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The Funeral for John Roger Howard

The Funeral for John Roger Howard

    John Roger Howard, my cousin Roger, died early Saturday morning, February 10th, in a housefire in Westbrook, Connecticut.  He was 66 years old. He retired from banking several years ago. He is survived by children, married daughter Jessie Brine, and twin sons, Samuel and Nathanial; two grandchildren, Luke and Clara Brine; his sister, Cynthia Howard Hermanson; and his longtime companion, Mary Feldtmose.

    The funeral was held across the road from a Howard family cemetery in Greenwich, Connecticut, near the Town of Stamford line, a locality named Stanwich.  The Stanwich Congregational Church graciously permitted use of its old sanctuary (once in the mid-1800's a Methodist Church!), a lovely, white, steepled New England meeting house.  Cousin Cindy Hermanson, Roger's sister, the executrix of his estate, phoned me the morning following Roger's tragic death to inform me of the sad news. Cindy, Roger's three children, Mary Feldtmose, and I planned the service. 

    Here with texts and photos is a report of the memorial service and committal Saturday, February 24th, at 1 PM.

 

    Roger's son Sam, the elder (by five minutes) twin spoke first:

    The central paradox, I’ve come to realize, in the death of a loved one is that you need that person most at the moment of their absence.  It is very difficult and very strange to get through Dad’s death without him.  At a time like this, he really ought to be here.  And for that reason I like to imagine that he his here helping us through his death.  I keep thinking he’s just outside enjoying a cigar.  Also, I keep thinking as a refrain: What a man.  What a man.

     From a very young age I was awed and fascinated and puzzled by my father.  One of my earliest confusions was over his name, or rather his names: he was known to many of you as Roger yet he also went by his first name John.  For a small child this pluralism is mind-bending, it overturns the fundamental structural belief in correspondence, the fact that a thing carries its name like a brand that assigns it being. Names in childhood are absolute and total, and they signify precisely the person to whom they belong.  In that childish view, a name is much more than your identity, it is the invocation of everything a person is, and it is your fate.  Who then is someone with interchangeable first names?  What a variety!  What is it for one person to answer to two names?  I still find it unimaginable.  And it hints at a kind of virtuosity.  My Dad was an exception to the normal limits, he outdid the limits and was somehow deserving of two titles.  This extraordinariness was delicately suggested by a tee shirt my father wore when I was a kid that read “All this and brains too.”   Followed by several electric exclamation points.

     But my point is that from an early age my father had a special magnitude and mystique for me, and a kind of might great enough for two… He always astonishes me.  His accomplishments exceed those of a single lifetime, even one cut short.

     If I was awed by my Dad or puzzled by his powers, he never seemed uncertain of himself.  He was unambiguously and unapologetically and irresistibly John Roger Howard.  He was unchanged by prosperity and power, never adopted the pretensions or mannerisms of success.  As his son, my father achieved his ambitions and though they were likely won through hardship, it always appeared to me effortless  – I think Dad met everything he set out to be, and he did it with finesse.  In that he is heroic.  Dad was familiar with authority, look how handsomely and convincingly he wore that Coast Guard uniform, yet he was never authoritarian.  He was strenuously sure.  He was a man of great decision, yet he was profoundly non-judgmental.  He was a man of consequence yet for all his stern importance in the world, Dad was never self-important.  He never demanded anything of us, his children, and I mean this literally, he never once gave us orders.  He always gave us a quiet love and support.  And we, his children, gave him in return love and support.  Perhaps we should have been louder, and demanded more of each other, or challenged each other more.  But we didn’t, and we were right not to. 

     My father’s undemanding love for us was a kind of grace.  He didn’t care what we imagined ourselves to be or hoped to become; he loved us for who we are, painfully unvarnished and trivial and striving and individual.  That love becomes a species of belief.  I believe even more in him now.  I believe that every moment of peace and fun and happiness in my life will be his also.   That any moment I have with Luke and Clara, my nephew and niece, will be his moment with his grandchildren.  So too will our awaiting comforts be his.  We all despair at Dad’s death but we all hold the message his life now possesses, of unabated unembellished love, and we take it as our guide in his absence.

