Yesterday your great grandson was born and he shares your name – Burton! When I read that Susanna and Collin had named him Gregory Burton, it struck me that, if you were still around, you’d be 96 this year, and you would have loved meeting him. When I heard his name, I began thinking about you, and about you and me, and had to write.
You died such a long time ago, Dad, the year I turned 23 — February 1982. I never felt like I got to know you much. So many things got in the way of our relationship. And, since you died, you’ve missed so much of my life– and the lives of your grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I remember when you and mom called me about the cancer. It was July 12, 1981. It was about 10 in the morning at the University Religious Center, at UC Santa Barbara, where I served as caretaker located in in Isla Vista. I was in the living room with its drab, brown, indoor-outdoor carpet, when the phone rang. It was unusual to have both of you on the line. You’d been dialing all us kids that morning to let us know you’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. You and mom said you’d put together a new chaise lounge the night before, both of you weeping, for somehow after 33 years of marriage, you both knew, this was it.
After we had hung up, I had knelt down by the side of my bed, also in the living room, and asked one question: “Papa, is my dad going to die?” “Yes, child,” was the answer. “How should I pray, then?” And again with crystal clarity I had heard, “Pray for healing.” That day I had learned that healing stretched beyond the physical body. Indeed, it seemed God was working on many of us as you were dying those short six months.
I know you loved me, you just couldn’t understand me. It is interesting that in this picture below both you and Mom are looking at me. I see love in your face, Dad, but it is also characteristic of me that I sought and garnered lots of attention. My sister and brothers are looking straight ahead – Nancy self-confident and assured, Roger on left looking his carefree self, and John, a bit bewildered. My arrival did displace John from his youngest place, and it took years to recover.
You spoke sincerely about the importance of the presence of the father in the home, the presence of prayer, the presence of play in life. And you sincerely sought to live out those values but I couldn’t receive much from you. I don’t remember much expression of faith from either you or Mom – I don’t remember prayer 🙏 as part of our lives, except at meals, or scripture, except at Christmas. You lived out faith more by connection to church, by serving others, by serving everyplace you both could – choir, the church session, Boy Scouts, loving the stranger
I remember being with you and being terrified when you pulled your truck over on the highway and picked up a hitch hiker. You treated him as if he’d been a long lost friend. Shook hands across me, shared names, asked about his life and where he was headed. I don’t think you ever met a stranger Dad, and the same has been said of me. Maybe I know you somewhat in me?
Also, you loved food and life. I remember that at Thanksgiving, you’d push back your chair after that time of food and lively conversation and laughter and you’d fold your hands across your strong frame and say one word “Delightful!”followed by that winning smile of yours.
Thanksgiving expressed your desire to be surrounded by family. Your sister, Ruth, and her family, husband Peter, and our cousins Chris and Pam would often be there. We always had other guests. You were a highways and byways person, inviting anyone who didn’t have a place to go, to come.
Reno Unger came more than one year. He was a distant cousin of yours, stationed in the navy in San Diego, who, when he discovered he had family just 10 hours away, came. I remember him looking all impressive in his white navy uniform that first year. He was tall, lanky, with dark hair and a huge laugh. And like you, Reno laughed and joked lots!
We always laughed plenty at Thanksgiving, playing sardines, chess, scrabble, and eating great meals, but that year, with Reno there, it was like the lights came on anew. What life and joy he brought. Sardines had never been quite that adventuresome nor fun.
Then another year he was back with his now 7 to 8 months pregnant wife, Nancy. We played sardines again and remember? And Nancy got stuck under my sister Nancy’s bed!
Do you remember, dad?
Sardines was always the best game. Did you teach us that game? It always seemed like our family’s game. But maybe Reno brought it with him.
We’d search for whomever had hid in the darkened rooms of the house and once we’d found them we’d hide with or near where they’d hidden. We’d be all quiet and giggly, then begin to whisper- “Are we all here?” And eventually, we would know we were and all come out of the places we’d hidden.
That night Nancy Unger got stuck we were all squeezed under Nancy’s high bed frame, and a couple people were in the closet when we realized we were all there. We had all come back to the lit family room ready to have the next person hide, when we heard this muffled voice, call:
Then we realized no Nancy Unger! We went back to look and there she was, against the wall, under the bed, with that big stomach with the baby inside, she were stuck fast.
You and Reno lifted that big, wooden, brown high posted bed frame off her so she could slide out. And all of us laughed and laughed.
Laughter and Music. Dad, you loved to laugh, but I think some of the laughter was squelched by other things in life. Nancy, my sister, remembered that before I arrived, you and mom would often have friends over for parties filled with laughter and lots of music. Mom was a great pianist and you both loved to sing. After I arrived those gatherings perhaps still happened, but less frequently. I don’t remember any. It was like after I arrived some of the music and laughter diminished.
There was one musical event when I turned 3 that marked my life Your church choir produced the Operetta “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” There’s a picture I couldn’t find for this post of me peeking out from your robe. You played Balthazar, one of the Kings. More than the event, the music of this play lived on in my life. You and Mom would randomly launch into refrains from this play. The story is rooted deeply in my heart. I cannot watch it without weeping. I think I’d get frustrated with the sung sentences growing up, but, I miss them now. You’ve marked my life with hope.
I remember when Nancy, my big sister, saw a Black Widow spider in her room one night. She had screamed and you had come in, turned on the light, gotten a stick, and swung that spider around and around by that spider’s tough silk until she was at the end of that stick. Then you deftly dealt with that spider. 🕷You were laughing the whole time. Nancy was not amused.
You enjoyed scaring her a bit, I think, but do you know what I saw?
Dad: You were fearless.
