It's Father's Day, just about. And I could get going on that easily enough. My father's packed with 90 years of quite-a-guy and he is the best. He is bigger than life. But, I think I'll tell you about Mr. French instead. He was Dad to my friend Holly, and to her brothers Stanley and Jimmy, and to her sisters Cathy and Leslee and Lynn and Beth and Penny, AND to a slew of foster kids who simply became extra siblings who seemed to have been there all along.
His parents came to the United States from England when he was a small child. In World War II he served in the Seabees. He was smitten with the smiling Irish eyes of Cathleen Resides, and they got married, and they bought a small house by a babbling brook in a country town, and they had kids and dogs and cats, and he was a carpenter. He was pretty much retired by the time I became friends with his daughters Holly and Lynn and was thus kind of absorbed into the family. The house was always full of family. As you can imagine.
If ever there was a male equivalent to the Mona Lisa, his face could do it proud. His eyes held that same enigmatic twinkle and his mouth that not-quite-smile-but-almost. He wasn't tall, but he stood straight. He was the tree around which the flowers grew. His love was quiet and tough as nails.
Mr. French loved to stay up till all hours and then sleep very late - sitting as if a sentinel while his family slept. Rather than a Lazy Boy or Barca-Lounger, he sat in a plain New England rocker and read the paper or watched TV. He had no intention of missing anything, and he did not: one time when I was sleeping over Holly and I decided to sneak out of the house and walk up to the lake. We were probably 15 and 16 at the time. We never did destructive or cruel stuff as teenagers, but we were unwise at times. This time, in fact. Halfway there and we see Mr. French in his station wagon coming up the road. "Jump!" we yelled to each other and pitched over the guardrails, tumbling down an unseen embankment and lying there out of breath and giddy. We weren't hurt but we were caught. A lesson: look before you leap.
He was a quiet feature at the dining room table and one day, as I sat fiddling with the cloth band of my watch and not getting it to stay on, he startled me and said "Hand it over." I did, and he fixed it. I felt smugly privileged. He had noticed me and thought enough of the whole situation to help. Other friends had fathers, good men all, but none -- even my own father -- would have seen my small dilemma without me verbally complaining, and done something about it. I may not have the watch any more, but I have the clearest memory of the time.
He died at home, peacefully, holding his wife’s hand, just on the other side of the wall from the yard where just yesterday, it seemed, he chopped wood and planted a garden. I see him now in his daughters, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, steadfast and dreaming. I hope he was who he started out wanting to be. "Take care of things," he would say, "And they will last."