Today is my late father’s birthday. He was born October 21, 1944 and passed on in August of 1993. But I don’t do anything on the anniversary of his passing, preferring instead to celebrate his birthday as a time of remembrance and contemplation.
My father was a mere 48 years old when he passed. It was, mercifully, a quick and sudden death that stunned my family greatly. It would have been far, far worse to watch him fade away from some long-suffering disease or illness. And as much as one grieves in any loss, one can also appreciate the fact that he didn’t suffer in his passing.
My father’s birthday always gives me great reason to reflect on what is most important in life. Along with my father there are three other relatives on my father’s side buried with him. Gottlieb Frederick was my great grandfather and I never knew him since he passed two years before my own birth. He was close to 90 when he passed after having spent his life building houses when he emigrated to the US from Germany.
George Edward was always known more to me as Uncle George. In truth, he was my father’s uncle and a great uncle to me, but we always called him Uncle George. I remember him as a big bear of a man with a strong deep voice and big belly who drove a big Cadillac up from where he lived in Connecticut. Many times around the holidays, I would stand at the window peering up the street trying to see when his car would suddenly round the corner and creep down toward our house. Despite being small and young, I would always try to help him with his suitcases. He was a lifelong bachelor who kept a lady companion and the idea of that seemed especially novel to me as I’d never heard of that before. When he passed in the mid-80s, it was a loss I felt deeply. I have kept his license plate that reads “ZREM” for many years. Those of you who have known me for a while will now understand where I got my email addresses and original website. It was a bit of a tribute to his memory. I’ve continued that by taking his middle name for my youngest son, William Edward as well.
Marion Elizabeth was always a mystery to me. Like her brother Uncle George, she worked on certain classified projects for the military and its civilian contractors during World War II. She held a long career as a personal assistant at the company that would later become Texas Instruments. When she was younger, she traveled extensively and was almost single-handedly responsible for raising my father and his two sisters when their mother passed at a very young age. (In truth, my father was well into his rebellious 1950s teen years by then, so the idea that she “raised” him is a bit of a stretch, heh) Marion, who for some reason I’ve never quite understood – although it probably has to do with how young kids distort names in pronunciation, was called “Marmoo” by me and my sisters growing up. By then, she was already into her late 60s. She was a bit strange, often standing at her window staring at us as we played. I tended to view her as eccentric and she probably was quite so. However, I also owe her a debt of immense gratitude. When I was born, my parents had no idea what to name me and were a heartbeat away from settling on George Jr. when Marion suggested the name “Jon.” Not short for Jonathan. Just Jon. Thankfully, my parents liked the name and I’ve been relieved ever since. I don’t think I’d do well with a Jr. attached to my name…just sayin’.
Whenever I visit the cemetery to spend time with my father, I try to pay my respects to those who have gone before me and lie with my father. Knowing where you come from is vital to understanding who you are in the present and who you hope to be in the future. Forest Hills Cemetery holds other grave sites of other relatives in my family and I can remember my father taking me there when I was younger, pointing out who was where and what he knew about them.
I try to continue that tradition today. I brought my two sons with me earlier and explained to them what I thought they could handle. Jack, my oldest, is just starting to fathom the idea of death and what it means, but he’s filled with questions – the same questions I can remember peppering my father with at that age – about what happens and where do we go and all that jazz. William is also fairly conscious of the idea, but he equates it to more of a physical reality than anything else. Their natural curiosity inspires me to try to answer as best I’m able given the subject matter, aware as I am that my own belief system is somewhat different than my wife’s and the material my sons have been exposed to in church. Right now, it’s more a blending of answers so as not to cause a conflict of beliefs. I want my sons to explore and come to their own decisions about what life and death mean for them.
An appreciation of family starts with an acknowledgment and understanding of the past. Who are we named for (if anyone) and what did they do in their own life. How has what they accomplished or passed on to us affected us in the present? And how can we take the lessons they learned and apply them to our own lives such that the future we see for ourselves is fully actualized?
I know many people who are trapped only in the present. And in that trap they become a shell of a person – unthinking and uncaring about who they were and the lessons they were supposed to learn years ago. Their focus is both narrow and limiting because they have forgotten whence they came and they cannot see beyond the short distance of a today to greet the grand vista of a brighter tomorrow. Their relationships suffer because of this and yet it then becomes even tougher to free themselves from the trap. The cycle continues.
Remembrance days like my father’s birthday are a reminder to me that I need to be conscious of my own journey through life and how it should always be with a three-pronged perspective of past, present, and future. In appreciation of the past with all its ups and downs, all its grand lessons both huge in scale and passing blinks of memory, we come to the present moment where we are able to apply the wisdom we have gained and focus it on making this the very best instant possible. Only by doing so will we be able to bring about our sweeping vision for a happier, better tomorrow.
I hope those of you reading this will take a moment – any moment really – and think back about someone in your own family who may have affected your own life in some positive way. Give thanks. God knows we don’t always do that enough or appreciate the ones we claim to love the most.
In honor, memoriam, and deepest appreciation of my father George Frederick Merz.
Happy Birthday, Daddy.