Jack Burton, 1924-2013

My grandfather, Jack Burton, passed away this afternoon.  Here is the eulogy I’m working on for him:

Six years ago, when my grandmother died, I didn’t say anything at the funeral.  I had traveled about thirty-six hours and crossed an ocean to be here and I was exhausted.  And anyway, I didn’t know what sort of thing to say you say at a funeral. 

Maybe the reason why I couldn’t think of any words to say about Nana is that for most of my life, to me, Nana wasn’t just Nana—she was half of Nana-and-Papa.  When you’re a child—when you’re a grand-child—you don’t really see your grandparents as whole people, you just see the grandparent facet.

So today, I’m going to talk about Nana and Papa.  Papa never had any trouble making time for Nana, and I don’t think he’d mind if we made a little time for her today.

When I think back to what summertime when I was little, I hardly remember anything except for the summer days I spent with Nana and Papa in their house on Stony Point. 

I say it was their house.  Actually, it was Nana’s house.  That’s how I remember it.  Nana in the living room knitting.  Nana swimming in the bay every morning, no matter how cold it was.  Nana in the bedroom reading a paperback novels with well broken spines, or watching soaps on TV in the afternoon.  Nana sitting on the back porch at happy hour, with a cherry in her drink.  Nana spending hours in the kitchen, making wonderful suppers for all of us, which she would find fault with the moment she tasted them—just to hear us object, we used to suspect.  And I remember her zany, sometimes exhasperated sense of humor.

I remember that, one of those summers, Nana taught me how to use an electric typewriter—ancient technology!—and let me waste an entire package of her typing paper writing stories when I should have been playing outside.  I remember I tried to teach her how to use a computer, first an old Apple II, then, later, a Windows PC.  But she never really got the hang of the computer.  She had been a secretary at MSU, and I think she just couldn’t see how a computer was an improvement over a typewriter.

Papa must have been around the house as well, but I don’t really remember him there.  Papa always had someplace to go, and he liked to take me and my cousin Erik along with him.  Sailing trips on the Tula Boo, hikes “up the Mountain” where we would wage war on burdock bushes by beating them with heavy sticks.  He took us on pirate adventures, took us birdwatching, taught us astronomy, climbed the dunes with us a Pyramid Point, took us to concerts at Interlochen.  I remember one time we drove all the way to Grayling just to look at a stand of old growth white pines—which is an exercise in patience for a nine-year-old.

Despite all of the wonderful things we did, I’ve found myself thinking in the last few years things I’ve missed.  Six years ago, in this church, my mom told us that Nana “lived in a brighter, more vivid world” and I wish I had taken a little more time to get to know what that world was like.  What was she thinking about while she knit all those Norwegian wool sweaters?  I wish I had listened to Papa more on our walks in the forest.  He told me the name of every tree and I didn’t pay attention.  Now I struggle with a field guide to tell the difference between a beech tree and a yellow birch.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve noticed a book in Papa’s living room.  It’s written by Hemingway and it’s called The Nick Adams Stories.  There’s a story in it that always reminds me of Papa.  It’s called “Big Two-Hearted River.”

I read it to Papa a few days ago.  It’s an amazing story.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write good short stories, but I’ve never come anywhere close.  If you listen to the text of the story and don’t think about it carefully, you’re just going to hear about a man who visits the Upper Peninsula to go fishing in a river he used to fish years ago.  He arrives to find the landscape changed—scarred by forest fire and just starting to heal.  After a short walk through the forest, he begins to fish the river.  He’s a good fisherman, and though he can’t see the trout below the surface of the river he knows exactly where they’ll be.  As he fishes he feels the darkness of the swamp just down the river, just down the river, but he decides there’s plenty of time to explore the dark swamp later, if he choses.  Right now, he’d rather fish in the sun.

That’s it.

I know.  Not much of a story, right? 

Except the thing is, that’s not what the story is really about at all.  Anyone who has ever gone fishing, or taken a walk in the forest, knows that you do those things because it gives you time to let your mind wander, to forget your troubles and deeply enjoy all of the world’s little pleasures.  We have no idea what the man in the story is thinking about as he casts his line, but we know that there’s some reason he’s so captivated by the burned landscape and the ominous, dark swamp.  Like in the river, there are a lot of invisible things that are moving beneath the surface of the man.  There’s so much we wish we could know but we could never quite ask.

So there are two ways the story reminds me of Papa.  It’s about a man who would enjoy walking through a Michigan forest to cast some flies in a river.  And it’s about a man who is occupied by a lot of thoughts—deep ones, maybe dark ones—thoughts that you and I can’t really guess at but that we sense are there—but he’s in no rush to find answers or resolution.  There’s plenty of time for that later, for now he’s content to fish the river, and walk in the woods.