showed the results of compensating for the bad one, and she had a harder time doing chores and cooking.
But my father was happy to take on more of the housework. He eventually did most of the cooking and dishwashing. After making the evening meal, serving both of them, eating and cleaning up, and later bringing my mother a bowl of maple walnut ice cream or sometimes a beer, he would stand by the radio and listen to the Red Sox in the Summer, and in the Winter it was the Bruins. Or he'd go out to the garage and tinker with some oddball invention or project. He invented food dishes, like tuna-broccoli pizza on homemade Syrian bread. He made ham radios, amplifiers, and experimented with stereo system design. When he died he was working on how to recharge regular batteries.
In the evenings my mother would watch the news programs, especially on public television, or work on crossword puzzles. She read the newspaper carefully each day.
They sometimes argued - sometimes argued very loudly - but they managed to work together well, and I can't recall them being angry with each other for longer than a day.
They watched stupid sitcoms. They'd sit there and laugh and laugh and laugh.
They didn't like to travel. They each came out to California once by air and spent about 2 weeks visiting, and once they came together taking a Greyhound Bus from Orlando to Palo Alto and back - 5 days each way. They said they wanted to look at the countryside, which they couldn't do on a plane.
They didn't want to go to restaurants, and they thought the food we cooked them was weird - vegetables hardly cooked at all, strange foods like artichokes, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. The Summers were too sunny, and the seasons seemed backwards - brown in Summer, green in Winter. Things cost too much - we did some carpentry projects and my father told the lumberyard man that the wood cost twice as much and was half the quality of lumber in New England.
Even though he was self-taught at building houses, he laughed at the way houses were built in California. They were happy to visit, but happier to go home to their routine.
After I moved to California, my father learned to paint by watching those PBS painting shows. He started as a musician, took a couple of steps as a writer after his stay in the hospital, and ended up a painter. His paintings are competent and show sparks, especially in the flowers, and he had just enough ego to create a special design in addition to his name that would identify his paintings.
As you'd expect, he built all the pieces and parts he needed: frames, stretchers, and easels. My mother tried painting, but she was too analytical for art. My father could happily live in his right brain while calling on his left to help out during those forays into design, but my mother was firmly in her left brain and used her right brain only to understand people, which she did extremely well.
In 1985 my parents and I became estranged. It had to do with a personal choice I made. For almost 10 years I didn't talk to them. During that period, my mother's brother, Connie, died, and my father fell victim to congestive heart failure. He was saved by a series of operations culminating in a valve replacement.
They never called to tell me about it. They were the team. My mother stuck with my father despite all the times he would dream of crazy things to do or make, or when his personality changed for 3 years. And my father stuck with my mother even when he became essentially her personal servant because of her knees.
They made their North-South trips twice a year. In the Fall they'd winterize the Chocorua house and lock it up according to a detailed process that took a week to complete. They'd take 4 days to get down to Florida and three days to set it up. In Spring they'd do the opposite. My father came to befriend many of the neighbors in both places, but my mother shied away from them.
Around 1993, my first wife Kathy brought me back together with my parents. They had known their grandson Joseph through Kathy who had moved back to Massachusetts, and after the estrangement ended they got to know their granddaughter through trips to New Hampshire and Florida.
My father told me a story once when we were on the ferry boat on Lake Winnepesauke, about how his parents would go out to the farms some nights from South Boston to buy produce to re-sell in town. He would worry that something might happen and they wouldn't come back. He said, "and wouldn't you know, there would always be a dog howling somewhere, and you know what they say? A howling dog means death. Of course, I think they howl for their own reasons."
In April 1999, a colleague and I were visiting the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. We were staying in a condominium outside Santa Fe, and around 1am a couple of coyotes started howling right outside my open bedroom window. The sound was nothing like what you'd think a living voice could make - more like a machine, or a machine breaking down, a metal against metal sound.
The next morning we flew home and Jo told me that my mother called to tell us that my father had died, probably around 3am the night before, right about when the coyotes had come by.
We were just completing buying a house, so I delayed by 2 days going out to help my mother. I left from one house and came back to another. It was the time of year they went north. She had him cremated and the funeral director arrived at the Florida camp about the same time I did, and I carried his urn into the house. We closed up the place. My mother had supervised my father doing the work after his operations, so she knew where to work in what order and what roughly to do, but I had to figure out the details. My father had done things his own way, and preferred to jury-rig something to buying the right part. His oddjob fastener of choice was the truck inner tube sliced into taut elastic bands. I took notes.
We drove to Chocorua and we opened up the house, which was much harder and complicated than the Florida camp. The first thing she did was sweep out the place, and the second was to put up the sign with our name on it.
I went back 3 or 4 times that Summer to visit and help out. Mika and Jo came out once, and so did Joseph. We wanted to have a memorial for my father, but my mother kept putting it off. Then she drove his urn down here and told me we'd hold the ceremony the next Summer. She planted 3 geraniums, one for each of her parents and one for him.