     The rest of us are suffering, but Dad isn’t.  We all wish that we could have properly looked at him and hugged him and said goodbye.  But really, I don’t think we could have shown or told Dad anything he didn’t already know.  He knows how we love him, how thankful we are, how proud we are of him and how heartbroken we are for missing him. 

     I thought of quoting a fragment of poetry or prose that Dad would have found apt or amusing.  Or better to narrate an episode that would spotlight/showcase Dad’s essential self, the humor and shrewdness, his stubborn gentle determined nature, his adventurousness and love of fun, his capability and peculiarity. But I kept returning to an image that I have treasured for several years now, and while it may not encapsulate him perfectly, it is an image that has solaced me a good deal since his death.

     Eight or nine years ago, my father rented a house in Maine for a week over the summer.  I don’t recall exactly where it was, but the area was dotted with pristine quarry lakes, where we would swim and read and drowse.  Jessie, Dad, Nat and I were at one of these lakes, where I found myself standing on a cliff with my brother.  We were debating the height, suddenly uncertain after somewhat gallantly climbing up from the shore.  We lanky twins peering doubtfully over the edge, struck with vertigo, hesitant and wordy.  Our sister watching skeptically from below the pines.  Then, we heard a few vigorous footsteps and a body shot past us.  It was Dad – aka John, Roger, JR, the Rock from Stamford, Lieutenant Howard, the Silver Fox, Pops.  I see him now, a small tanned man aloft in the dazzling sky, his knees gathered loosely into his stomach, his mustache gleaming in the light, and his shorts filling slightly with air on this ecstatic, unafraid, and somehow eloquent, descent.   Encouraged by his takeoff, Nat and I then leapt in after our father.  And we all surfaced, spluttering and laughing, our hair plastered to our foreheads, our bodies held there in the water flashing under the sun.  

    Next at the pulpit was Roger's other twin son, Nathanial.  Nat presented this message:

Thank you all for coming today to help commemorate my father.  For those of you who knew my father, he would embrace each of you now as he has embraced you all during his lifetime.  For those of you who have come out of kindness and who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing my father, because of his fairness and warmth, I am fairly sure, if not entirely half certain, that he would have liked you somewhat.

The loss of a parent is the most unkind cut for any child to suffer, and through all the turmoil of coming to terms with his deep absence, I have tried to soften the hardship by finding the right language with which to think of his departure.  He disliked solemnity and heaviness, and he would shake his head if he heard me speaking of his “shuffling off the mortal coil” or being “launched into eternity”.  He was, through and through, a John Clease man, and I have found solace in thinking of his death in the language Clease employed in the eulogy of his Monty Python mate Graham Chapman.  Using his euphemism, my father has “hopped the twig”.  He is not an ex-Howard, but has hopped the twig and joined the majority of Howards.

I too take comfort in my dad returning to this small parcel of Connecticut from where all the stateside Howards sprang, and despite my father’s pronounced lack of sentimentality, he would be happy to be collected here.  My own sentimental streak must’ve been inherited from the distaff side, because in comparison to my father’s Spartan attitude toward life, I am a blubbering nostalgia queen, constantly whining and hand-wringing over lost moments.  He certainly was not.  I don’t think I ever once heard him express regret or fall into the maudlin reminiscing that is common sport for his offspring.  Despite his deficiency in this vein, he could, on occasion, be lured into revealing details of his past.

It was during one of these rare blushes of sentimentality that he leaked to us that he had been known as “The Rock From Stamford” in his adolescence.  We were looking at old photographs and came across his high school yearbook.   His football teammates had christened him so, and I was instantly fascinated by the idea of my gentle, independent, unimposing father being tagged with a name that resonated with such thuggish nobility.  The Rock From Stamford.  In my mind, my dad instantly became a swaggering greaser that went about pushing faces into lunch trays and ripping shirts in the schoolyard.  Kind of like the Buzz Gunderson character in Rebel Without A Cause.   But this wasn’t true.  The Rock was not a common brute.  The name imparts a steadiness and fortitude, and properly reflects his justness and dependability.  My father was neither bully nor milquetoast, but occupied that special position that won him the respect of his peers and the admiration of those who shared his company, whether it was on the sports field, on the deck of the Half-Moon,  in the boardroom, or in the home.

