Visiting My Father’s Office
I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and though my father's office was only about fifteen minutes away in one of the few office towers downtown, my mother and sister and I rarely ever visited him there. He was an electrical engineer and worked for Duke Power, the local utility company, in the Relay Department. Whenever the lights went out but the phones still worked, our neighbors would call my father, "Rod" or "Rodney", to find out what had happened and how long it would be before the power would come back on. I was proud to be my father's daughter at those moments because his job was so important that he could call someone at Duke Power and would know precisely what the problem was and how long it would take to fix.
I don't think I ever went inside his office building downtown. When we did visit him, we'd always meet him on the sidewalk outside the front doors of the tall office building. I remember doing this a few times after my mother and sister and I had been shopping at Ivey's or Montaldo's downtown. These were special occasions and my sister and I would be dressed in matching dresses, usually Ruth Originals©, given to us by my mother's mother. We weren't twins, but were close enough in age (one and one-half years apart) that my grandmother liked to dress us as twins. I hated the itchy dresses, but loved watching my father emerge from the building. He'd crouch down and spread his arms wide and Cynthia and I would rush towards him and he'd pick us both up.
As Duke Power expanded, the Relay Department was moved to a modern building across from the Park Road Shopping Center where Cynthia and I had seen our first movie, "Mary Poppins". My father was in charge of the Relay Department by then and I was in my teens. If we went to meet him, to pick him up for a special dinner or lunch, I'd slouch in the back seat of our green Pontiac Catalina. Cynthia wouldn't be with us. She'd be with a sitter at home because by age thirteen she was severely mentally and physically handicapped, following two experimental brain surgeries at Duke University which failed to stop the ravaging course of her rare form of epilepsy.
I think I went inside the Park Road Duke Power building once before my father died. I was in law school and don't remember why I visited him there, but I remember being surprised at the deference the clerk behind the welcome desk in the lobby had shown me when I said I was "Susan Keith, Rodney Keith's daughter." I was also surprised at how large his office was, positioned on the back corner with the best view. It held his desk and an enormous conference room–sized table. His desk was immaculate. The art work he had on the walls was all modern and when I told him I liked one in particular, he explained how it had been painted by a computer.
My father was sixty-four years old, two months short of his retirement date when he died of a massive heart attack on Sunday afternoon, February 28, 1988. I was living in New York City, working at my first job as a lawyer and hardly had a Sunday off, so I almost didn't pick up the phone when my mother called to tell me to fly home, that my father had had a bad heart attack and was in the hospital.
I thought of packing a bag, I even looked in my closet at my black suit, but I didn't pack a bag. I thought it would bring horrible luck for me to travel with a black suit. I just called my boss, told him what had happened, called the airline and headed to LaGuardia to get on the first available flight to Charlotte. There were few cell phones then and I didn't have time to call the hospital before getting on the plane. I knew if my mother was at the gate to meet me that my father would be dead. I drank four little bottles of gin with tonic on the plane and smoked a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. I remained stone cold sober. I prayed even though I didn't believe in God.
My mother was at the gate and we collapsed into each other's arms. The days between his death and his funeral were a blur. My mother, who usually handled all the details of our family life, fell apart. I stepped into the void and tried to maintain my best Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom demeanor. I called everyone in my mother's and father's address books. The house began to fill with family and friends and food. I went with her to the funeral home, and picked out my father's casket, and planned the private viewing and public reception that would be held the night before the funeral.
My father's secretary called our house a day or two after he died and asked me to come to his office to get his files and belongings. I was furious. I struggled to be polite and asked her crossly why it couldn't wait until after the funeral. She told me in a very quiet voice that she had been packing my father's things and that he had a file marked "Funeral" in his personal file drawer. "A file marked Funeral." She thought I would want to see it. "A file marked Funeral." I couldn't get it out of my head. So I drove to his office that same afternoon to retrieve his filed marked "Funeral".
Everyone at his office was expecting me. Heads poked out of offices and cubicles as I made my way to his office. A few people even came up to me and shook my hand.
Dad's secretary led me into his office. It looked the same as the last time except the pictures had been taken down and bubble wrapped and there were cardboard boxes on the conference room table. The secretary showed me the boxes containing the contents of his personal file cabinet. I thought about what I kept in my personal files at work—bank statements, bills, Broadway play bills, ticket stubs, old birthday cards, short stories I worked on in my spare time.
