Friday, June 17, 2005

In Passing

My cousin and godfather died last October. I just found out about it. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died a short three weeks later---hardly enough time passed to get his affairs in order. It must have been a painful demise for a robust man, and he probably paid for every slight---and there were many---he gave to his family, friends and colleagues.

John was born in 1932, and I can still see his childhood pictures among our family treasures. He was called Brownie for a reason unknown to me. By the 1950s, when I became somewhat cognizant of my surroundings, John had been to Williams College and served a two-year stint in the Army.

I remember when he came back from the service in the mid-fifties. We all lived on Cottage Street in Middletown, NY at the time. Since John had been away to Williams and then the Army, I had hardly known him. I was about eight at the time, and when he planned to go to New Jersey to pick up his trunk, I wanted to go along. My brother, Ed, and John’s brother Bob, went with him as well. They are six years older than me.

The chosen conveyance was the family convertible, and being bigger and not anxious to be cold, the three of them chose to sit in the front seat. I was relegated to the back---which wouldn’t have been so bad except they had the top down. They couldn’t hear my complaints over the sounds of the heater, radio, and their own laughing and talking. I was pretty much the forgotten element of the trip. But, had John hit a bump, I might have gained in prominence by taking flight over the highway and bouncing to a stop. I’m sure they all would have been roaring with laughter while scraping me off the road.

On the way back to Middletown, along Route 17 in New Jersey, we stopped for gas. I asked for and received permission to go to the bathroom. When I returned to the pumps, no one was there! They had driven off without me. This was years before Robert Barone of the TV sitcom complained about a similar event in his TV childhood.

But, thankfully, I didn’t have long to fret. I was still frozen with surprise when I saw the car coming back for me. They had forgotten my existence for a few minutes. I don’t remember who had the presence of mind to question my absence. And for the entire trip back, which became family lore, I heard almost constant laughter at the situation, especially from John, who had a robust, German laugh.

When I was just a toddler, John---as my godfather---had kept an eye on me and taught me to speak well---so well, in fact, that I corrected nearby English misstatements from the crib, especially for the use of the dreaded word, “ain’t.” That was my job. To listen for the dreaded word.

“Johnny don’t want ain’t! Johnny don’t want ain’t!” My ungrammatical calls led to much laughter and maybe fewer “ain’ts” along the way. John was the resident intellectual in our family, and I had taken to emulating him.

After the New Jersey incident, John and his family moved to North Street, about a five minute drive from the old homes. I remember visiting there often. One time Aunt Helen and Uncle John tried to get me to eat ice cream. “I can’t. I gave it up for lent.”

“But, Sundays don’t count,” I was told. So, I enjoyed ice cream with my Aunt and Uncle.

I don’t remember what kind of work John did at the time, but I’d usually visit him in his room when I was there. Sometimes he wasn’t there, but I was allowed in anyway. It was like an inner sanctum, or Sherlock Holmes’ great room. I looked at the fancy books and listened to his classical music, with a bit of Spike Jones and others of his ilk thrown in. “Save the bones for Henry Jones, because Henry don’t eat no meat.”

John had no answer to my question about Spike’s grammar---or rather lack of it. He just laughed and started telling me something deep, I’m sure. It was during this time that my little sister, Mary Anne, visited with me and John in his room. John kept a small bottle of cognac in his desk. He had poured himself a libation, and in true John-fashion, offered Mary Anne a sip. She spit it out and John roared with laughter. His mother and mine didn’t share his jovial sentiments about the situation, but John didn’t care. He enjoyed it.

As a growing boy, I became enamored with tennis, even though I could barely manipulate a racket. One warm summer afternoon, John took me with him to watch him play tennis. I think he was playing with his friend, Fred Schmidt. They chose to battle at a shaded tennis court up near Orange County Community College. I spent the afternoon chasing tennis balls. I didn’t mind too much.

We returned to my frantic mother, who didn’t know where her son was. Apparently, in his usual independent way, John hadn’t bothered to inform my mother of my trip to the tennis court with him. And, of course, telling her didn’t occur to me because I thought John had done it.

