I still don’t know if sharing this eulogy is a good idea or not. Is it exploiting my father’s death? Is it self-indulgent (well, yes). Can I rationalize some larger purpose for sharing it?
How about this: On this Father’s Day of 2018, I share my eulogy of my father, who died in 2017, to inspire all fathers to spend time with their daughters – especially time outdoors.
Message: it matters. Start early and do it often. They’ll never forget it.
Memories of my Dad, Keith Mathews
(February 24, 2017, Rhinebeck NY)
I didn’t know Dad for the first 29 years of his life. I didn’t know him when he played trombone as a schoolboy in Tuckahoe, NY. Or when he flunked out of Cornell University as a young man and served in the Army in Japan at the end of the Korean War. I didn’t know him when he met my mother, Evelyn, or when he worked fulltime supporting his family while earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering– a tad later than planned — and graduating first in his class at Brooklyn Polytech.
Instead, one of my first memories of my father was on a picnic one fall day, somewhere probably in the Catskills, when I was around three years old. I’m not sure where it was, but it was sunny and crisp and the leaves were just past peak. We were there with family friends at a picnic area with tables and grills by a beautiful trout stream, and at some point Dad and his friend Bill decided to check out the stream more fully by bushwhacking along its shore and scouting out good fishing spots. I guess. I don’t really know. I just know that I wanted to go along with them. So Dad brought me along for the ride. And for me, it was a ride. Undoubtedly my three or four year old legs couldn’t keep up with two men striding through the brush, and most of my memory is of Dad carrying me in his arms as they finished their scouting expedition. I was happy as a clam until we got back to the picnic area, and Mom discovered that my long blond curls were full of burrs. Since Dad was the one who had gotten those burrs in there in the first place, he for sure was the one who was going to have to pull them out. I remember standing there in my undershirt screaming while Dad removed all the burrs from my tangled hair. We have a picture of this; with him wearing a very amused look on his face while he picked through the tangled mess of hair, undeterred by his daughter’s tears, since he knew she had had a great time along the stream after all. And that he couldn’t fight my mom on this one.
As everyone here knows, fishing was Dad’s passion. He tried to foster that passion in his three daughters from time to time, but it never quite took with us. I remember sitting with him in a boat on a pond, fishing with worms and bobbins. I remember squishing the wriggling worms onto the hook, pulling the line towards the rod with my index finger, cocking the reel and flinging the line with bobbin out in to the water. And then watching the floating bobbin intently, waiting to see it dip below the surface when a fish bit the line, then jerking the line back to hook the fish so I could reel it in. But I always felt bad for the poor worm when I squished it on the hook. I did it anyway because that’s what Dad said you were supposed to do and I didn’t want to seem like a squeamish sissy to him. And I always loved seeing the pretty fish up close once we reeled them in, and I always asked what kind of fish it was. They were just “sunnies” as he put it or “bluegills.” Different from the sleek trout that he would bring home after a day of fly fishing on his own in some distant mountain stream; trout that would end up on our dinner table eventually, completely unappreciated by his daughters – who would smother them in ketchup.
In the wintertime, we’d pile on top of his old wooden sled after he’d shoveled our long driveway. He’d sit on the bottom, and we three would pile on top of him. Debbie swears she wasn’t a part of this, but I’m sure she was because I remember being amazed that we all fit on that little sled. We’d shoot down the packed snow remaining on the driveway onto the road, make a sharp left turn to miss the mailbox at the end of the driveway, and continue on down the hill on the newly plowed street, squealing all the way.
Dad would also take us ice- skating in the winter, starting us at a very young age back in the day when Hudson Valley ponds froze over completely in the winter a foot thick. We all got pretty good. Deb and I would freeze our toes off, but we stayed out as long as we could – never as long as he could – but long enough to crack the whip as he called it. We’d all hold hands and somehow generate enough speed that when he let us go, we’d go flying across the ice on our skates, almost as if we were sailing.
