Posted by: Bill Tracy | June 24, 2015

A Final Term Paper

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide.
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.
-Walt Whitman
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Eddy Weber Dow was my English professor at University College (Rutgers University) in the mid-seventies. He died June 9, age 85.

Eddy Dow. This image ran in The Inquirer of Philadelphia where Eddy lived. Image © Copyright 2015 Philadelphia Media Network (Digital), LLC

Eddy Dow. This image ran in The Inquirer of Philadelphia where Eddy lived. Image © Copyright 2015 Philadelphia Media Network (Digital), LLC

I don’t know exactly what I expected to learn in college. I wanted to work in writing, probably journalism I thought, and I knew I needed a college degree to get into the game. So I drove trucks in the daylight hours and lurked around Armitage Hall (Camden, NJ campus) after dark. Eddy was the guy everyone hated to take classes with. Students avoided him because he was serious and demanding; no one got a free ride. More than once he told me University College classes could be no less stringent than classes in any other part of the University. That was fine with me since I was pretty serious and demanding myself. I took any class he was willing to teach.

I first saw Eddy Dow as the classic absent-minded professor. He wore old broken eyeglasses with only one earpiece. He carried books and such in what looked like a laundry bag, and I noticed a bottle of spirits gurgling around in there once or twice. His rosy cheeks hustled past me on the street one frosty winter evening and he seemed to lust for the cold in a way that made me think of Hemingway in Eddy’s icy Michigan winters. He had been raised in a rural Michigan small town, and yet his feisty spirit seemed too large for a body fighting to contain it.

He once saw me staring at a bulletin board in an Armitage hallway, slapped me on the back and said, “You’ll read anything, won’t you!” Thanks to Eddy, one thing I learned in college was that reading anything could be a virtue.

He taught a “Popular Culture and Literature” course one semester. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky were to be valued, but was there also something in John Denver screeching a “Rocky Mountain High” or the Beatles’ tale of Eleanor Rigby? What might it say about our experience of life that Eleanor wears a “face that she keeps in a jar by the door”?

Tomb of poet Walt Whitman at Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ. A memorial service for Eddy Dow was held today. He was lovingly remembered by colleagues and friends.

Tomb of poet Walt Whitman at Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ. A memorial service for Eddy Dow was held today. He was lovingly remembered by colleagues and friends.

Theodore Dreiser had a deserved reputation for using Literature as a lever for reform and social justice. Could similar gravity be discerned in modern comic books? If not, why would the United States Congress investigate the subversive dangers of comic books and engender a code of morality that comic book publishers “voluntarily” adopted under government inspired duress?

I was editor of the school paper so Eddy and I had occasion to pass a lot of notes back and forth through the school mail system. Email was unknown; we used paper in those days. I had the temerity to correct his grammar and usage — and he expressed his delight at this affront by giving it back to me as only a fastidious English professor could. Those exercises put me in good stead when I went to work with publications, and I had to argue with editors who refused to see it the way I wrote it.

I can’t say I ever really knew Eddy Dow. He was a professor, and I was a student. But he and I had a quirky and fun relationship brimming with respect for one another. Nathaniel Pallone was dean of University College in those years. Speaking at a Camden campus event, he mentioned with delight approaching an uncomfortable hilarity that Eddy Dow had commented about there being a “surfeit of deans” around the place. I could never be quite sure why Pallone said that, but it suggested some level of bravery on Eddy’s part; I suspected there was more to it than a professor’s offhand comment and a dean’s public acknowledgement.

Eddy taught me that the study of Literature was not poring over musty old books in library stacks. It was the everyday questioning of everything we accept as life. It was being open to any new idea or interpretation, no matter how loony it might seem. It was an egalitarian notion of ideas and intellect. And it was just plain okay to be weird or strange if that was in honest pursuit of intellectual integrity and artistry.

In the end, Eddy taught me that college, and life, were about more than a degree I needed to get the job I wanted. Life, and a zest for living it, is far more important than how we look and what kind of work we do. That’s a lot to learn from one man.

Thanks, Eddy!

Posted by: Bill Tracy | June 9, 2015

Motherless Child, Sometimes

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.

-Ecclesiastes

Sitting in a chair at my Mom’s dining room table I’m frozen in place. She’s been gone almost three weeks now, and my brothers and sisters are clearing out the house so it can be sold. I hear someone in a distant room yell, “Does anybody want blankets?” Someone else asks about tape cassettes. The fine details of a life, and tender mercies. Whatever Mom’s children don’t want goes to charity, or a dumpster. The work goes on all around me, and I can’t move. I can’t bring myself to participate in the dismantling of the world I was born into and lived in and relied upon for so many years.

Like a motherless child...

Like a motherless child…

It’s all necessary work. The estate must be settled. Most of my brothers and sisters find their comfort in the distraction of the work. They don’t really have much interest in the material things our parents accumulated. They are loving people who cherish more our shared memories. Keeping busy keeps the painful reality out of mind for the moment. “You think too much,” my Mom told me a thousand times — from childhood until just a few weeks ago. I’ve always needed to think things through, find meaning. Mom was simply more practical. I guess she needed to be.

