(Painting: “Extra, extra pickles: A Portrait of Alfred Eaker, Sr.” © 2017 Alfred Eaker)
Fr. Justin will be in Europe for a few months and although I am among those who regularly manage the Hermitage site, I thought while he is gone, I would share a personal reflection.
Almost two years ago, I lost my father. Although he was practically illiterate and deeply flawed, he had old-world values, a giving heart, and late-in-life sense of humor that made his eyes literally twinkle at times and I wish he were here for me to talk to now. His final illness was fairly quick, but not quick enough and he suffered so and I wished, as I was there with him for a few days before his end, that I could have waved a magic hand and taken away his considerable pain.
Still, when I reflect on him, I focus on that twinkle and his naive, but giving spirit.
I grew up in a charismatic evangelical, iconoclastic church environment and it was in opposition to what I held dear, even at that age. In his limited understanding, Dad knew this. So, when my aunt Greta came to visit Indy (from Arizona), Dad okayed my spending the day with her while he and my brother went hunting and mother was away at a lady’s retreat.
Aunt Greta and I were going to visit the grave of a loved one and although we had only met once before that, she felt enough kinship with me to want to spend time together while she was here.
On the way to the grave sight, Greta and I stopped at Sacred Heart parish to light candles for our departed relative. I’d never been in a Catholic parish at all, let alone a pre-Vatican II one and the art there literally took my breath away.
For a moment, I was distracted because I saw a cowboy praying the rosary at the altar. Apart from him (and us) the church was almost vacant. On the previous night, having seen a Johnny Mack Brown western with Dad, I first thought this was that B movie actor at Sacred Heart (I was eight). Of course it wasn’t, but my attention quickly shifted to a sculpture of Our Lady. She even reminded me a bit of Johnny’s leading lady; Beth Marion. Immediately, I was attracted to the Mary image and she was quite the opposite of how I viewed the scary, unloving God of wrath and vengeance that I knew from mother’s church.
Seeing that I was stirred at Sacred Heart, whenever she came to town, Greta snuck me into that parish. It became a pilgrimage every few years. Dad didn’t understand his sister’s devotion and was so naive that he even asked Greta once: “What’s a mass?” What he did understand was that Greta offered something to me that neither he, nor mother could give. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he knew that I was uncomfortable in mother’s Pentecostal religion, had a contentious relationship with her, was inherently artistic, and hyper-sensative. He couldn’t relate, but he knew I needed to be with aunt Greta. So, Dad being Dad; he came up with a lie of an excuse every few years to give mother in order to permit my Sacred Heart pilgrimages with Aunt Greta (mother would never have allowed my stepping foot in a Catholic parish filled with art). I’ve always been grateful to Dad for that because although we never spent much time together and didn’t relate well to one another, he put my needs above his understanding and that’s so authentically spiritual because I don’t know that he ever really believed per se. Of course, his belief or lack thereof doesn’t matter to me one bit.
When I got my first real job, pumping gas at a Philips 66 in Franklin, Dad would bring me White Castles with extra, extra pickles on Christmas Eve, which was his idiosyncratic tradition and he used to joke: “Aunt Greta wouldn’t do that, cuz she ain’t got the taste for ’em-living all the way out in Arizona.” It was a cute competitiveness that was entirely Dad.
Years later, after becoming immersed in Thomas Merton, Flannery O’ Connor, and meeting Fr. Justin, I converted to Catholicism. Dad still didn’t understand why I would want to, but he gleamed when saying: “When your mother’s outta the house, I’m gonna call your Aunt Greta and tell her.” I asked why he had to be so clandestine because I had told mother myself. He answered: “Cuz, I don’t want her to know that I covered for you and Greta back in the day.” After all these years, he still didn’t want mother to know that he had lied for me. When he called Greta, her response was: “I knew your son was going to become Catholic.” “How’d you know?” “Because he said he was going to.” “When?” “On that first day I took him to Sacred Heart when he was eight-years-old. He said that when he grew up, he was going to become a Catholic.” Dad shared that Greta conversation with me a short while later, after mother was safely out of the house. He got a kick out of the idea that he had, in a way, been instrumental in my covert conversion.
The next conversation he had regarding Greta was an ultimately sadder occasion, but a revealing one as well. While Greta had been in the hospital, her husband; Bill had died at home. When she found out, she told Dad on the phone; “I’m going to die too, now.” Dad protested with passion because he loved Greta dearly, but she told him: “Don’t put your fear of death on me, Alfred. I was married to Bill for 50 years and I don’t want to be here without him. I’ll meet him on the other side.” Two days later, she flew off this mortal coil.
When I was doing my Masters degree in theology, I helped care for Dad for about two years when he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimers. One of the cutest things about him during that period was a love for Spiderman, which was odd as Dad was always a Western kind of guy (Paladin being his all-time favorite). He would watch the Spiderman movies repeatedly with his dog Pixie on lap and would ask me to sit down and watch them with him. Once, when I was not in the mood to do so, I whined in order to try and get out of it: “I like Superman better,” to which he responded, “Superman’s old and Spiderman’s more realistic. Sit down, cuz your mother won’t watch it with me.” Once, when he cut his finger, he had to have a Spiderman band-aid, which took trips to half a dozen stores before we found one.
About two years after Greta’s passing, Dad was dying. I flew into Indy to be with him and one of the the first things he said when he saw me was: “Let’s order some White Castles with extra, extra pickles.” Despite the fact that he was eaten up with cancer, he wanted to have that last ritual with me and although it’s doubtful that he would have understood my saying so, that was profoundly Catholic of him.
(Painting: “Goodbye, Brave sweet Man: A Portrait of Alfred Eaker, Sr. ©2017. Alfred Eaker, which now hangs at the Franciscan Hermitage in Indianapolis)