When I was a teen, Dad and I would occasionally go canoeing on the Delaware River in the clunky aluminum Grumman canoe. It wasn’t very nimble, but most of the whitewater there isn’t very dangerous. One day, two of his colleagues from work joined us: Dad and I in one canoe and his coworkers in another. The question of the day was whether we would do Skinners Falls – the only Class 3 rapid in that stretch of the river. We left the question open until we arrived at the top of the rapids. We first saw the crowds of people hanging out on the rocks along the riverside, watching and hootin’ and hollerin’ as boat after boat tried to get through the rapids upright. Some did, some didn’t, and the flameouts were pretty spectacular to those on the sidelines. We were all nervous, but decided to go for it. We “read” the rapids as best we could from the shore, to figure out our plan of attack, and then got back in our canoes to run them. I was in the front, which meant I was supposed to spot the rocks in advance and find the best route forward. Dad was in the back to steer us where we wanted to go. But fairly early in the sequence, our canoe turned around backwards in a small pool, and the force of the running water meant that the canoe was continuing downstream before we had a chance to turn it about face. Somehow we made it through the falls without tipping – to great cheers from the peanut gallery, no doubt – a feat we accomplished through pure luck.
When Deb and I learned to downhill ski as teenagers, Dad decided that he wanted to learn too. So he strapped on his first set skis at the age of 42 or 43 and learned with us. Or rather behind us. One has quite an advantage in learning a skill like skiing as a teenager as opposed to say, a middle-aged man. He never quite got his groove down, and I remember standing at the bottom of ski runs with Deb, searching the figures on the hill for Dad hurtling down behind us, and then spotting him, arms splayed, body bending awkwardly to the side to retain his balance and make the curve down the mountain. And then the crash – a yard sale across the snow as hat, gloves, poles and sometime skiis went flying. We’d always laugh at the sight of it and then quickly sober up realizing that he might have gotten hurt. But he never did. He always got up with a big smile on his face and continued his way down.
In his later years, when he was no longer fishing or skiing or ice-skating, Dad indulged in two of his other loves, history and reading. When I would call him on the phone he’d tell me in great detail what book he was reading, how long it was, and how this particular person or event changed world history. I heard about Catherine the Great (900 pages), Peter the Great (800 pages), France in World War I, Japan in World War II, the year 1914, the Treaty of Versailles, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft among others. Like everyone in the Mathews family, I love to read and enjoy history. But I could never match his level of detail and recall when I’d share my latest read with him. He would remember the particulars of a 900-word tome in a way that only a historian – or an engineer – could love. Because he remembered it all, I learned a lot in our conversations.
But he did have one last fishing trip in his later years. A few years ago, I suggested a family trip to Yellowstone – an iconic place to fish and to see wildlife that Dad had never visited despite his fishing travels around the world. Val made sure Dad came, by not taking no for an answer when he feared he wasn’t up for it. One day on our trip, Val and Anna and Frank and I returned to the hotel after a day of sightseeing. Dad met us at the door smiling a smile that I hadn’t seen on his face in years. He and John had spent the day on a guided float trip on the Yellowstone River with one of the more ambitious fishing guides. He told us that their boat had shot the rapids in a stretch of the river that all the other boats portaged around. He described how the guide told him to hang on, and how he hunkered down in the boat and gripped the gunwales as tightly as he could and rode the rapid to the end. My instinctive reaction was to meet his thrilled smile with mine: “Wow, that is so cool,” I thought. “How great.” My second reaction was the middle-aged responsible voice in my head that said “oh my god, that’s nuts. He could have been hurt or killed.” And then I felt relief that I was blissfully unaware that morning that running the rapids was even in the cards. Because then, my authentic “wow cool” self would have had to wrestle with my middle-aged responsible self, and they just weren’t jiving. The after-the-fact revelation was ideal, and so I mirrored his genuinely thrilled smile with my own. No responsible decisions to make. It was done, and it was perfect. On that trip to Yellowstone he also got to share his love of trout fishing with his grandson Frank – finally someone not squeamish about putting bait on the tackle. And I know that was very important to him. It was his last fishing trip ever.
So I learned a lot from my father’s adventures, which has made me the person I am.
The first is don’t be afraid to get burrs in your hair, even if it’s long and pretty.
The last is never miss an opportunity to run the river, even if everyone else is sitting it out.
Those lessons, and many more in between, have made all the difference in my life, and I’m grateful for them.
And I’m grateful to Deb and Brian and Sarah and Katie and Danica, for taking such good care of Dad as he aged, and teaching him a thing or two I think, about family and love and togetherness.
He will be missed, but he’s central to who we are, and he will never be forgotten.