I usually don’t know what I’m feeling unless I write about it. When I finally do, I often surprise myself. Right now, I have no idea how this post will end.
In 1988, at Lauren’s first birthday party, I met my mom’s new boyfriend Dale. My parents divorced four years earlier and I was just beginning to forgive my mom for leaving my devastated father after 22 years of marriage. Dad had moved on, but I couldn’t.
Mom’s previous boyfriend was a loser and I thought this one would be too. I was so wrong.
That birthday party was at Chuck E. Cheese - a ridiculous choice for a first birthday party. Many people told me so but I was resolved in my decision to let animatronic bears terrify my first-born. Looking back at photos, I have to laugh. Lauren has a sad, pouty look on her face, as if to say, “I would have rather had a small party in my familiar surroundings at home.” I was twenty-three and clueless about nearly everything.
I was engrossed in the new world of motherhood and oblivious to the fact that this single man was in a room full of strangers wearing a cone-shaped birthday hat with one of those pinching elastic bands strapped under his chin. At the time, I never thought about how awkward a 38 year-old man should feel in this getup. He was grinning ear to ear.
They married about a year later and Dale became Grandaddy Dale, a term he loved almost as much as he loved Lauren and Jordan. He and Mom moved to Akron, and we were limited to visits every few months. They always came to Prestonsburg for Christmas, when they would bring pictures of children crowded around Santa (Dale) and Mrs. Clause (Mom). Dale would begin growing out his beard in the early fall so he would look more authentic. The tradition was to open presents after dinner on Christmas Eve. Lauren and Jordan would inhale their food and stare at the Christmas presents under the tree in the next room. Dale knew this but insisted on just one more plate of food. The kids would scream, “Noooooooooooo!” and he would laugh the deepest belly laugh. He loved Christmas and he especially loved singing in the Christmas musical.
Dale has a deep bass singing voice and such a range that he could sing and harmonize with any professional or amateur, always making them sound better. I saw this several times during Karaoke when he would ask a reluctant intoxicated patron if he could accompany him/her on their song choice. As soon as he opened his mouth, we all could see the smile on everyone’s faces, especially the guy/girl that picked the song. Mom always said she wished she could sing half as well as Dale so she could understand his passion for music and the hours he devoted to the Christmas and Easter musicals every year.
Surrounded by months of family drama, my father was buried on my mom’s 50th birthday. She was forbidden to attend my dad’s funeral (I told you. Drama.). Dale took her to his grave later that day so she could say her last goodbye to the father of her children.
When someone dies, everyone (or maybe just me) seems to glorify them and forget all offenses big and small. I was a Daddy’s girl and unwilling to let anyone attempt to fill his shoes. Dale never even tried, however, because he never had any children, he often referred to my sister and me as his daughters.
Jeff and I aren’t handy or particularly fond of manual labor so every visit to Prestonsburg, Mom would always put Dale to work fixing things around the house and digging up flower beds. Looking back, I’m thinking he must have dreaded coming here. If he did, it never showed.
After fourteen years of marriage, Mom died of emphysema. I will always be grateful to Dale for caring for her when she was sick, a gift I wish I could have given at the time. I knew that he would remarry quickly so I wasn’t surprised when he announced his new love Elaine.
We met her at TGIF when we drove north to pick up our mother’s family heirlooms. She and Dale were already seated and we walked in looking for them. To get our attention from across the room, Dale’s new girlfriend and soon to be bride, stuck two fingers in her mouth and surprised us all with a commanding whistle you see when New Yorkers hail a cab or a zealous sports fan cheers at a game. Gail and I looked at each other and laughed. We knew Dale had met his match and we were both relieved. Elaine plays the piano and comes from a very musical family. Dale now had someone who could sing with him at her baby grand piano every day.
No new bride wants to live in the shadow of her husband’s late wife, however, Elaine visited us many times over the years, often at Christmas. I consider myself pretty progressive and tolerant of situations often uncomfortable for most people, but asking a woman with a huge family to spend the holidays with his late wife’s family is too much to ask. Elaine, however, accepted us all as her own family, laughing and crying along with the rest of us.
Dale was very emotional. Whether it was a happy or sad occasion, he cried very easily and unapologetically: when Lauren asked him to sing at her wedding, he received handmade gifts, when prayers were answered, or seeing me during my cancer treatment... It’s an endearing quality I’ve not experienced often from a man.
Although Dale and I disagreed on many things, especially political issues, I always knew that he loved us, celebrating all our successes great and small.
Once I knew that she wouldn’t recover, I had about six months to say goodbye to my mom. It wasn’t a goodbye, really, just time that I never took before to do her hair and makeup or listen to stories of her childhood. By the time I had entered the next stage of grief after denial, it was too late to say goodbye to my dad. One would think that by age 53, I would have learned my lesson. With Dale, we didn’t see it coming. It was a massive heart attack- the widow maker. He left for work at 7:25 a.m. as always, kissed Elaine as always and said their “I love yous”. Two hours later, he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Elaine later told my sister what I truly believe as the sincerest of all comments, “He’s in glory now…and I know he’s seeing your mom and his dad.” What an unselfishly beautiful comment.