One would be hard pressed to find a man as successful, talented, and dashing that conducted himself with my father’s unassuming and open manner.  Only when speaking of his athleticism and sporting prowess did he develop tones of pride, and I grew up thinking of him as a celebrated Olympian in his high school and college career.  The Rock was a foxy lacrosse player, a gritty footballer, the swiftest of runners.  Every son hopes to pay homage to their father’s athletic accomplishments, and even though I was weakly endowed in the talent end, I like to think that I made up for it with a ferret-like tenacity.  After all, how could I ever end up on multiple Junior Varsity teams as an upper classman without the rich inheritance of this ferocity? 

I recall one lacrosse practice when the weather was warm in Massachusetts, and my father showed up at the field to watch his twins drop passes and run around in circles like demented mill-ponies.  I knew he was there on the sideline, and I so badly wanted to impress him with some great act so that he could see that the Howard skill had stuck home in me.  Well, somehow the ball rolled into my lacrosse stick, and looking up, I saw an undisrupted stretch of open turf between the goal and myself.  I started galloping toward the far end of the field, thinking of my father in those first unsteady paces, and the swell of paternal pride that would wash over him as he saw his youngest born rocket a shot into the upper right hand corner of the net.  I would win honor his legacy and establish myself as the favorite son.  Excellent.  This fantasy lasted until about my ninth pace towards my destiny, when from out of nowhere, the cruel and substantial shoulder of Mickey Elroy, an oversized galoot of a 16 year old, did to my body what the Austrian mallet does to a choice cut of schnitzel.  When my eyes uncrossed, I turned my head sideways to register the disappointment of my father on the sideline.  What I could make out through the sod-stuffed cage of my helmet, was the figure of my father bent double and howling with laughter in a way that can sometimes make people look a little cracked.  Even though I am certain he would have enjoyed the goal, he wouldn’t have laughed half as hard.

My father’s reaction to my on-field success was instructive of his manner of fatherhood.  He was never overweening or imposing, and gave his children the freedom to charge forward in their chosen directions, even if the movement seemed random and promising of a good knock.  His guidance was a gentle, tender and faithful guidance, and his love was a gracious and consistent love.  During the thirty years of our relationship, we never lost sight of each other, never allowed a rift to develop into a division, and never ceased to nourish that bond between father and child.  As much as we sorely wish he had stayed on this twig, and as much as we feel that he hadn’t yet had all the fun he was due, I know that very little could have been improved upon in our relationship.  As my father would hope it to be, I have nothing to regret during my time as his son, and I take strength in knowing that it will be a very, very long time before his memory fades.

    Mary Feldtmose, Roger's dear friend, said:"Roger once told me that the literal translation for 'I’m sorry' in Spanish (lo siento mucho) was 'I feel it much.'  Today we all feel it much " Then Mary read this poem:.

 We can shed tears that Roger is gone

Or we can smile because he has lived.

 

We can close our eyes and pray that he’ll come back

Or we can open our eyes and see all he’s left.

 

Our hearts can be empty because we can’t see him

Or we can be full of the love we shared.

 

We can turn our backs on tomorrow and live for yesterday

Or we can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

 

We can cry and close our minds, be empty and turn our backs

Or we can do what he’d want: smile, open our eyes, love and go on.”

 

 

    Roger's daughter, Jessie, read a poem:

“Sleeping in the Forest” by Mary Oliver

 

I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,

nothing between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths

among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms

breathing around me, the insects,

and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water,

grappling with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.

 

    Bobby Howard, Roger's cousin on his mother's side, presided at the service and gave this sermon:

Cousin Roger, Fellow Wayfarer

           Earlier this morning I visited the cemetery where we shall be interring Roger’s mortal remains.  I went there to acquaint myself with some of the other Howards who precede my cousin in that quiet space.  I was looking for one in particular, Marion Howard, Cindy and Roger’s cousin once removed.  She was my first childhood “crush.”  I was seven or eight years old, she was fifteen, and to my way of thinking and looking the most beautiful person in the world.  She and her family lived on the other side of our block in Stamford CT.  I would wander down to her house day after day.  Sometimes the family would take me with her to a riding stable.  Right, the one here in Stanwich.  I would wait outside the barn for what seemed to me to be an eternity while she went horseback riding.  I think her family had a summer cottage in the vicinity.