Remember the boat you built? Before google, before YouTube, before classes at local clubs, back in 1960 you decided to build a kayak. This would be no ordinary kayak, however. It would easily hold all six of us and you wanted it to be an unsinkable kayak, and yours truly was.
You created your own frame with various kinds and sizes of wood. You used fiberglass webbing on the outside and painted and painted resin over this. Layer upon layer. This was no lightweight boat! The garage stunk so much! I only got to see this from a distance as a toddler
Nancy, Roger, and John all helped. You were such a great leader of your kids that all three believed they each helped the most.
Roger remembered how you had to tilt the finished frame on end in order to pour in a kind of liquid foam that would harden into a kind of floatation styrofoam. He told me that he and Johnny helped you do this. The end of the kayak went up into the rafters of the garage that night, and then you’d pour in the smelly mixture.
I wish I had had the ability to really know your ingenuity like Roger and John did. At that I age and then as teenagers they worked side by side with you on many projects, even fixing and repairing their cars.
It’s not that I didn’t have the opportunity, after all, when I was 16, you and I did putty and shape the fender and repaint the whole VW beetle I bought from our neighbor. He had had that thing sitting in his field with the “For Sale: $500” on it. But my heart was so shut down, compromised, (see my post titled #metoo) by then, that I never really connected with you during that time.
That kayak was incredible, though, Dad! The maiden voyage was at Turlock Lake in the foothills. I was still a toddler but you had the other three out in it encouraging them to try to flip it, which they hardly managed. Then to try to sink it. Eventually the four of you were all in that boat, it was filled with water, but, unlike the Titanic on her maiden voyage, it proved unsinkable.
We took that boat to many lakes and on many adventures. I remember when we all were in it on our church’s pool one evening to demonstrate lifesaving techniques for the class of lifeguards We feined an emergency, rough water and flipped it so we all could flounder in the water and be rescued. This was all before I turned 8. Dad, you had so much life
Dad, I wish I could have known you, better.
John and Roger still build things. Roger designed and built his own house with Dorothy years back in Elk Grove, CA. He built hardwood cabinets from scratch in their current house. I remember as John described how he decided “a staircase would look great here,” in one of his houses, then cut the hole in the ceiling and built the staircase. He completely remodeled the kitchen of another house: adding doors, windows, whatever he chose. It’s like they got the inventive genius, brilliant know-how gene from you, Dad. For you were super-creative and adventuresome. You also had added on a room to our Hawkeye house, mixed, poured and built steps to the front also. I admire all you could do and they can do, design, create, build. It is remarkable and through them I get to touch and see some of your genius. Dad, you were a marvel.
They say things to me like – “Just check YouTube. Google it! You could do this.” But there’s more to it than that. It’s like they got this know-how from you, while I got a super big dose of your joy.
There’s more that I know about you, Dad, you loved the outdoors.
I think mom never totally appreciated this about you, but the backcountry, to be in the wild, that was vacation for you. Before I could fully remember the years of the abuse (see my post: #metoo) I could only recall one childhood memory. It was the summer Nancy graduated from high school, you planned and took us all including a friend of Nancy’s, on a two week backpacking trip. It was called the Ten Lake trail and looped through ten backcountry lakes in the High Sierras above Yosemite Valley. It’s amazing how many snapshots are in my memories from that trip.
I remember the hot, dusty hike up, up, up out of The Valley at the start and how fast John and Roger could hike! I remember at one point you pointed out where a bear had reached up high on an old tree trunk to mark his territory. You noted how tall that bear had been and were unafraid. That was by this beautiful stream.
I remember fishing in one of the lakes, catching my first rainbow trout, and frying fish for dinner. I remember skinny dipping with the family. Don’t think Mom did that. I remember trying to compete with my brothers to be bravest by jumping into the freezing lakes. They were braver than me!
Nancy reminded me of one memory I hadn’t remembered. While we were hiking along one of the super high ridges, about 20’ across with drop offs on both sides, suddenly I’d disappeared. Everyone panicked, searching, yelling, and looking. They feared I’d fallen over the edge But actually I had hidden just for fun behind one of the big boulders No one was amused when I popped out.
“We were furious with you!” Nancy told me.
I only remember one time that you were really mad at me, Dad. Do you remember? It was some special time when we had visitors at the house and I was going to church with you but didn’t really want to go. You agreed to pick me up at the corner of Johnson St. And Hawkeye Ave. I don’t remember why that was but I was to wait there. However, instead I’d climbed up in the tree at that corner, intently observing the ground, and stayed up there, telling you later I hadn’t been hiding but been watching a bug crawling along the ground! 🤔 You’d arrived, not seen me, couldn’t wait and so went on without me. You were so mad when you got home. When I made my lame excuse, you were even angrier. You chased me through the house, which I made into a game. Somehow I escaped punishment. Sorry Dad, I just feared going to church sometimes.
Nancy described you as the most loving, brilliant, fair, kind, and decent human. There was so much to admire. I want to admit that I have spent years not appreciating you. Indeed, for years I determined to not be like you – something left over from the other hurts I experienced as a kid. I was not going to look like you – but I have your frame and body. Like you I also still weigh the same as when I was in high school. I sing like you – so cousin Chris has told me. I laugh like you. My face has the same multiple wrinkles like yours did. People also have said I have a megawatt smile, like my dad. So, thank you Dad for doing your best, loving me, holding me, playing with me, even when you didn’t get all the difficult stuff going on within me. Thank you. I’m the me I am because of you. And I’m doing my best to pass on faith, joy, blessing, love and that quality of joyous inclusion you always showed as I live this life, and as I love your namesake Gregory Burton. He’s all wrinkly just like you and me..