At last, a new car. A new-to-me car at any rate: a 2013 VW Passat 2.5 S.
With that, my beloved Toyota Matrix is finally gone. I wrote its eulogy last September (read it here) after it developed several problems that would cost far more to fix than the car was worth. One of those problems made the car a safety risk on the road.
But then I dragged my feet on selling it. In part, I struggled to let go of my baby. In part, other priorities kept winning over selling a beater car. In part, I wanted more from it than the $200 my mechanic offered me so he could part it out.
But then late in January it became essential that my family have three safe and reliable automobiles. My wife and I both own Ford Focuses that, despite age and high mileage, are entirely roadworthy. I had to act, and fast, to replace the Matrix.
My wife and I set a budget and I went shopping. That budget was low enough and time was enough of the essence that my purchase criteria were very broad: under 50,000 miles, good reliability reputation, four doors, usable back seat. I looked at a handful of cars and SUVs before coming upon this Passat.
The back seat is cavernous. Our 6′2″ youngest son can sit back there with easily four inches between his knees and the back of my seat. Finally, a comfortable trip car for the family!
The automotive press panned the 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder engine for lacking power compared to the competition. I’ve not driven other midsize sedans, but this Passat has plenty of scoot for me, especially when I drop the transmission into Sport mode. Whee! Fusions and Accords and Camrys must be blazing quick.
The press also criticized the Passat’s generic styling. Can’t say they’re wrong.
After so many years driving inexpensive economy cars, I feel like a real grown up driving this large, comfortable car. But it feels like a wasteful amount of car for me to drive alone to and from work, which is what I use it for most. I take solace in the fact that it gets gas mileage at least as good as my lamented Matrix and my Focus!
Oh, and the trade-in value on a beater 2003 Toyota Matrix: $750. Score!
I have a great memory of my dad. It was probably the late 1970s and we were waiting in our car for Mom to finish shopping. The radio was on low when the song below came on. It was just the kind of over-the-top song that brought out Dad’s inner showman. He belted it out, smiling at me, singing for me. He sang it better than the artist!
I miss Dad’s voice. It was big, deep, rich. He had excellent control, being able to make it very loud or quite low and tender. Until his last months.
But I’m choosing not to feel guilty that I don’t miss Dad very much otherwise. As I’ve shared before, Dad and I never figured out how to have an adult-to-adult relationship. He needed to be the teacher, the coach, the mentor, well past the point where our relationship needed primarily to be about that. But more than that, Dad was challenging in his last years. He was often in a difficult mood, often blunt and unkind.
I lived in tension, trying to be a good son who honored his father while constantly setting boundaries with him and repeatedly asserting my independence. It is a relief to be free of it.
But there was something about his voice.
When I was three, he picked me up after surgery in the hospital. His low and easy voice erased my fear and filled me with security.
When my brother and I were small, growing up on Rabbit Hill, Dad would open the front door and call. “Jim-may! Rick-ay!” Every family for a mile knew it was time for the Grey boys to go home.
Dad could carry a tune and sang frequently. Especially in the morning — he loved the new day and often met it with a song. (The rest of us were night owls and didn’t appreciate his morning cheerfulness!) He fancied himself Elvis and went after most songs with all the oomph and verve that implies.
When Dad taught, his voice carried the air of authority. He taught young Robyn down the street to play chess. He taught woodworking for several summers to 4-H youth. He taught my sons to sharpen knives. In all ways, his voice carried “I’ve got this and I can show you” in perfect pitch.
And when he was angry, Dad’s voice filled with rage and fury. It was deeply frightening to my brother and me when we were small. I did everything I could to avoid hearing that voice, right up until he died.
After the cancer was found in his liver and his brain late last summer, his voice sounded strained much of the time. I think this was the hardest thing for me to take as he began to fade away. While I felt bad for him that his failing eyesight and fading strength kept him from so much activity, I accepted these things.
But his voice. I always hoped it would come back, just for a minute.
My dad’s last words to me were about my son, Garrett.
It was Dad’s birthday, his 77th, and we had planned a quiet celebration. Mom called me that afternoon to warn me that Dad had not gotten out of bed all day. More than that: he had taken a turn over the weekend and was in real pain.
As I stood at the foot of his bed Dad experienced several spasms. First his face clouded, and then he grimaced and grunted low for the few seconds each one lasted.
I tried to wish him a happy birthday, but Dad had something to say. “The younger one,” he said. “The younger one,” his voice strained, wobbly. Weighted down.
“Garrett? You mean Garrett.” Mom hovered anxiously.
“Yes, Garrett. He asked about the knives.”