Early in his manhood, John strayed from the Catholic Church. I guess the restrictions of faith didn’t fit his independent life style. No one could tell him what to do about anything, especially religion---although he must have acquiesced to greater theologians when he attended Yale Divinity School. He became an Episcopalian Minister, but I’m not aware of any regular parish he ever administered.

During the 1970s, John was Dean of Goddard College, a small liberal arts college in Plainfield, VT. The college had originally been planned using the principles of John Dewey, and during the 1960s and 1970s it was the scene of radical thought and educational experimentation. Plainfield had a population of just over 1,000, but John opted for the big city and lived nearby in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital---population about 8,000. I visited him once in 1979 with my son, Geoffrey, and he said his home was rather historic, which I think was his term for rather run down. It was only a few blocks away from the State House, so we could walk to the sights.

John must have fit in well at Goddard, though his departure in the 1980s seems to have had a cloud over it. His personal demeanor and brain cells flourished with the radical-thinking atmosphere. I can picture his hair flying about as he was engaged in fiery and deep philosophical discussions with the students and staff. He could never have been mistaken for a conservative, that’s for sure. He hated all Republicans and rarely championed a Democrat unless he agreed with him about something, and I doubt he ever got around to voting much in his lifetime. He rarely joined with the majority of a group about anything.

John had the unfortunate habit of insulting his family and friends and then later wondering what all the fuss was about. He had a strong, German voice, which he used a great deal, as he was particularly raw with his immediate family. His difficulties with people led to few family invitations---many of which he’d probably have ignored anyway. But, he always wanted to look good to strangers, even if he rode roughshod over everyone else in sight. John wasn’t loved by his family so much as he was tolerated. That was a sad truth he had to live with.

But we got along okay. He never insulted me. He talked with me almost as an equal, and treated me with as much respect as he ever afforded a stranger (except for those who inadvertently stepped on his toes.) The two of us never argued about things that I remember. We talked and visited numerous times, and he helped finance one of my early computers. I don’t think anyone else ever got so much out of him. I learned a lot from John. My love of writing, reading classic books, listening to fine classical music, and always being aware of a chance at learning something are probably due in no small part to his influence. But, I didn’t grow up with his love of cognac. It gives me a headache.

I visited him once with my wife and children when we were leaving the area to return to Connecticut. It was the holiday season. John served us all a small glass of eggnog. He offered to put a touch of rum in the ones for me and my wife. But, somehow, little Geoffrey got one with rum and claimed that it tasted funny. John said it must have been a mistake and roared with laughter. But, based on previous events, I think he did it on purpose just to see what would happen. Geoffrey didn’t oblige him by spitting it out.

In his later years, John changed the spelling of his surname from Eurich to Eyerich. He told everyone that this better represented the German pronunciation of his name. I don’t know. I don’t speak German, and neither does anyone else in the family. He became a more visible Episcopalian minister and served the inmates at local prisons. Such efforts deserve much praise no matter what the circumstances. In fact, his ministry was the subject of a feature article in a local newspaper, so he must have been doing some major good for the inmates.

To the best of my knowledge, John’s last home was in Montgomery, NY. When I was younger, Montgomery was just a dot on the map, mostly farmland and the little central village commercial district. Now, the population has burgeoned to over 20,000. That surprises me because I thought it was still small. The local builders must be doing great business in the area.

John owned an historic building which he completely renovated to an extent that one would think it had been that way for decades. Wide plank floors, plaster walls, a mishmash of rooms, etc. It had been a blacksmith’s shop in the 19th Century, and John wanted to maintain some historical accuracy about it. He had fixed up the bottom floor as an office which opened up on the street with double doors. It was a nice place.

Despite his many flaws, John had good attributes. He was very intelligent, shared fascinating thoughts with those few people he respected, opened his home to my parents for a few years after they sold theirs, and always remembered me on Christmas and my birthday when I was a kid. Not much perhaps, but then so few understood him it was hard to get on his good side and share his extraordinary learning and experience. He taught himself Latin, Greek, and German before he needed them and read books easily in those languages.

So, John is gone. I’ll miss him. I don’t know nor do I care whether anyone else does or not. He left behind of lot of burned bridges. There was much turmoil and anger in his life, and I’m glad he’s reached a lasting peace---and hopefully, he’s not yelling at St. Peter to “shut the damned gate!”