Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Belated Eulogy for My Dad

Fathers Day, June 15, 2014
Rev. Jane Page

Preface:  As I was studying to be a minister, I'd tease my dad and ask him if I could do his eulogy when he died.  He would smile and tell me that the Primitive Baptists would not like that.  And indeed, I did not share anything at his Memorial Service.  If I could have shared, what would I have said?  Its eight years late, but I'll make that attempt on Father's Day today.

My dad was John Gideon Altman – always called by his initials J.G.  Daddy was the second son of John Buren and Ethel Johnson Altman.  He was born on December 16, 1925 at home down in Broxton, GA.  But his family moved here when he was only two, so Statesboro was the only home he knew.  His dad was hired to oversee the closing of a furniture store here in town.  There was a lot of that kind of thing going on when my dad was growing up.  After that store closed - rather than move on to another town and another furniture store closing, granddaddy decided to stay here and make a home for his family in Statesboro.  I’m so glad he did.  He rented space across from the courthouse and opened up a little grocery store, thus providing a good work place for his sons.  But J.G. was not paid much, if any, by his dad, so found other work to put some money in his pockets.  He had a variety of jobs as he was growing up and he enjoyed sharing stories about them.  One of his jobs was as a Western Union telegram delivery boy.  So he had to know where everyone in town lived.  And in later years, he would recite these to us.   He would say, right on that corner was where Old man “So and So” had a feed store, then next to that was the little card shop operated by Mrs. “So and So”…. And on down the street he was go, reciting names of businesses and houses.  He also knew the history of particular places.  Well, before that was the Brown’s house, it belonged to Old Man Brannon, and he bought it from Mr. Zetterower who bought that property when it was nothing but a sand lot.  Now I’m making up all these names and places because – sadly I never recorded this anthology of property.  By the time my dad graduated from Statesboro High School, everyone was going off to war.  He was turned down twice because of his high blood pressure.  I think he suffered some shame for that – because it was a popular war, a righteous war, one that young men were supposed to go fight.  But I’m glad he was turned down.  He may not have made it back, then where would I be!  Plus he never had to deal with the first hand atrocities of war.  SO, instead he stayed here and married his high school sweetheart, Christine Rogers on November 11, 1944.  Their marriage date is easy to remember if you can double numbers:  11-22-44.  He and his brother Buren began a used car business – and worked hard to furnish folks with cars during the war, when they were hard to get because the manufacturers were making vehicles for the war instead. Daddy would travel all over the place to buy cars taking carloads of drivers with him – then having each of them drive one car and pull another back to Statesboro.  Later they obtained dealerships for different models – the main one being Pontiacs.  I never thought I’d ever drive anything but a Pontiac.  Alas, nothing lasts.  There are no more Pontiacs and my dad is gone too. 

Daddy died September 25, 2006, the morning after I was ordained here as your minister.  Here is how his Obituary read:
Mr. John Gideon Altman, age 80, died peacefully Monday at the Ogeechee Area Hospice Inpatient Facility. He was the co-owner and vice-president of Altman Pontiac-Buick-GMC until he retired in 1997. Mr. Altman was a member of the Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church, where he was in the Frank Williams Sunday School Class and Men's Brotherhood. He was a charter member of the Statesboro Kiwanis Club, former chairman of Bulloch County Tax Assessors Board, a member of the Alee Temple, former president of the Statesboro Shrine Club and was a Mason. Mr. Altman was a former director and assistant treasurer of Peach State Life Insurance Company.

Then it listed his surviving family members.

I don’t especially like that obituary.  But daddy would have been pleased because it’s a very traditional one, basically sharing how he made a living.  And, indeed, that was of ultimate importance to my daddy.  So be it.  But it leaves out the most important parts of J.G. Altman, his personality, and his life.  And since I didn’t get a chance to eulogize him when he died, I’ll take this opportunity to tell you a little more about my dad – at least my perceptions of him.

1st – My daddy was a very smart and capable man.  I used to think he could build or repair almost anything.  Seriously, if he had seen someone do it before, he could do it.  He used to brag on how he learned how to do many tasks that others have to pay to have done.  He would find some excuse to go to the place of business where folks work and repair – maybe have a small job for them; and then he would hang out and just have conversation – telling them stories, and entertaining them while they worked.  They wouldn’t realize that he was also watching just what they were doing.  Then he knew how to do it.  He never learned much from books – but he could sure learn from watching.  He would have loved youtube with all of its “how to” videos I think.  But since he didn’t have that – he would go find the real thing.  He used to tell the story of how Old Dr. Floyd called him out one night to fix something at his house – and whatever this was that needed repairing – it wasn’t that difficult.  And he said to Dr. Floyd – “This is not that hard to do.”  And Dr. Floyd said, well I may not be able to fix that – but you couldn’t take an appendix out.  And my daddy said, “If I watched you do it one time I could.”  And indeed, he never operated on us, but he would sometimes operate on the farm animals.  Fix them and stitch them – and set their bones, whatever they needed.  Daddy not only learned from observing, he had an engineering, mathematical mind.  I still marvel at how he designed that reinforced concrete dock at our pond so perfectly – and how he fixed the overspill on the other side of the pond just precisely so that the water would start to spill over before coming over the top of that dock.    He also built that beautiful little cabin that reminded him of the house where he was born.  You go look at the workmanship in that cabin – and the little winding stairs that took him forever to figure out – but he did.  Daddy was smart!

