June 2007 Issue
In the eulogy he gave at his father's funeral, the writer describes a man whose humor, strong convictions and idiosyncrasies endeared him to family and friends alike.
Good morning. Thank you for being here. We deeply appreciate your presence and your feelings shared with us. Like many of you, it's unusual for me to see the inside of a church from this position. This is the position my father took many times as a lector, one of the first at St. Stanislaus Church and certainly the most theatrical.
I remember in those thrilling days of yesteryear how at home he would practice and polish his soaring, expressive delivery of the sacred word in the days leading up to Sunday mass. In those days, it was always Sunday mass. Saturday mass was not quite kosher, as he liked to say.
Sunday was the Lord's Day, a day of rest that started with mass and included lounging in church clothes and avoiding the stores. Saturday was a day for work and for confession. That was the way the world should be, in Dad's estimation.
At any rate, thank you, Dad, for allowing me to be here, standing on this elevated spot today. I do not pretend to be so practiced or polished as you were, but the view is pretty good. Still, I would have been more than happy to wait a good while longer for this opportunity.
John J., Dorothy's husband of almost 58 years, at one time thought he might find a career occupying a pulpit. As a young man, he had wished for a priest's life, but his stay in the seminary lasted but a few days. He got homesick, which I think must have happened again in these last few years. You're home, Dad, and I hope you find yourself where you want to be. And don't worry about us. The sacristy light is still on. We'll be along by and by.
My dad, though he was closer than many to his church, never could cross that threshold into Holy Orders. Perhaps to compensate, he - with my mother's help, of course - propagated his own congregation: 11 children, 29 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren so far. That, it goes without saying, is quite a flock. Forty-nine souls. Jesus himself made do with only 12 apostles.
During his many years of service to the church, our father and grandfather and great-grandfather also produced an extended flock. That flock included an uncounted number of Christians who, in religion classes for teens and spiritual instruction for converts, were taught the gospel according to John J.
His was a rather hard gospel to follow, but he tried extra hard nevertheless. His religious sense was formed in the pre-Vatican church by immigrant parents from profoundly Catholic Poland. That particular strain of Catholicism, shaped for the good of the peasantry, held as much Ten Commandment severity as it did Sermon on the Mount gentleness. And both of those biblical notions clashed with what Dad saw as a culture spiraling away from Christ's call. He felt obligated to do what he could to set things right.
To complain about the world is rather easy - it's part of my lifestyle, for sure - but to try to change the world even in small ways is idealistic and brave and self-sacrificing. Dad, in the manner that he could, tried to fix the wrong he saw. During his life, he worked for racial justice and against the spread of obscene materials. Pained by what he perceived as rampant immorality and the coarsening of popular culture, he shared his concerns with the local newspaper. Boy, did he share his concerns. Over the years, he wrote a book's worth of letters to the editor. So many were printed that he probably should have been on staff.
Despite a moral sense of Calvinist dimensions and lifelong physiological disorders, real and imagined, John J.'s funny bone remained in perfect working order. Not so long ago, while getting chemo treatments, he caused a nurse to laugh so uproariously she felt compelled to apologize. She needn't have. How could someone be expected to not laugh while hearing a stranger's story about the unorthodox placement of the cure-all, Vick's VapoRub, on a hidden part of his anatomy? (On a part, as they say, that lies below the equator.) Why he said he needed to do such a thing, I can't recall. I know the idea did not come from the directions on the label.
Dad, who often filled the air around him with a heavy bouquet of Vick's or Ben Gay, didn't always follow directions in the usual way. Reading on one occasion that aspirin was good for a toothache, he insisted that to make the pain go away we kids should rest an aspirin on the aching tooth rather than simply to gulp down a couple of tablets with water. He mentioned to a dentist about this miracle cure, and the dentist furrowed his brow. "John," the dentist said, "when you have a headache, do you tie an aspirin to your forehead?" Dad often afterward hooted about the idea of tying an aspirin to the forehead as a headache cure. He could laugh at himself, which is such a nice way to be that not everyone can do it.
Not everyone could do what he could do with his hands. He built, roofed and sided houses, formed concrete, laid cinderblock, installed doors and floors, put up drywall, fitted plumbing. He fixed Fords, Chevys, Chryslers, Studebakers and Ramblers, and in the early days, probably a Packard or two. He had a love for cars that nobody else loved. He might have owned the last - maybe the only - AMC Gremlin in North America. That classic machine, its crumbling fenders kept in aerodynamic shape with a mixture of Bondo and furnace tape, its nifty paint job applied with a brush, thrived under Dad's care.
Dad was a working stiff who, while giving the steel industry a first shot at his talent, found factory labor not to his liking. He tried operating a gas station, but that didn't work out. He found his calling in fixing household items - washers, dishwashers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, furnaces - which he did to a large extent in people's homes: Have trouble light, will travel. When he set out to fix something, it almost always got fixed. And it got fixed for far less money than a customer dared imagine. He was a great repairman but a lousy businessman, which meant his clientele was huge and his phone constantly ringing. He seemed happy with that.
Some people work to live; Dad lived to work. Handiwork was his challenge and his art, and the making of art is what gives the artist satisfaction. The painter Van Gogh died alone and penniless, convinced of his worthlessness. Dad, too, lived in many ways an anguished life, but he left behind a significant number of people who are certain of his worth. His sons and daughters can tell you that their father was not without flaws. They also will tell you that no project was too large, no task too daunting, no distance too far to travel, no situation too inconvenient, no personal trouble too difficult or shameful that he, along with their mother, wasn't there to help, to lend support, to try to set things right.
Dad no doubt would be growing impatient by now with all these words spoken about him. "Come on, come on," he'd be mumbling under his breath. And maybe not under his breath. Because today is not a Sunday, there would be some project he would be eager to get out of here to pounce on. To know that he is at rest on a Wednesday seems as if the week is out of kilter, as if a natural energy force has escaped from the universe.
In the last few years, Dad talked as if there were something sinfully prideful about being remembered for this or that. He offered the proposition that to say the least about a life - about his life - is to say enough. "He lived, he died. No details," Dad said.
Well, Dad was always right, except when he was wrong. And I suspect he was wrong about this. People should not ignore the details. Nor can they. I, we, will miss you, Dad, as we remember the details - the funny, sad, idiosyncratic details that brought pain and pleasure, each in generous proportions, to our lives. Yes, we will remember the details as they flit in and out of consciousness as long as we have consciousness. We will live out our lives with the details. Sorry, Dad, it just can't be helped. Be happy, though, that I am now done. It is finished, Dad. Thank you for your patience.
Dave Golowenski, the oldest of John J. and Dorothy Golowenski's 11 children, is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor.