Next of Kin
Dad was born in Monticello, NY in October of 1937 and spent his entire life in Sullivan County where he thrived on the small-town hunting culture. At the age of fourteen, he lost his only sister, Betty, who was just twenty-one and passed during childbirth. Then, in his mid-thirties he lost both his parents within days of each other as the result of different illnesses that hospitalized them simultaneously. Because of the early passing of his immediate family members, he always expected to die young and prepared for that possibility when making many of the decisions he and my mother made during their marriage.
Finding Extended Family
To fill the void of his lost family members, he and my mother began seeking out extended family members that resulted in a wonderful, life-long connection to cousins in Ohio who he remained in close touch with for the rest of his life. Family vacations to Ohio to visit the DeWitt clan were, for a time, annual events that I remember fondly. The cocktail parties with accordion playing by Don, crazy antics by Helen, and firefly catching to make mason jar lanterns by all the kids. Over the years, this zany group expanded to include other cousins from Long Island. The weekend-long family reunions became so big, they required the rental of hospitality tents and RV’s to house twenty-plus overnight guests. During this time Dad also dabbled in guitar playing so singalongs went late into the night and included sessions of dirty joke telling – Dad’s specialty.
My Dad was a lover of food and one of his stranger favorites was Limburger cheese, raw onion with mayonnaise sandwiches. We used to joke that he had a cast iron stomach because most people would shy away from the pungent and extremely spicy foods he preferred. Somehow, when I was five or six, I got to be Dad’s Limburger cheese sandwich buddy. My mother found a block of cheese and when lunchtime came, she vacated to avoid the stench. Dad unwrapped the cheese and make us sandwiches. He thought his was best with a beer so we did this on a day when he could imbibe. I remember Dad proudly telling Mom when she returned that I ate my sandwich and liked it. I don’t really remember the taste, but I do remember feeling special to have been included in this activity.
Dad has always been a BIG personality that sometimes overshadowed meeker family members like my mother. Our family centered around Dad’s needs and schedule. He worked hard and held down two full-time jobs for many years. He was the sole proprietor of Wagner Plumbing and Heating during the day, with my mother as his bookkeeper, phone operator and scheduler. Dad would sleep for a few hours at the end of each day and then work the midnight – 7AM shift as a Correction Officer. This crazy schedule took its toll on his health and he eventually shuttered his plumbing business to become a happier person. He focused his ambitions on making a career with the Department of Correction (DOC) where he rose to the level of Deputy Superintendent of Security. There were stories about his indoctrination into “the job” as a Correction Officer that involved some “showing whose boss” incidents. He was told that this demonstration of “bravery” was necessary to earn the respect he needed to lead in the prison environment. I don’t believe this behavior came naturally to him, but he did speak about these encounters with a kind of pride for having survived them. Dad claimed that his time with the DOC was the reason behind his xenophobic views, but I think it ran deeper than that. He and I always parted ways on issues of race, poverty, guns rights and freedom of sexuality and expression. We were almost always endorsing different political candidates.
Retirement from the DOC at age 54 helped him realize that he wasn’t ready to step back, and his further ambitions led him to run for sheriff of Sullivan County in 1993. This campaign involved the whole family and thrust us into a schedule of spaghetti dinners and pancake breakfasts where we met and talked to voters. I think this “always-on” schedule was particularly difficult for my introverted mother, but she dutifully supported him by parading my younger siblings and I around, reminding us of our manners and encouraging us to give strong handshakes while making eye contact. Dad didn’t win the election, but we still have the baseball caps and pencils to commemorate his bid for sheriff.
With more ambition to channel, he turned his attention to carpentry. He refined his woodworking skills by making increasingly intricate pieces of furniture. He gifted each of his children a cradle when our first babies were born. The cradle he made for me was placed at our bedside when each of our three children came home from the hospital. It was a low-to-the ground, traditional cradle that you might see in a Little House on the Prairie episode and allowed me to reach down and rock the crying baby back to sleep in the middle of the night. It was my favorite gift from him. Once the babies transitioned to their own rooms, the cradle became a bed for dolls or stuffed animals.
As a second generation member, Dad’s involvement in the Cherokee Hunting and Game Preserve was always an important part of who he was. We were raised around deer hunting and fishing. Dad taught us each to load and shoot a rifle and a pistol. He also taught us to fish, sometimes in the dead of winter. We always ate what Dad shot, thanks to Mom’s willingness to prepare it. My memories of Thanksgiving are forever tangled up in deer season. On Thanksgiving morning, the men would get up at dawn and hunt all day while the women prepared Thanksgiving dinner. Hunters would return to eat the feast and then fall asleep on the couch while the women cleaned up. It was Dad’s idea to create a reason for Cherokee club members to meet during the summer months – which was considered off-season for a hunting club. He pitched the idea of an August chicken BBQ to bring everyone together to the club leaders. This now has become a 46-year tradition that my brother took over a few years ago. Dad had always been very invested in the Club’s 22.5k acres and its 44 members, although he wasn’t able to hunt the last several years of his life. He thrived on watching other hunters from his kitchen window as they came and went during deer season. This time of year meant extra visits from his comrades with tall tales of their daily hunt and an excuse to share a cocktail.
Dad’s 2011 lung cancer diagnosis triggered years of ongoing breathing issues. Initially, he tolerated his chemo treatments well. His longtime companion, Janet, took him in as a roommate for a few months while he gained the strength to live alone again. They enjoyed traveling and playing golf together and Dad was even well enough to go through double knee replacement surgery in 2015. He continued living alone until January of 2020 but became quite shut-in during his final months requiring assistance from friends and family (mostly my sister) for many tasks. We siblings began having discussions about in-home care options after observing a health decline. As we danced around this topic with him, he let us know he was not interested. We covertly continued investigating options anyway and found that in his rural location there was a shortage of reliable, skilled care providers. Despite our many daily phone calls to check on him, Dad became sick with pneumonia requiring a trip to the ER on January 9, 2020 and was hospitalized. He had been secretive about how ill he was until he was in respiratory distress. Perhaps he knew this was the beginning of a downhill spiral and that life changes were likely. Doctors prescribed a stay at a rehabilitation center for physical therapy to gain back some strength and independence. Many other health complications were starting to mount and he struggled with physical therapy for a few weeks before refusing to continue. He was tired and was giving up. The only option became long-term care where he could receive the 24/7 support he needed.
In late February COVID-19 closed in on New York State, and Dad’s facility stopped allowing visitors on March 6th.
Don’t Forget Where You Came From
My relationship with Dad was always complicated. In temperament, I am a lot like Dad and my husband reminds me of that when I’m being tenacious or pushy. Once Dad accused me of forgetting where I came from. Since I had moved to an urban area in my early twenties, our perspectives became quite different. Initially he struggled to understand my need to leave rural NY State and since I was single when I did, he was concerned about what people would think. This feeling of being smothered and judged by others is precisely what I wanted to shed. I was also looking for experiences and opportunities that I knew I couldn’t have if I stayed.
I guess it was tenacity and ambition that gave me the desire and strength to pursue a different lifestyle. So in this way, I’m remembering where I came from.