What I think now is that an entire world created by my parents has vanished with my Mom’s death. Dad died eight years ago, but Mom was still with us. She was still in the house. Dad’s clothes were still in the closets. All the family photographs were there. My sister and I cooked a dinner there a few weeks ago, the last home cooked meal Mom ever had. We used the same pots and dishes that we knew as children. This was a world that formed a foundation to my life for 68 years. And now I sit and watch as it dissolves like a watercolor picture in the rain. And many tears contribute to that rain.

Even in her last days, Mom didn't want her picture taken in robe and pajamas -- so the killer look!

Even in her last days, Mom didn’t want her picture taken in robe and pajamas — so the killer look!

I didn’t think I’d have a hard time after Mom died. Her health had been going downhill for several years. We all watched, knowing there was little we could do except be supportive in our own ways. But we all knew it was a final lap. Perhaps if dementia had set in or something else that took away her mind, it might have been easier. Even in the last lap, she was still feisty Mom, her old whip smart self full of love for her children, grandchildren, etc. The day before she died I took a picture of her in robe and pajamas — you can see in the picture her killer look that says, “Don’t try that again.” The day before that she was having a hard time because of medications; I was feeding her pieces of a meatball. It was taking a while so at one point, Mom gave me this disapproving look and said, “This is COLD,” in a way only Mom could. I had long ago nicknamed her “asbestos throat” for her ability to eat things at temperatures no mere mortal could even imagine — so I hied to the microwave and got some heat back into that remaining meatball.

The Kubler-Ross model for grief has five classic stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe if you have someone die unexpectedly or too young, those things would apply. For me, at this point, it’s only a profound sadness. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts….” What I most feel is that our play is done, a final curtain has fallen. And I’m entering a strange world with no moorings, nothing familiar. Two nice young people came together in love, created a world through that love, and I’m sad that world is no more. Yes, one generation passes, and another comes.

Mom's house, the stage going dark.

Mom’s house, the stage going dark.

I was born onto a stage where my Mom and Dad were the lead players. It was the only stage I ever knew, the only play I ever knew. Two sisters and three brothers made their entrances after I did. We had many, many bit players in an extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. Even a few nuns and priests got into the act. But the play always went on. The stars were always in character and always there, no matter what. Around 1973 I had been living on my own for a few years, but then I decided to go back to school. So I showed up one day and started living in the basement of their house. I never discussed it with anyone, an arrogant move in appearance, I suppose, but I never had any doubt that I would be welcome. At the same time my sister and her husband and two kids came back from a stint in the military, and they moved in too. A brother and sister also came back so we were all there in a four-bedroom suburban house at one time. And my grandmother was living with us at the time also — a dozen of us and a testy little dog. It was trying, but it was just one more scene in the play of our lives. The stage simply got a bit more crowded for a while, no problem.

Joe died in 2005, and that was a serious loss; he was the youngest child. In many ways, he was a Falstaff type character — much loved, but a true “character.” My Dad couldn’t really deal with the tragedy of that so he died two years later. We’ve always believed he simply died of a broken heart. Now we had lost a major player and one of the principals. But, Mom was still there, and she was still in the house, front and center on our stage, so the show went on. But now, Mom has taken her final bow, the theater is going dark, and we can’t see how the show still goes on. It feels like the show is closing and a no new one can take its place — those grandchildren and great grandchildren have made their entrances on different stages, not so much on ours. And as we clear out the house, the stage props disappear, and eventually we’re evicted. A theater goes dark.

A colorful and bright world on the inside, the street outside is cold and bleak by comparison.

A colorful and bright world on the inside, the street outside is cold and bleak by comparison.

The past couple of weeks have not been all bleak. Lots of friends and family have offered kind words, memories and much love. Many who know me understand that I have a gift for seeing spirits. I don’t recognize living people so much by their appearance as by their spiritual presence. It’s helpful, but sometimes troublesome. The skeptics find it hard to believe I talked with Ava Gardner in a Target store last year, I know. I had a visit from Mom one recent Friday morning, her spirit at least. I was in a rural NJ town and dropped into the local “Arts Center,” just to see what there was to see. I sat and talked to an older woman, a photographer. We talked far more about our lives than about pictures. She has seen a lot of adversity in her life, but she soldiers on, and seems fearless. I told her I admired her for that fearlessness as it is something most people don’t possess. She told me she has spent many years doing addiction counseling, visiting prisons, etc. “Everybody calls me ‘Mom,'” she said. That’s when I knew who I was visiting with: I recognized that spirit. When I got up to leave I felt compelled to hug this woman; when I did she began to cry. So, the message she gave me is that Mom has no fear, and we need have none either.

My siblings all have families of their own. They’ve migrated to different stages, stages where they are principal players. Being unmarried and childless myself, I feel like the old Negro spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. But it’s only sometimes, only sometimes. Life does go on, even out on the street after the show has closed. And I never know when Mom may drop in for a visit.

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