Small Bursts of Grief

It’s a perfect summer day, and we were walking back to the cottage after a swim.  I asked my husband: Do you ever find, right in the middle of a normal day, that you feel a sudden burst of grief for your parents?

He didn’t even look back. “Well, it is Father’s Day.”

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

 What follows is the eulogy I delivered at my father’s graveside. My dad never lived to see me as an author, but I know he would have been proud of me. That’s what fathers do.

I miss him every day.

It may seem a little strange to find a Brooklyn boy here in a remote country churchyard. Daddy was a man of sophisticated tastes, well-travelled in the world. As a boy, his mother took him every Saturday to the Metropolitan Opera. In his early years, he rode the subway every day to school. But there was always a rural thread in his life. Brooklyn was farm country in the 1920’s, and he spent his summers in Mill Rift, Pennsylvania, a small town with rushing falls and gentle mountains, and several vacations he worked on a farm.

I have always been proud of Daddy. Proud of his intellect, his accomplishments, and his dignity. I have never known anyone else like him; he knew the answer to every question, he could fix anything, he remembered everything. His interests ranged from science to poetry and music. He is literally the only person I ever met who read Einstein for fun. When he was recovering from his first major illness, we knew his brain was undamaged when he commented on the Monet hanging across from his bed.

He was a brilliant engineer, whose inventions advanced technology, saved lives, and helped in the defense of his country. Above all, he was a man of impeccable integrity. That is a rare thing.

I am indebted to him not just for his love and support of me throughout some of my more wretched moments, but for the gifts he gave me. Almost everything I love in life, I learned from him. From Daddy, I learned to love music and literature, to care about reason and rational thinking, to value education and languages, to be a patriot, and to love freedom, and perhaps most important, I learned my insane passion for dogs. I guess we all did.

When Brian and I were talking this morning, he reminded me that for all Dad’s affection for his Mercedes Benz–a car he cherished, coddled, and fiercely protected from the rest of the family–he drove it into a ditch and wrecked it to avoid hitting a groundhog on the road. He was not a demonstrative man, but he was tender-hearted. He loved to be hugged, and beneath his quiet mask he was extraordinarily affectionate.

Of all the places he had lived, he loved Wisconsin best. I think it was partly because the German culture seemed familiar to him, like the households of his German grandfather and uncle, and partly because he admired the simple integrity of the people here. He liked farmland and the animals, and he saw cities as places that corrupted lives and culture. For all his accomplishments and education, he had no pretense or snobbery. He was a good man who lived a simple, honest life. And it seems exactly right that he should rest here, among settlers and veterans, underneath tall trees.

My father, H. E. Riordan, and his favorite dog.

My father and his favorite dog, Rudy.


One thought on “Small Bursts of Grief

  1. What a beautiful Father’s Day Tribute to your Dad. Fortunately I share your feelings of pride to share on Father’s Day as my Daddy has passed, as well. It has been almost 10 years, yet his presence is with me everyday. My Daddy wasn’t educated as yours, but he was the ‘smartest’ man I have ever known. He was a W. Tx farmer and plumber, member of a plumber’s union, once a former mayor of a our little town of 300, and an avid garage-sale-flea-market shopper and entrepreneurial seller in his last days. He was honest and straight-forward, loyal and affectionate and loved helping people. Thank you for sharing your loving story of your dad.


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