Several years ago my father taught my sons how to sharpen knives. He was extremely good at it. When I was a boy Dad made a friend at work, a fellow of his father’s generation named Pat, who taught him how. Dad and Pat used to spend their breaks at their whetstones in friendly competition to see who could get the best edge.
When my brother and I were young, Dad tried to teach us, too. But his patience was terrible. When we didn’t get it right away he lost his temper. It pushed us away
But a man mellows with age. Time and life burr off his rough edges, much like the whetstone burrs off metal splayed along a dull blade. Dad taught my sons with a level of patience that, while still not perfect, was greater than anything I ever experienced from him as a child. I envied my sons, who learned it readily and were and happy to present me my knives, sharpened.
I can only assume that Garrett had lately asked his grandpa for a refresher. And here was Dad, concerned about it more than his pain.
“Garrett wanted me to show him again about the knives.”
Or at least that’s what I think he was trying to say. Morphine slowed and slurred his speech. Pain spasms interrupted him every fourth or fifth word and caused him to lose his place. He kept trying again to say it. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.
Dad stayed asleep. No candles were blown out, no cake was eaten. My gift to him, two pairs of new Levi’s 505s, the only jeans he would wear, went unopened.
Early the next afternoon I was at a coffee shop with my brother discussing some matters of our mutual employer. Mom called: “Your father stopped breathing about an hour ago. He just quietly passed away.”
A man needs to feel useful, to know he’s offering something valuable and meaningful. In my dad’s cancer years he seemed less and less sure what purpose he served.
Actually, his search for purpose went back farther than that. Dad had been all about his family while my brother and I were under his roof. After my brother and I grew up and moved away, Dad went into business for himself making custom wood furniture. After that venture failed, he returned to manufacturing management. But it was a kick in his teeth when that job encountered surprising difficulty and ended involuntarily. He seemed simply to lose his will to work.
My father drilled into his sons that a man works, period. It was extremely challenging for me to see my mother have to return to work to put food on the table.
Dad threw himself into building coalitions that might revitalize South Bend’s economically depressed west side, where he lived as a teen. He had admirable aims but seemed only to want to be a catalyst for something happening. He simply would not roll up his sleeves and do the hard work to make something happen. None of his initiatives bore any real fruit.
When their home became too much for Dad to care for, he and Mom sold it and retired to Indianapolis to be closer to their sons and to the VA hospital where Dad got all his medical care. But with that, Dad withdrew from everything. He had only his Internet forums and his family.
When my brother or I visited, Dad mostly wanted to hear how our jobs were going. We’d share our frustrations and challenges and Dad would always offer his advice. Unfortunately, his 1970s-1980s manufacturing experience seldom informed my brother’s and my modern software-development reality. It frustrated and sometimes agitated him; more than once I had to deescalate his anger and change the subject. Sooner or later our conversation would remind him of one of his on-the-job stories, such as how he ended 300% annual employee turnover at one plant, which improved productivity so much they soon needed to build another plant. We’d just lay back and let him tell it again; it seemed to let him feel better.
During these years I always had some major home-improvement project underway. Mom and Dad were always eager to come and help. But by this time Dad’s health limited the physical work he could do.
I have one especially good memory of Dad from those project days. Four years ago the city forced me to fill in my septic tank and connect my home to the sanitary sewer. It destroyed much of my front yard. Dad and Mom and my sons and I spent an entire Saturday spreading topsoil, grading, and planting grass. I issued my sons shovels and stationed them by the giant mound of soil I had delivered to my driveway. All day long they’d load the wheelbarrow and Dad would push it into the yard, where Mom and I waited with rakes. Dad would dump the dirt, Mom and I would spread and grade, and Dad would go back for another load. It was a very good day, the five of us working together. Dad did go inside twice to nap. He probably needed two or three more naps that day. But he pushed through because he wanted to be in the action. He was happy to be in the action.
But that was the last time he was able to help much. As I got my house ready to sell last year, Dad and Mom came over frequently to do what they could. I found jobs that his terrible vision allowed him to do. The best of them was waxing my kitchen cabinets. He had perfected a wax-finish technique in his custom furniture days and could make bare wood glow. Even with his poor vision, his work on my cabinets deepened the dark finish and made them look almost new.
But no matter the job, Dad could work only for minutes at a time before his breathing became too labored and he had to stop. He spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, watching his dog run around my fenced back yard. Whenever I needed to run to Lowe’s, he always ran along. Eventually he’d nap. He tried not to show it, but he clearly hated being sidelined.
