By J. L. Starkey
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you.
– Paul Simon
When I saw that this week’s 52 Ancestors prompt was road trip, I planned to write about my great-great-grandfather, who was wounded at the Battle of Stones River. I visited Stones River National Battlefield last summer, and it was absolutely surreal to walk the path that Morris Bigelow Rowe once walked. (You can learn more about the unforgettable Morris B. by clicking here.)
But when it came time to write, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I kept thinking of the why behind it all. For many genealogists, the why is the most frustrating question. Sure, we can find the where and the when…but the why? We rarely find an answer to that.
Maybe in 100 years or so, a descendant will find the photos I took at Stones River, and that person will wonder, “Why did she travel so far off the beaten path on a 100-degree day to visit a Civil War battlefield?”
I’ll make it easy for that person. Why did I do it?
Because of my dad.
Holiday road…and a few battlefields
My dad was a ridiculous Civil War and family history buff. Mom said that when we were on vacations, he would flip through phone books in hotels to find family surnames. It’s not surprising that family vacations often included spur-of-the-moment side trips, and it’s even less surprising that said side trips resulted in more than a little whining and complaining from me and my sisters.
“We’re going where? But whyyyyyy???” we would whine to mom.
“Well, there’s a small town just 100 miles from here,” she would explain, “and dad’s family may have lived there, and he just wants to go for a little while, and then we can go to the beach…and will you please stop complaining!”
Vacations also included stops at Civil War battlefields. Which ones, you ask? Try me.
Fort Sumter? Been there. How about Gettysburg? Please – that’s a given.
OK, so how about Vicksburg, or Manassas, or Donelson?
Yep…check, check, and check.
Dad’s vacation preferences were so well known that when we were getting ready to go to Disney World, a friend of mine said, “Are you sure your dad will be OK? I mean, that’s nowhere near a Civil War battlefield.”
I started to laugh over those memories, and then I started to cry as I remembered the last time I visited my dad. That last road trip was five years ago this month, and it is one that I will never forget.
No more emergencies
“When should I plan to come up?” I asked mom, struggling to make it sound like things were fine. But things weren’t fine at all. My dad was dying, and on that beautiful day in May 2014, he had been released to home with hospice care, and I wanted to see him.
“You might want to make it sooner rather than later,” mom said.
I knew it then. He didn’t have long. After all, this was my mother, the same woman who told me to “go ahead and work the rest of the day” after dad had his first stroke. “I don’t want you driving when you’re upset,” she explained. That time, I was about four miles away. This time, that number was four hundred.
I was on the road within the hour.
As I drove, I wondered how I was going to get through this visit. How does a daughter say goodbye to her father?
I didn’t know what in-home hospice care looked like, but for some reason I pictured people sitting around and crying. Odd, that thought, because we are not that type of family. We carry on. We keep on living. It doesn’t mean we’re strong…it’s just what we do.
I arrived at my parents’ home and found no tears. Instead, things just felt…peaceful. I met dad’s hospice nurse, and she gave us an update on his condition. As she spoke, I glanced at the DNR order displayed prominently on the refrigerator. If there was an emergency, we were NOT to call 911. We were to call hospice.
Seeing it written out like that changed my perception of things. For my dad, there were no more emergencies.
Think of that…no more emergencies.
How would you live your life differently if there were no more emergencies? What would you say? What would you do? I chose to be in the moment, and I chose to share some laughs. But above all, I chose to listen. Because my dad? Well, he had a few stories to tell!
Stories from dad
Dad spent most of that visit sharing family stories and legends. He had pictures we had never seen before, and he wanted to tell the stories behind those images.
The first photo he shared was simply amazing. “Can you find your grandfather?” he asked. I did a double take.
“What? This was grandpa’s Navy photo?”
Indeed, it was. I tried to find grandpa, but chose the wrong person…several times. Finally, dad grinned and pointed to a handsome young man seated at the lower right of the photo. A few years later, I would discover that grandpa was chosen as honor man of that platoon, and I would wonder if dad had known that when he talked about grandpa on that amazing May day.
He shared another photo, this one of grandpa as well, “Um…dad? Grandpa looks like he’s…having a really good time here,” I commented. Dad clarified that grandpa was a few sheets to the wind during a shore leave in Cuba. “Was that when he got that Felix the cat tattoo?” I asked. I had always wondered about that!
Maybe it was, but dad wasn’t sure. Grandpa could be a bit of a hellion, and his wild ways led him straight to my grandmother, in one of my favorite “how-we-met” stories ever. Grandpa had gotten in a brawl in Chicago, and he found himself at County General’s emergency room (yes, the same ER that was later chronicled on the famous television show!). My grandma was the nurse who stitched grandpa up and sent him on his way.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Family legends? Yes, we had a few of those.
Dad slept often during that visit, and while he slept, I looked through old family photos. I smiled and laughed as I looked at page after page of vacation photos. We weren’t always thrilled with dad’s plans, but as I looked at those photos, I was so glad that he stood firm, despite our complaints. Those vacations left an impression on me, and the memories we made figure prominently in the research and writing I do today.
A few days later, I said goodbye to my dad. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but looking back, I realize how profound that moment really was. How many people have a chance to say that final goodbye to a parent?
Later, I would write of those final moments:
“I’m lucky, though…I got that final visit, and we got to say what we needed to say. And in the end, I realized that I wasn’t looking for an apology for some random argument we’d had way back when.
None of that mattered.
That last morning, when I said my final goodbye, all that mattered was that I could say that I loved him.
And I said it often.”
– J. L. Starkey, June 2014