          Marion and her family were the other Howards in town.  My father was a laundry route-man.  The other Howards were the bankers. They prospered.  Why, Marion even had chickens in a coop in her backyard.  For whatever reason, I never much connected Marion with Uncle Harold or, when they came along, Cindy and Roger, my own cousins, who shared with me Grandma Jennie and Grandpa James.  That, of course, is another story.

           As my Emailed message to Sam Wednesday night phrased it, however far we travel in this life we seem always to find ourselves again in former scenes.  Life is a journey home.

           Which is to say, we are most of the time strangers here… on earth.  Some of us make a good show of it otherwise, seem to be at home, take everything in stride, raise families, accumulate fortunes, travel to earth’s four corners, and lead others to think we don’t have a care in the world. Roger seemed to be one of that number, on the outside at least, to those of us who only knew him from a distance, had heard of his real estate coups and fancy car, his early retirement, and his journeys around the world.  All of it aided and abetted by his own reticence (in true male Howard fashion), his disinclination to speak about what was going on inside him.

          But my cousin Roger, no less than his cousin Bobby, had a lot going on inside him, a wordless turmoil that sometimes boiled up in unhappy consequences.  Roger tended to look at life, his children have hinted, as a cynic; perhaps because he was a fiercely moral and studiously fair human being disillusioned by the prevalence of greed and favoritism in the marketplace and the world in general.  Which is to say, my cousin, my fellow wayfarer, had here among us no continuing place, no permanent residence.

           Roger knew in his bones the truth of our life on earth, that we are strangers here… always.  By God, even if Roger never said it, he certainly was also hoping for something better, and yearned to see it even if he seemed to have given up that hope.  For that is one way of expressing the promise we have in our baptism in the name of another stranger and fellow wayfarer among us, Jesus Christ, that, in the words of the Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm, we shall be “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”  Yes, in the Father’s house for ever, but also for moments, superb moments, rare moments, exquisite hours of self-forgetfulness here on earth, when… when we look into the face of our newborn grandchild… when we lie wordlessly side by side with the one we love… when we look back upon the long journey we have made through time and wonder just how lucky we are… in those rare and exquisite moments when eternity invades the present and transfigures it as the gift of the God who holds us and loves us and celebrates us, and speaks to us… ah, then, we catch a glimpse of what God had in mind for us and everyone else when he breathed life into this mortality of ours.

           Auntie Mil (Uncle Harold too), I think, would say a loud “Amen!” even as she now welcomes the wayfaring stranger, her own son, at the threshold of that house not made with hands, where there is no death, no crying or pain any more, but a room for each of us, where we shall dwell not as strangers but as children at home.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

God of our days, every one of them, first to last, if they be short, however uncertain, filled with joy or sadness, you are there, in them summoning us to life and love, to taste your goodness and your glory, speak to us now, we pray.  Console us in our sorrow at the passing of Roger, dad, grandfather, brother, cousin, friend, the child you summoned from the eternity before to the eternity ahead.  We do know there is much for which Roger had cause to be grateful to you: the love and nurture of the family that welcomed him into the world, mom and dad and sister; strength of mind and length of years to make the most of his time and to enjoy it; three children, his Jessie and Sam and Nat, about whom he had every reason to be proud; friends and lovers along the way to hold him and help him, worry over him and with him; and a full measure of prosperity to go where it pleased him and to do it all in style.  We thank you too for his part in our lives, and not only the happy parts, the celebrations and high moments, but the hard parts also, through which we were drawn more closely together and opened our hearts to one another.  Welcome him home, Father.  Grant him the peace that too often eluded him here.  Give him the full measure of your compassion; hold him close to your heart.  For we ask it in the name of him who always has us in his heart, whose life is open toward us to lead us into an abundance of life, here and forever, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

    A Gaelic benediction, read by the congregation, concluded the service.  Why Gaelic?  Because in Roger (and Cindy) two Irish families with the same name came together.  Patrick Howard and Michael Howard were, as best we can decipher, refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland in mid-19th century, each arriving in Greenwich as children.  Whether or not they knew one another descendants on either side have no clue.  But all of us are very happy they came to these shores.