I’ll probably never understand why he gave up on working when his last job ended, or why he wouldn’t go all in on his economic improvement initiatives, or why after he moved to Indianapolis he gave up on almost everything.
Because when his life came to an end, the thing that was on his mind was being useful, giving something of value. And it was too late.
As I remember my father, who died last month, I want to rerun this story I first published here in April, 2007.
My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:
First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”
Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.
Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”
These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.
My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.
At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.
Clearly, my memory had switched on.
I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.
I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”
I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.
A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.
I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.
20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.
Dad hadn’t been home to West Virginia in more than 25 years.
And I’d successfully moved into adult life: I’d graduated college, gotten a good job, and had an apartment and a car. I was making it.
I felt it was time to steer my relationship with my father from parent-child toward adult-adult. Because of his greater life experience he would still sometimes have wisdom to offer that I needed to hear. And our shared experience of me growing up under his roof would always shape our relationship. But I wanted to signal clearly that the game was changing: I wanted us to know each other as men.
I proposed that we drive together to Handley, his West Virginia boyhood home. Just him and me in my brand-new car. I imagined him telling me his childhood stories and us bonding in a new way. Son and father sharing an experience and moving into an exciting new phase of their relationship.
It took a little convincing, but Dad finally agreed and we laid in the plans.
I didn’t know much about Dad’s childhood then. It’s strange to remember that now, because the last 25 years or so of his life were so characterized by him telling his life’s stories over and over. Frankly, I was tired of hearing them when he died.
But when we made this trip it was 1990 and he was 49, a year younger than I am now. In his 50s his last child graduated and left home, and his father’s generation aged and died. We lost his uncle William first, then Tom, and finally Betty. It was probably no coincidence during these years that he started to tell his stories. They were rough; details and even outcomes changed with each telling. By 2000, when Betty died and Dad became the oldest member of the family, his stories were complete. He told them the same way for the rest of his life. I am sure that through them he made sense of his difficult youth. They gave him peace. They made it possible for him reconnect with the Greys still in the hills.
Dad had done none of this work when he showed up at my Terre Haute home that summer day in 1990. We drove all day to Charleston, where we roomed for the night. The next morning we drove a half hour down Highway 61 to Handley.
There Dad showed me the place where he was born, the place his mother died suddenly four years later: the upstairs apartment over what had been his Grandma Legg’s general store. He pointed out the place where his Grandma Grey’s tavern had once stood. We drove Handley’s few roads up and down the hill and he pointed out a few other places he remembered. Dad spotted his half-brother John’s big white house up the hill and we stopped in to visit. John and his family were surprised but happy to see us. That’s when I learned that Dad had told nobody we were coming.
We drove down the highway to Montgomery to see Dad’s half-brother Rick and his wife Becky. And we went way out to Mt. Nebo hoping to find his mother’s sister, Zelta. Dad was Zelta’s favorite nephew. Dad had said that, as a kid, one of his nicknames was “Jimbo sneezer.” After getting directions at a general store we found Zelta’s house and knocked on the door. Zelta opened it, burst into tears, and cried out, “There’s my Jimbo sneezer!”
We stayed that night at the lodge at Hawk’s Nest, a state park with commanding views of the lush New River valley. As we breakfasted over those views, Dad told me that he and Mom stopped there for the night on their honeymoon.
It was great to see where Dad was from and to connect with a few family members. You have to understand that I had almost no contact with Dad’s West Virginia family when I was small. John and Rick and their families had each once visited us in South Bend when I was a boy, but I couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. And I’d never met anybody from Dad’s mother’s family before. On that front, the trip was a success.
But I utterly failed in my goal to connect with my father as a person. As we drove, I tried to just talk with my father as men might, sharing what was going on in my life and asking what was going on in his and what he thought of it. But he spoke of himself only briefly, only in generalities. He was interested in my life only insomuch as he could tell me where I was going wrong and needed to do things differently.
So I played tapes of some of my favorite music, hoping to find connection there. He asked if we could listen to talk radio instead. So I switched the radio to AM and found a talk show. Rush Limbaugh. Dad was delighted. Neither of us spoke, except when Dad criticized my driving.
I was frustrated that he and I did not come one bit closer on the trip. But I was not defeated, not yet. I decided to keep at it. He would surely come around.
He never allowed it.
There were times when I needed his help. I always called him when I did. He was a rock when I went through my awful divorce — he showed me powerfully what it meant for your family to have your back. One of my young sons struggled heavily, in part due to mild Asperger’s syndrome, and I fumbled every time I tried to help him. I called Dad frequently through my son’s most difficult years. Dad seemed to understand my son almost supernaturally, and his advice was frequently spot on. In part through Dad I finally learned to give my son the space he needed to be who he was. It transformed my relationship with my son.
