When I was a kid, I had a plague on my wall that my father had made. It was a dark piece of wood with the newspaper obituary of his grandfather, Dick Witter Sr., held in place by heavy layers of shellac. He had also mounted grandpa Dick's pocket watch and a silver dollar, along with a photograph.
I must have read this clipping a million times while I was supposed to be doing homework:
"Live and Let Live" by a Friend*
One of the main reasons, we believe, that he is what he is today, belongs to the upbringing by his mother and father. We have known them both for nearly 30 years. No finer, more industrious people ever lived.
His dad, Howard R., also called Dick, and known to many of the older residents of Glendale, died Sunday and what a pity. Not because he has gone to his last reward as all of us must but because such a fine image of a man has to disappear from the every day world as we know it.
Possessed of that rarest of human blessings, a sense of humor, he never laughed at others but always at himself. And we cannot think of an unkind word that he ever uttered against anyone. That, in itself, is a rare gift indeed. So many of us, myself included, often belittle and revile others, perhaps as a defense against our own foibles; who knows? But Dick Sr. never did.
This world would be a better place in which to live if more of the people emulated the Witter family with their unsaid but sincere code: "live and let live."
*Written by Tommy Anderson; appeared in the April 5, 1963 "Glendale Herald", Glendale, AZ
When I used to read that plague as a boy, I didn't attach the importance to it that I do today. I don't think I realized it was an obituary for a long time, since the first paragraph is about my great-uncle Dick, who I actually knew and who, at the time, was still alive.
I did think a lot about "live and let live" and what it meant, though. When I would read about that sense of humor, that tendency to laugh at himself, I recognized the same trait in my dad and grandma. I saw how I learned it from them, and without realizing it, reading and re-reading that old plaque made me feel closer to the old dairy farmer in that photo who died nearly a decade before I was born.
Coming from Kansas to raise a family on a hot, dry dairy farm in Glendale, Arizona; building a life in a corner of the infant state; surviving World War I, the Great Depression, and seeing a son through World War II - these were the people in the background of history. He was the "Over There" of song; they had the pot that Roosevelt promised to put a chicken in; and later, they were "back home" to their soldier in the Philippines.
People like these don't expect high honors or recognition; maybe it is the humility passed down from the Witters who came from Germany with the other Pennsylvania Dutch. Maybe it is just a realistic outlook that says, "Don't attach too much importance to yourself." It could have something to do with that self-deprecating sense of humor Mr. Anderson described. I imagine my great-grandmother's reaction when she received the condolences of friends and family after Dick Sr. passed away in March of 1963: the stoic widow's pride at the honors and sympathies, and then the quiet packing away of the memories. No need to fuss, now. Tidy up, and move on.
When we visited Arizona for Christmas in 2005, Grandpa Bob took me to his garage and offered me several boxes of "old junk". He knew I was interested in all this family history stuff, and I knew that he wasn't able to bring himself to throw away everything that Grandma, a notorious pack rat, had held onto over the years. These boxes had been sitting for a couple of years in this garage, a storage unit for a few years before that, and their old house on Gardenia Avenue for some fifty years before that.
Digging through, I found that picture of Dick Sr. and that eulogy I recognized from the plague. I found a letter of condolence from their U.S. Congressman, and in a large manila envelope postmarked February 7, 1964, I found this certificate:
I suppose all the veterans' widows were receiving these, but it was still a thrill for me to find something with my great-grandfather's name on it, signed by President Johnson:
Looking at the postmark, I was struck by how strangely history folds around us. When Dick Sr. died in March 1963, President Kennedy was still alive. It's petty of me, but my first thought was to curse the timing that put one man's signature on a document instead of another's. That moment passed, though, as I thought about how these things must work.
I imagined that certificate would have waited for a break in the busy schedule of a President for his signature while the events of that year played out. The Birmingham Campaign, followed by the March on Washington. The end of Project Mercury, and the first woman in space. The Supreme Court forbids mandated school prayer; and a Partial Nuclear Test Ban treaty is signed and ratified.
And that November surely changed a lot of plans.
Who knows how long it took for someone from a protocol office to get these certificates printed for the heroes of a fifty-year-old war, how many there were in the stack, or how long it sat waiting for the pen stroke of the mighty. Assuming those letters were still being physically signed by the President himself, I imagine how a still-stunned and grieving Mr. Johnson might have felt, sending condolences to my great-grandmother. Considering he was certainly still grappling with the circumstances under which he had just come into office, I like to think that a duty like this, while sad, would be of some comfort to him.
And I can imagine how she, a farmer's widow, reacted when she saw it arrive in the mail - nearly a year after she lost him. I can almost see her face when she opened it; the pang of being reminded of her loss followed by a wry smile of appreciation. That familiar combination of humor and humility that helped her maintain her husband's "live and let live" attitude over all those hard years.
I wonder, if I could go back in time and ask her what she felt, what she would say about that honor? Did it bring her any joy? Did she show it to anyone? She kept it, so it would seem she accepted it as the honor it was intended to be. Did she smile when she saw it, or cry, or simply nod as she slipped it back into its envelope and laid it in a drawer on top of the other one - the one that I found later, as I kept combing through Grandpa's old boxes. The one with the 1963 postmark and that other certificate, identical to the first except for the signature:
|John F Kennedy|