Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Steady On

We were in my Mom’s living room, the five of us. My two-year-old niece played with her toys on the floor. My sister, my brother-in-law, and I sprawled on couches and other comfy chairs and considered the question that my mother had just put to us.

The question was: are we really going to need that much food? How many people are going to come to this thing, really?

My memory is not super clear on which one(s) of us said it, but I’m pretty sure the reaction was: … are you kidding?

We’re gonna be swamped. We’re gonna be up-to-here in people. We’re gonna need a lot of copies of the bulletin. We’re gonna need crowd control.


Mom. Seriously. Only the whole congregation is going to show up for this thing, and that’s just for openers. Do you know how many people are going to show up and claim that he did something for them, for them personally, that made their lives all the better?

I don’t think any of us actually spoke that last sentence. It was implied, though.

Nearly ten years later, that scene is plain as day in my mind.

Ten years ago today, my dad passed away.

Ten years ago minus about a week, the five of us were sitting around after church, digesting the noon meal, and four of us were trying to wrap our heads around the details of a memorial service. My niece was still happily playing with blocks, or something.

As I presume is usual in that situation, so many clear understandings were floating just out of our reach … but this one thing, at least, I knew for sure: Mom was crazy. More than a smattering of folks were going to show up. More than a few dozen folks were going to show up. It was slight hyperbole to suggest that half the civilized English-speaking world was apt to show up; but the ushers were going to break a sweat.

What I would eventually end up saying in the eulogizing talk that I gave at that memorial service, and what I would go on to write in a couple of online spaces in the time since then, was this:

[Dad] didn’t do giant-sized things for people with the intention of putting them on a billboard and pointing and saying ‘look what I done’. He did small things for individuals: a staggering number of them. ‘What goes around, comes around’ is a phrase that applies to good deeds in life, too. I think Dad would be startled to realize just how beloved he really was – he really didn’t think too hard about that.”

So I was comfortably certain that this one time, I knew better than my mother: I knew we’d see lots of people at that memorial service, and at the visiting hours the night before. Lots. And lots.

As it turned out, I’d actually lowballed that estimate.

Yes, the church was packed full of people, including a full choir, that Saturday afternoon, as was the reception afterward. And, as I recall, a whole lot of the church’s reliable sources for food preparation swung into action and made sure there was enough food at the reception.

But what probably got my attention most, that weekend, was the line of people at those visiting hours on the Friday evening before.

My family and I stood and greeted people for three and a half hours out of a scheduled two. Yes, you read that right. The line of people extended from the chancel, down the side aisle, to the doors at the back of the sanctuary, out into the narthex, out the exterior doors, and I honestly don’t know how much further outside since I was kinda pinned to the chancel.

But people stood in line and waited patiently for the opportunity to walk past us and tell, in many many cases, stories about something kind or helpful that Denis had done for them – stories we’d never heard before.

Current and former congregation members, some of whom had been welcomed into the church by Dad the Usher when they had arrived new at the church some Sunday morning, recently or long ago.

Next-door neighbors. Next-door neighbors years and decades removed from our street.

Summer arts camp comrades of mine who remembered Mr. Hammerton, that humorous gentleman with the English accent.

My Dad’s co-workers – with some of whom he’d been setting up science experiments on the day he passed; and some from longer ago than that.

A squad of Holy Cross band members, with whom I was working at the time: “your Dad came to so many of our home games, wearing that tall furry hat and that huge down coat! And cheering for the band louder than for the football.”

(And a squad of my UMass band alumni friends, who had just about those same memories, albeit from twenty years earlier.)

I’ve long since given up trying to calculate just how many people we greeted in those three and a half hours. It left me shaking my head in wonderment. The guy was so low-key that, in spite of my certainty that he was one of the world’s finest examples of human … I was genuinely startled at just how very many other people thought the same thing about my Dad, for a staggering multitude of reasons.

Of course we miss having him around, here, with us, in person. How many times in the past ten years have I imagined what commentary he would have made about something (and chuckled)?  “Steady on, team,” or something similar.  But on the other hand, how many times have I made commentary about something and been struck by how much I just sounded like my Dad?

So, if Jackie Robinson was right in saying, “A man’s life is only worth how much he impacts other people’s lives,” … then oh yes, Dad’s still around.


May 4, 2014 - Posted by | family

1 Comment »

  1. Yah, Dad!

    Comment by Kristin | May 5, 2014 | Reply

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