I couldn't bring myself to pick up and look at the "Funeral" file, so I looked at some of his other personal files: "Music" (copies and revisions of three or four songs he'd written which I knew by heart), "Reunion" (invitations, programs and pictures from his Class of 1940 Hendersonville High School's 45th reunion), and "Writing". I hadn't expected that just like me, he had a filed marked "Writing", and so I opened the file. I found four sheets of blue lined paper with the following words written in pencil in my father's careful clear draftsman-trained handwriting:
DOING THINGS (LIVING)—UNREMARKABLY
As one grows older and especially upon reaching 60, it becomes natural to look back and review what happened in your life. My review of my life has shown few if any moments of greatness but rather a continued and inexorable pushing to accomplish spontaneously selected goals unremarkably. I can handle large and relatively obscure work.
What I mean is I've never at any point in my life decided I wanted this or that and been driven from then on to get it. I often wonder if this isn't the way most folks operate. It may have to do with your upbringing or maybe it's genes.
My unremarkable life began May 1, 1923 in a large brick house on Oakland Street in Hendersonville, North Carolina. We were situated in a nice neighborhood, only a block from the school I would attend through high school. On one side of us the unmarried aunt of a South Carolina governor "to be" lived with her mother. They had a caretaker who with his wife lived in a small cottage at the rear of the lot. They also had a chauffeur named Lyrus who told us children engrossing tales in the South Carolina low country dialect. They all brought a lot of Charleston to the mountains. There was a vacant lot on the other side and then on the corner a family with a girl who had cerebral palsy. Of course I didn't know what was wrong with her and in those days, no one tried to explain or help make their life easier. I'm afraid I wasn't too nice to her at times. She was in my class until she died of pneumonia in the 7th grade. I haven't been back to the Oakland Street house since we left in 1932 but according to relatives it has lost its charm over the years what with remodeling, bad tenants, etc.
What I remember, or have been told and think I remember, are the beamed ceilings, carved granite fireplaces upstairs and down, the dining room with family portraits and the stain on the wall where a sweet potato thrown by brother Donald missed brother Bill and ended up there. Then there was the pantry with the special food smells that led into the kitchen. A kitchen that at one time contained a wood burning stove, a kerosene burning stove and an electric range. Incidentally, the range was still going strong when it was traded in on a new model in ____. The kitchen opened on to a large screened porch which contained the ice box. In the summer the card was put in a window to indicate to the iceman the number of pounds of ice you needed that day. I believe they were in 25 lb. increments with the numbers on the four sides of the card. The ice was delivered in a horse drawn rubber tired wagon and the iceman wore a leather vest-like outfit and carried the ice in on his back using a large set of tongs.
The porch was a cool place in the summer and a lot of activities went on there—shelling beans, shucking corn, churning, making mayonnaise. The vegetables came from a garden which was a short distance behind the porch. A low granite retaining wall was the boundary between it and the rest of the yard. And to the rear of the lot on the opposite side from the garage was the chicken house from whence came eggs and fryers.
I can feel the warm earth on my bare feet now as I pulled a radish, wiped off the dirt and ate it. I can smell the honeysuckle that grew in the vacant lot and spread its fragrance on the moist summer evening air to be enjoyed by us as we chased lightning bugs across the lawn.
Rodney RoBards Keith
January 28, 1982
The file marked "Funeral" held one yellowed sheet of paper, listed two Bible verses and five song titles. We'd already picked the verses and songs because we knew he loved them. The songs were played by the brass band he'd been a member of for over twenty years. We didn't need the "Funeral" file.
The night before his funeral we had a family visitation at the funeral home and we had booked a medium-sized room, thinking that would be plenty big enough. We were wrong. They had to open up an adjoining room to hold all the people who came to my father's visitation. Family friends and relatives came, of course, but the rooms filled with people we'd never met before, people my father never spoke of—work colleagues, members of the many bands he'd played in, grownups whom he'd taught as teenagers at Jaycees, and parents of children who lived in the intermediate care facility, or one of its satellite group homes, which he'd spent ten years lobbying to bring to Charlotte. The visitation was supposed to last for two hours, but instead it lasted more than double that. People lined up to speak with my mother and me.
We listened as each person shared a story with us about something my father had done to help them or to better their lives. "Your father was so kind to me and my family." "Your father was the best boss I've ever had." "We didn't want our son, Billy, to be institutionalized. Now he's in one of the Howell Center's group homes. I know they wouldn't have been built without your father." One man pulled me aside and said, "I would have been fired because of my drinking ten years ago, but your father told personnel I was sick and needed help. I've been in AA ever since. Your father saved my life."
I wish he could have been there to see just how remarkable a life he had led.