2nd – Family was important to my daddy.  He was a wonderful son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather.  He loved us.  But like many men of his generation, he didn’t verbally express that love.  Instead, he showed us his love by providing for us and doing things with us.  He bought a lot out on Cypress Lake and built a little cabin.  We’d go out there every weekend and boat and waterski.  What fun we had doing that!  He sold the cabin after his dad died so he could have more money to purchase my granddad’s farmland. Granddaddy didn’t have a will so his farm was left in equal portions to my dad, his three siblings, and his mom.  My uncle Buren wanted the farm in Clito, but the other family members wanted to sell their shares of the farm where I now live.  So daddy bought their shares.  He connected that farm to his dad – and that was his way of holding on to a piece of him.  My dad had an awkward relationship with his dad, but boy he sure showed his loved to his Mama.  He’d go see her every day and was there when she died.  Of course she kept him happy with her good cooking – and he DID enjoy that good southern cooking.  And he loved my mama, my brother and me – and the grandchildren and great grandchildren.  They would go over and pounce on him while he sat in his recliner and he would fly them up in the air – for as long as he could.  He also showed his love by trying to teach us things.  But most of us could just never learn to do it right.  And certainly none of the family members could do it “JG perfect.”  So be it. 

The 3rd thing that was important to my daddy was WORK.  He worked hard ALL his life.  That’s how he saw value in life, in how hard and well someone worked.  My dad had no patience with shiftlessness – and he let us know that.  Because my mom also had this strong work ethic – I got it from both sides.  My dad used to claim he was working hard so that one day he could take it easy and fish.  He built the cabin and that nice dock I told you about so that he could “one day” fish off of it.  But that day never came because he would have another project, and another – to get ready for that day.  I used to worry that my dad would never have the joy of taking it easy and fishing.  Now I understand that his JOY came in the work.  And I’m so glad to have inherited that Joy of work! 

The 4th thing that was especially interesting about my Daddy was his strong faith. He sincerely believed that he was going to go to heaven and get his REward one day.  (That’s how he pronounced it – his REward).  He was not really that much of a religious man—that I could see.  He didn’t read his Bible much or pray.  But he would share about going to get his REward.  I don’t know what he thought he was especially going to be rewarded for.  But he did – because he thought he did everything right.  If something went wrong with something he did – then it must be someone else’s fault.  This was especially true if he lost something.  Mama must have misplaced it – or perhaps one of us took it and didn’t return it.  Because he knew right where he left it --- in some pile of something you could find anything in, but that didn’t matter.  Because – according to my daddy, he just didn’t make mistakes. So, he saw himself as a really good man.  Now – folks he wasn’t that good.  In fact, he was kind of hard to live with.  Although my mama managed to do just that for almost 62 years.  Bless her heart – for real!  You know, some of the things he did and some of the ideas he had– in my mind – were just wrong.  But he looked at himself through some kind of lens that I didn’t see.  We just got where we laughed about it – what else can you do?

As my dad aged his memory started going.  And he changed.  He forgot a whole lot of stuff – including who we were.  But something else happened to him.  He became a really sweet and caring man, telling us (and anyone else around) how much he loved and appreciated us.  Now most folks who have Alzheimer’s get kind of mean as time goes by – but not my daddy.  He got sweet.  And I’d like to think that perhaps this sweet, loving man was what was at his very CORE – and through the years he LEARNED to be that hard person that men were supposed to be.  When all that was forgotten, the sweet J.G. remained.  Something else that remained with him was his memory of the old songs he learned long ago.  And I would go to his house and sing them with them. Shortly before he died right over there at Ogeechee hospice, Johnny said – “Jane come over here and sing again to daddy.”   I sang one his favorites.  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”  And as I sang, my daddy looked right into my eyes and he moved his mouth to the song.  And that was indeed, Amazing Grace – for him and for me.  And it was My RE-ward – for sure.   Thank-you Daddy.

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