She told me it wasn't fair he went first, and I didn't understand what she meant aside from how much he had to help her because of her knees, but I didn't know then that she was almost 8 years older than he was. "Every woman has her secrets," she told Jo and Mika.
Every 6 months I would move her in one direction or the other. It was never convenient, and often it was a fight as I didn't live up to how my father did things. Not that his way was better, but his was more familiar to her. She wanted everything to be the same as it ever was, but I couldn't be him. She was surprised to learn I could cook a little. She learned that inept as I was with carpentry, I could get things done. She learned I had close friends who would help when I couldn't do things myself.
For the first 4 trips she resisted the changes and how I would go about things. For the last 3 trips she learned joys about driving with me. We suffered many setbacks, like the time the well pipes burst and we needed to have a deep well dug, or the time we returned early and there was 4' of snow on the ground.
I bought her a computer and she got on the Internet. She'd read newspapers and surf around, but never could figure out how to send email. I'd send her pictures "of the girls" as she liked to call them. We took her to a restaurant and got her fried clams. She drove past these restaurants every time she went to the stores in Conway, but restaurants were for the young in love or those too lazy to cook for themselves.
But this Spring when we got to Chocorua she didn't want me to put up the Gabriel house sign.
They told me they thought she died on June 28.
She got things the way she wanted. She didn't want to die in Florida like my father, she didn't want to die in a nursing home the way her mother almost did. She didn't trust any authorities to safeguard her health. She wanted to die in her own home, where she lived for 25 years. I think she didn't know that she was about to die that night.
The last time I saw her, I kissed her and told her I loved her - we didn't say those words much in my family - and she insisted on closing the driveway gate to show she was strong and that I shouldn't send someone to take care of her. Her father told her she would need to take care of herself.
The last time I talked to her she said, "say hello to the girls. Thanks for calling. Keep in touch."
Jo and I took her in her urn to her favorite spots: Down to Lake Chocorua where we watched the sun set on the mountain, then back to her house to spend one last night; past the houses in Merrimac that she and my father built and that she and her mother lived in. We took her to visit her parents' graves which are just over there. And now she's here with my father.
She never liked funerals and memorials; she never intended to have one for my father; she left that to me, and here I am.
When a person dies he or she becomes fiction - not by becoming less real, but by becoming finite. When a life can be reviewed we can see the stitches that hold it together, because there is no open-ended tomorrows to change things.
To many, my father was unambitious, a goofy builder, and a somewhat careless carpenter. His career was spotty and he moved from job to job, including some that only the destitute would look to. To me he was hard working and many talented, whose aim in life was to live and enjoy living while relying on no one but himself, and he wasn't afraid to work himself hard to get what he and his family needed. He was beholden to no one so when he was done working for the day or week, he could turn to his enjoyments: British comedies, the Bruins, the Red Sox, sometimes the Celtics, sitcoms, books on alternative and herbal medicine, and tinkering.
He loved my mother very much. To some it was hard to see why: In her later years she could be demanding and some would say demeaning to him. She would tell him what to do and when. But people who said that didn't see the whole story. Later those days and even immediately after, they would be roaring with laughter. They saw the world the same way. Twice my father told me after my mother had said something hurtful to me about my decisions, that he thought she was wrong, but a long time ago he decided to follow where she went, and that was what he was going to do.
To many, my mother was selfish, a know-it-all, harsh, and insulting. She wouldn't accept help from strangers and refused to make friends. To me, she kept her life and energies for her family. They were who she depended on and she hoped they depended on her. She was strong willed in order to be strong for her family against whatever the world would throw at them. Her father taught her this, and her experiences did too. People are selfish, and so you cannot depend on them without some special bond, and the only one she knew was family. She could be stubborn, but every instance of her stubbornness I can recall was serving her goal of not imposing or depending on someone else - it was never out of pure selfishness.
They were great parents.
I can see their whole lives now - or as much as they wanted me to know. I can see the connections that stories require to be stitched together. There are no coincidences in a story, and neither are there in a life gone by. And like a story, the parts I don't know are mine to make up.
Their lives extended little beyond the farm and Chocorua and the place in Altoona. The strip of driving from North to South and back was like a TV show to them. And with that narrow scope of their lives all the events crowded into small enclosures. I was born a hundred yards from where they will lie from now on. The happiest years of their lives were all lived within 5 miles of where we are right now. Almost everyone my mother ever loved is buried within 100 yards of where she will be. And my father gave up everything to be with her.
What's the best story? No one gets to write their own story, because the craft of story comes from the one who sees connections and makes them plain. The measure of a person's life is, I think, that their final story - completed by others - is the story they would have wanted to write all along.
Thank you for listening to the story of my parents, John and Helen Gabriel.
The head in front of my Grandfather is probably Uncle Connie, and presumably my Mother is in front of my Grandmother.
Since posting the above picture, I found the bottom half of it and composited them together with Photoshop. As you might be able to tell, the picture parts have aged differently. The picture was printed as a postcardthe back has markings for an address and a postage stamp.