Journeys with a father

As I write, it is Father’s Day, and I am remembering my father, Henry Hanson Caldwell. My father was funny, bright, and also could be Very Serious. (Look out, here comes a lecture, kids!) He loved to “mess around in boats.” He would say we were going fishing on the Rock River, and sometimes we would, but sometimes we would just explore, going up creeks and larger tributaries like the Sugar River, searching for wild iris along the banks, and watching for turtles. He could shoot a turtle all the way across the Rock River, and we would put it on ice in a cold chest, and take it home for my mother to make turtle soup with sherry. He trusted me and my sister with the fishing poles, which meant that one day my sister, who was only six or seven at the time, caught an 8-pound yellow catfish. He was happier than if he had snagged it himself, and bragged about her for weeks. (He scooped it out of the water with a net, but she reeled it in alongside the boat.)

Dad would take us along on business trips, which I have never known any other father to do. He took my sister to Montana on a trip, and she got to ride on a sleeping car train, which made me very envious. He took me to Springfield, Ill., several times, to hear him try cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. On the way back to northern Illinois, we stopped in our ancestral town of Effingham to visit cousins, and to put flowers on the graves of his grandparents and great-uncles.

When I was 10, and my sister was 8, our first brother (that we knew about) was born. He was named Carey Stirling Caldwell, for Dad’s Latin professor at Northwestern, Homer Carey, and for Mom’s uncle Robert Stirling, whom my father liked and respected so much. We were thrilled when another little brother was born two years later — Kevin Fredrick: Kevin because Mom liked the name, and Fredrick for Fred Ginsburg, my father’s best friend. I was sad that I was not around as my brothers were growing up, because I went away to university. I watched Dad with my young brothers and realized something unusual about him: he treated his sons and his daughters in the same way. He spoke to us with respect, shared his interests and activities with us, and made sure that we knew what he valued, and what he expected from us.

Friends have told me that they found my dad intimidating when they were young. I never found him intimidating. I found that I got a fair hearing from him, that he was kind and caring with my friends, and that he was a mentor and encourager to younger lawyers with whom he worked, and to neighbors and friends who dropped in to sit and talk at the kitchen counter with him. He loved fishing, hunting and hunting dogs, appaloosa horses, the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon Byron, quoting Cicero in Latin, football, hockey, opera and ballet. I remember watching Edward Villella dancing on television, and hearing my father say, “Now, that is true art and discipline — and that guy is also a great athlete.” He got tears in his eyes when Lily Pons sang “The Bell Song” from “Lakme” — and also when Bobby Hull scored for the Blackhawks.

He was not perfect, by any means. This is not the time to go into his faults, but he had plenty of them. Politically, I disagreed with him about many things, and I know I made his life more difficult because I did not get along with my mother, and after a certain point, stopped trying. The one thing I knew for sure was that my father was there for me, and I appreciated that more than I could say, although I did try to say it. I was shocked to learn (and yet not really that shocked) that we had an older brother from a brief first marriage that ended suddenly in divorce. (I had always had the sense that there was some secret about our family that no one was discussing.) My father’s decision to stop trying to connect with his first son was not one I agreed with, and eventually, I found our older brother via the Internet, and he has become a dear friend — and reminds me more of my father every time I spend time with him — except politically!

In the last years of my father’s life, I was able to spend a lot of time with him, because he moved to West Virginia, and then to Virginia when he married an acquaintance of mine. In his last illness, we spent a lot of time reminiscing about days on the river, about making wild plum jelly from the plums that grew behind the house we moved to in Riverwoods, Ill., in the late 1950s, about walking along the Des Plaines River, about looking for morel mushrooms. He told me stories about his parents and grandparents, about working on a dude ranch in Wyoming summers when he was going to Northwestern, about being in the Army in Alaska during World War II and listening to Russian radio transmissions with an Alaskan native who spoke Russian, about flying into Rio de Janeiro with intelligence information that could not be sent by radio or telegraph, but which had to be hand delivered.

My father was very dear to me, and two nights before he died, I was sitting up late with him, because he was very restless at night, and my stepmother desperately needed some sleep. About 3 a.m., he said, “Are you over here for a ‘bisit?’” (a childhood word for my attempted escapes from bedtime–”Hi, Daddy, I came downstairs to ask if we can have a bisit?”) I told him yes, and that I was just enjoying sitting with him. He said, “I have a favor to ask of you. My boots are upstairs under the sofa in our bedroom, and I would like for your to bring them down here so I can polish them. I’m going on a journey, and I want them to be ready.” My father took fanatically good care of his shoes and boots, and was always giving his children lectures on taking good care of leather objects. (He owned one pair of shoes that he had re-soled four times.)

I knew then that he understood that there was indeed a journey ahead of him. He made it with great courage and no complaints. I remember the journeys I got to make with him with great gratitude, and hope to see him again when I make my last journey.


— Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry

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