    A brief committal service graveside was held immediately following the service in the church.

    The family and friends gathered at the Hermanson home in Norwalk just south of the Merritt Parkway following the committal, for refreshments, getting reacquainted, and reminiscing.

    Looking through her albums sister Cindy found this photo of a jaunty brother, a smirky cousin, and a smiling woman.

    In the week following the funeral service there was, as you might suspect, a considerable exchange of Emails among family members.  One such communication to me from John Feldtmose attached the following tribute to Roger (from a cousin from the "other" Howards), a message he initially chose to withhold lest it upstage the words of the children.  It is, as I wrote to John, humorous, generous, and affectionate.

I'd like to share some memories I have of Roger over the 65 years I knew him.  These recollections seem to correspond well with what Nat and Sam said at the service.

I always considered Roger the brother I never had.  I was an only child and always wanted an older brother – NOT an older sister, mind you – I was warned by Roger that an older sister was not a good thing!  Maybe Rog didn’t think of me as his younger brother, but that was my fantasy.

As teenagers, and younger, Roger was always a couple of steps ahead of me.  From my viewpoint, he hung out with the “fast” crowd – people I really wanted to be like and to associate with, but never could.  I always admired Roger because he was very “cool” and “tough” and a daredevil.  He was an athlete.  He was cool with the girls.  He had a great sense of humor.  He was completely dashing, at least from my viewpoint as a younger cousin. 

For instance, Roger would hang out down at the sand pits in Glenbrook with the local hoods.  Maybe they weren’t hoods and were perfectly nice guys, but they scared the hell out of me. I wonder if Dan was one of those guys??  I was invited down there once – just once! – and had my pants scared off. One big guy picked me up and carried me in front of a tall dam they had built in front of a stream.  To this day, I still have issues being in front of dams!

And then Rog hitchhiked across the country.  Wow!  What an adventure that was!  I mean, who did that?

He got even more dashing as he got older.  It was in the very important things, like hair.  What great hair – even greater when it got to be salt and pepper, and then gray.  Mine got gray too, but there wasn’t enough of it to matter by that time.

And then there’s the “Howard Walk.”  There’s no way to describe it, but it’s kind of like a duck:  if it walks like a duck, it must be a Howard.  Roger had it.  Uncle Ray and Uncle Cliff had it, and I probably do too.  I know my son David and my daughter Jennifer have a little of it.  I haven’t noticed whether Jessie, Nat and Sam have “it.”

Roger and I got close in the 60s when we were both between marriages and living in New York.  We were good friends for each other at that difficult time.  It must have been during his time in the City that Roger developed his cooking talents – inherited I’m sure from Mildred, who was also a great cook.  She was certainly the envy of my mother!  I’m bound by recipes.  Roger was able to do it more by touch, taste and feel.  He just had a knack for it, like his mom.

Our families had a wonderful safari in Kenya in 1988, and it was good to have the time to bond with the family after not doing so for many years.  And also a nice trip trekking the hills of Scotland before that.

The last time Roger and I spent a block of time together was in 1992 when the two of us did a rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  This was an adventurous and beautiful trip, and we had a great time.  (Although we thought the other people in our group were convinced we were a gay couple!)  Of course, Rog was always sitting in the front of the raft taking the waves and a mile ahead hiking up and down the Canyon.  I have videos of this and other trips that I looked at a few days ago if anybody’s interested.

But the biggest revelation I had about Roger was 10 or 12 years ago when I was telling him my problems with life and marriage.  Roger was lovingly amused by the events and saw a striking irony.  He said part of him was glad I had finally messed up because his mother had always told him, “You should be like John and get good grades!”  So Roger was always told to be like me….but I always wanted to be like Roger.  Go figure! 

Roger, if you’re listening now, I’m sure I never told you, but when we were growing up I always admired you and wanted to be like you, and wished you were my older brother.  And I know that feeling has always been with me.  Thanks for supporting me in so many ways over our lives.  I’ll miss you.

 

 



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