Yesterday I kept thinking about my father because it was his birthday. He was born in 1918, so he would have turned 99 yesterday. For those who have read my books, you know that his pilgrimage on this earth was often filled with strife and struggles. And yet his passage from this world to the next was a peaceful one. Back when he died, my sisters and I wrote a tribute to Datt for Mem. Here is what I wrote:
Simon S. Miller
August 28, 1918 — September 30, 2004
In remembering Datt, it is tempting for me to ask the question of what is the meaning of a life as filled with sorrow as Datt’s was. He carried his burden of sorrow wherever he went. Most of us want to think that we are put on this earth for a purpose, and some of us spend our lives trying to understand and accomplish that purpose. When I heard that Datt was really ill, I started contemplating what the purpose of his life was, and whether he had accomplished it. Then one day I realized, this is not for me to understand. Only our Maker knows the answers to these questions, and all I can do as a mortal is to accept Datt’s life for exactly what it was. I don’t need to judge it, nor do I need to glorify it by trying to make him into someone he wasn’t. When I accept his life for what it was, I am able to sift through the memories I have of growing up with him as my father and remember and cherish the good memories, while letting go of the ones that weren’t so happy.
One morning, a few days before he died, I awoke and it was raining. I was sleeping right next to an open window. I peeked at my clock and muttered to myself, “Rain before seven, it’ll stop before eleven.” I was about to fall asleep, and my eyes flew open when I remembered Datt saying that so vividly, it was as if I heard him say it then and there. Here I was, in my bed that overlooks Smith College Campus, far from Datt and my childhood. However, I realized no matter where I go in the world, there are certain fundamental ways of thinking that I have internalized from being Datt’s daughter that will never change. I am happy to accept this. There are aspects of Datt that will live on in us children.
I will never forget the day David and I were in the woods with Datt, and David asked Datt how to tell the difference between a hard maple and a soft maple. Datt walked up to a soft maple and stuttered around about how the bark is different on a hard maple. He said, “The bark isn’t so, well, so prominent, on a hard maple.” That surprised the heck out of me; I didn’t know he knew what the word prominent meant, never mind how to use it in its proper context. It occurred to me that he possibly was more intelligent than the rest of us knew.
Another moment is really strong in my memory. Mem and Datt were walking in the driveway together after Communion Service the Sunday that Dan Wengerd had been ordained bishop. The two of them were deep in conversation. Mem had her shawl folded over her arms, and Datt was walking by her side with his head bent low, matching her pace instead of his usual faster one. In any other family, this would have been an ordinary moment, but in ours, it was extraordinary. Here was a moment when the two of them were a couple, walking home from a church service together, and they seemed to be enjoying one another’s company. It occurred to me that there were things about their relationship I hadn’t understood.
Yet another memory about Datt is the time when Otto Herring had paid Mem and Datt for number one maple syrup when it was clearly fancy syrup. They were both upset, but neither of them wanted to confront Otto. I offered to do that, and Datt drove me up to the Log Cabin in Burton in the horse and buggy, and then he let me go in and talk to Otto. As soon as I stepped inside to talk with Otto, he conceded that the syrup was indeed fancy, and he said he would pay the difference. When I came out, Datt was standing expectantly by the buggy. He asked, “What did he say?” When I told him, his face broke into a wide grin and he thanked me more than he had ever thanked me for anything else.
Some people would ask why Datt couldn’t have argued for himself. But if he didn’t know anything else, he knew his own limits. He was no match for Otto, and he knew it. Not only was Otto shrewder than Datt, but he had the upper hand as the buyer of his syrup. The other thing that is interesting about this incident is that though Otto intimidated him, Datt never once doubted the syrup was fancy. He knew his stuff when it came to sugaring.
Another fond memory I have is when a couple used to come over on Sunday afternoons. Datt and this other man would play one game of checkers after another. I remember Datt’s Sunday shirt at the time was green. He would rock back in his rocking chair at the end of the game, after he had won it once again, and laugh gleefully. In the meantime, Mem and the other woman would be in the kitchen making a meal and visiting. I remember Mem used to take her good dishes out of the china cabinet for these occasions.
I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed these Sunday afternoons until they didn’t happen anymore. I remember one afternoon when I was supposed to be sleeping in Mem and Datt’s upstairs bedroom (before the house was changed), I pulled the checker board and checkers out of the sideboard that was in the bedroom. Mem came upstairs and caught me in the act. As she was gathering up the checkers and scolding me about getting out something of Datt’s and not taking my nap, I asked Mem why those people don’t come anymore, so Datt could play checkers with the man. She told me the man had died. I think this was at the time that I was just beginning to understand what dying was. I was thinking about the finality of it as I lay down for my nap. Forty some years later, I am still contemplating this same thing.
The moment in which I really felt that finality with Datt is when the family was gathered around his coffin, and the four hundred or so people stood quietly in the background. I felt these people were supporting our grief. It was our final good-bye. I know that we had time to come to terms with his dying because it was more gradual than many deaths are, but it was still the end of a life, and therein lies our loss.
So, I remember the little things about Datt’s life that brought him happiness, and I leave the bigger questions to our Maker. He was, after all, the only One who could grant the grace of a peaceful end to Datt’s life on this earth. This peace was like a rainbow; a ray of hope from the heavens. For this we can be forever thankful.
Photo by Saloma Furlong: From the road in front of my home
I do not have a single photo of my father that I can share. So I share my thoughts of him instead. It’s been thirteen years since he left this world. I hope he has found peace in that place beyond the sunset and beyond his life on this earth.
Photo by Saloma Furlong: Sunset over Lake Rangeley in Maine