But the older I got, the more I built my own capabilities and experience and the less I needed Dad’s help. I ached to know him, man to man, all the more. Yet all he would offer me was his perspectives and teaching, even pushing it on me when I didn’t want it.
I was in my early 40s when I finally realized that this was not going to change. He would not be his authentic self with me. I wondered, still wonder, if perhaps he could not.
With each passing year since then, cancer increasingly robbed him of lung capacity and macular degeneration increasingly robbed him of sight. In the last two years he largely gave up, spending most of his time arguing with people in Internet forums until his failed eyesight took even that from him. And then late last summer, when the cancer came back and spread, he soon became entirely dependent on Mom to care for him. You might not have known it if you saw him in my home last Christmas, holding court, telling his stories. But he was very tired and probably in pain.
Most of the last several years I’ve tried to figure out how to be a good and caring son while asserting my own independent manhood. It’s been a delicate line to walk. I regret that I lost my temper with him a few times over it.
In the last couple years before he died, I feared that I would grieve losing him less than irrevocably losing the relationship I always wanted with him. And to a large extent, that’s come true.
But I see now that I did know him, deeply. And it’s because of his stories.
In my 40s, to make sense of and find peace with my own past difficulties I began to write my own life stories. You’ll find some of them sprinkled about this blog; others I keep close to the vest. But as I did that work I kept thinking about my father’s stories. As I arranged them into a timeline I came to see just what tragedy and pain he suffered and how it shaped him. It allowed me to have great empathy for him. It showed me how astonishing it was that he did as well as he did by me and my brother.
I wish we could have spoken of it.
See more photos of Handley here. Read about his Grandma Grey, who I was fortunate to know, here. And here’s a story about a time Dad gave me good advice.
When I launched this blog in 2007 I was beginning to heal from a destructive marriage and a brutal divorce. With a few key exceptions (like this, this, and this) I haven’t told stories from those years. And in those exceptions I made the stories be about me and not my ex.
I could easily have written a few dozen very unflattering stories about my ex. I had considerable righteous anger and I would have loved to vent it. But I made a vow to myself that I would not do that. I feared that it would be unhealthy for me to wallow in it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t like it if my ex blogged unkind stories about me. We were a hot mess — we both have terrible true stories to tell about each other.
I have stories to tell about my father, too. Plenty of them are right on the tips of my fingertips when I sit down to blog.
My dad could be most unkind. He was also frequently domineering and controlling. It did damage that hindered my ability to form healthy relationships when I was an adult. It contributed strongly to why I chose my first wife and to my dysfunction in that marriage.
After Dad died and I wrote his life story I had a conversation with my cousin Susie. She’s Dad’s first cousin, born when Dad was a teenager. She has always loved and looked up to my dad. She tells stories of him tutoring her in arithmetic when she was a girl, making it all come to her so easily when she just couldn’t understand it in school.
I mentioned that I had more stories to tell and not all of them were flattering. But I was reluctant to tell them because the family respected my father so much. I didn’t want to come across as an ungrateful son, petulant, unforgiving.
Susie’s response surprised me. “Tell your stories if they’ll help you grieve. Don’t worry about how we’ll take it. We all know how he could be. It’s no secret. I’ve received it from him, too, and it hurts. It’s a Grey family trait. Some of us have learned to control it.”
I didn’t know anybody else knew. And: ooh, she is so right. I’ve had to beat that same trait down in myself over the years. To learn how to manage my emotions so I can speak and act kindly, in ways that build people up.
I’ve also learned how to choose better the people I keep in my life, and to behave in healthy ways in my relationships. I’ve done a ton of work on myself and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.
In my late 30s I was finally able to make peace with most of what happened between my dad and me when I was young. The remaining few difficult moments were damaging enough that, a couple years ago, I saw a good therapist who helped me heal.
As I continue to grieve my father’s death I’m sure I will write more about him. Or, rather, I’ll write more about me in my relationship with him. Some of what I write will likely show some of my father’s unfortunate traits. I will write it only when I can’t tell my own story without revealing those details.
Because like Susie I know two sides of my dad. The other side of him is remarkable. My father, who exited a chaotic childhood feeling unwanted and having no idea what normal was, went on to make a stable, successful family. His two children were the first Greys ever to graduate college right after high school. The conditions he created and his encouragement helped us both move from our working-class roots into upper-middle-class careers. Contrary to the American mythos, this is actually enormously difficult. My father was satisfied with what he accomplished, as well he should have been.