During the past week, much public attention has been focused on the deaths of world-famous people.
We’ve had the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Roger Ebert’s passing the day after he announced he was taking a “leave of presence” and Margaret Thatcher’s death.
For members in our family, last week was a different occasion.
It included the day Marty Kelly, my father-in-law, would have turned 81.
He didn’t make it, of course.
He’s not been here for the past three years since he passed in late March of 2010.
It’s funny how we notice the absence of people we’ve loved so much. Holidays and birthdays can bring forward the bittersweet experience of feeling them strongly for a day, an hour, or even a moment or two.
The sweetness comes in again remembering the times we shared with them, the jokes they told, the habits that only we knew, the way that we always knew there was someone older when we were around them.
Marty gave me a lot.
His gifts were both direct and indirect.
For the former, he gave me the daughter he had sired, helped raise and loved fiercely and unconditionally.
I remember going with Dunreith to the Frank Lloyd Wright-style home he shared with Helen in Wilbraham shortly after we got engaged.
We sat together on the couch, looked at a bin of family photos and childhood report cards and started to slowly make public that which we had pledged to each other in our Easthampton apartment.
“You’re two people with an idea, and you’re doing something about it,” Marty told us.
He was right.
During that visit he also encouraged me, as he did throughout the 12 years that we knew each other, in my relationship with Aidan.
“He needs someone to throw the ball to him,” Marty said about his oldest grandson, who often fell asleep on his stomach when Marty babysit for him while Dunreith was taking night classes at Smith College.
Marty’s helping me move into that new role in my life was part of the one of the most significant gifts Helen and he both gave us throughout our marriage: the time and space to build a family in our own.
They never pressured us to spend time with them and always let us know they appreciated the experiences we shared.
There were plenty of them.
We ate lobsters and sat on the beach near Kezar Lake, had many warm occasions and visits.
They spent all day helping us pack the U-Haul to get out of town when we moved from Easthampton to Evanston for me to attend journalism school.
Sometimes, memories of Marty come to me unannounced and unprecipitated, and stay a while.
I’ll see him sitting in his chair in the living room at the Wilbraham House, nattily dressed as always, his yellow turtleneck and a green sweater fitting well on his lean and lanky frame, a Dewar’s with ice in his right hand It’s shortly before a meal. He’s surrounded by his family. looking with bemused wonder at what he had helped create.
I remember how much Marty loved the Friday golf game that he’d engineer, tinkering endlessly with his #2 pencil until he got just the right combination. He’d jigger the lineups just enough that he would usually end up with Tommy Henshon, a tough, blue-eyed developer with a shock of white hair. Tommy would get after Marty, but more often than not would sink the winning putt.
I remember listening to Helen, Marty and Dunreith, no matter where they were, lingering over coffee for hours at the breakfast table, recounting the latest goings on in Western Massachusetts and the intricate interconnections and relationships between the characters I never had, and likely never would, meet.
I remember one of the last times Aidan golfed with him. Already in the grips of Alzheimer’s, Marty was starting to wander away from the boy he had helped raise into a young man.
“Over here, Par,” Aidan said in a gesture of exquisite tenderness and maturity, at once saving his grandfather from the indignity of having his deteriorating mind exposed while at the same time allowing himself to be taught by his grandfather in the activity that gave him more joy than almost anything else in the world.
I remember the pictures and the stories that Uncle Dick tells of growing up in Pittsfield with the five Kellys, when they were young and life was ahead of them.
I imagine the P.E. teacher in seventh grade who Marty said looked out for him and helped steer away from what could have been a destructive path.
After he died, I wrote that I’ll think about Marty sometimes and be grateful and smile.
That happens, and it’s different than I imagined.
Some of the details are a little blurry, the clarity of feeling a bit clouded
But the core remains, leavened by the time that has passed, marinated in the appreciation that comes from understanding the work we must do in each generation and humbled by the knowledge that we are, slowly, surely, inexorably, entering the same stage as those whom we once looked up to, revered and considered impossibly old.
I miss you, Marty.