Friday, February 10, 2006

Remembering My Father by Trisha Kent

Thank you all for coming today to remember my father. And thank you Karin for such a poignant tribute to him.

It was three weeks ago today my dad died, and I must tell you that in that time I think that my family and I feel somewhat liberated because we’ve now been more able to reflect on the man as he once was, and he is now all of a sudden much closer to all of us.

When we were children, I think my sisters and brother would agree with me that we thought our dad knew everything and could do anything. I think Dad didn’t do much to dispel that notion. To us, he seemed larger than life: he was a gifted teacher, and he knew about literature and art, about music, and history, and algebra. At one point I think he knew by memory all five acts of Hamlet. He could sing so beautifully, he was a wonderful actor and director, and yet he could fix the car, he could build bookcases and hang wallpaper and put up paneling, and he could show us the planets through a telescope, and point out all the constellations. He was a wonderful photographer, and he would develop the pictures he took. He collected stamps from around the world. He was a birdwatcher, he grew roses and peonies, he hiked his beloved Long Trail in Vermont, and he played tennis and golf.

He had so many enthusiasms, so many passions. Yet his capacity for generosity almost overshadowed this. It seemed that enjoying all these pleasures was never enough—it was so important to him to share what he loved. If Dad watched a good movie or concert on TV, he would gleefully tell you about how wonderful it was and then invite you in so you and he could watch it together. If you liked it as much as he did, or even if you didn’t, you would soon be the owner of a copy. If he enjoyed a book, he would not just tell you about, he would read some of it to you. A new Cecilia Bartoli CD would mean a copy on a cassette for all his friends and neighbors. Of course his enthusiasm also carried to ideas. On more than one occasion, Dad invited Jehovah’s Witnesses, proselytizing at the door, into his living room, in order to share his own Anglo-Catholic views on Christianity and do a little proselytizing of his own.

His greatest passion was for my mother. They adored each other--they truly had one of the great marriages. Perhaps this was the greatest gift to their children, as it no doubt helped us to live and grow in our own marriages. I’d like to share a little vignette, played out dozens if not hundreds of times: my mom and dad sitting in their living room, and, getting on in the evening, my mother would put her book down and get up from her chair, and say she was going to bed. As she walked by my father’s chair, he would take her hand, and she would bend down for a little smooch. “Good night darling,” he would say, “I’ll be up in a little while.”

An easy, quiet moment between them, not a big deal, but a memory for me which seems to capture the spirit of their enduring affection for each other.

To quote from my father’s favorite writer I would like to say:

Good night, sweet prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

My Father by Mary Sigmond

St. Andrew's Church, Kent, Connecticut
19 November 2005

I'm Bill and Ruth's daughter Mary Sigmond.

My father has always been a huge presence in my life. When I was a child, he seemed larger-than-life, and it was clear that everyone in the family adored him. I was particularly impressed with how much he knew about everything and how good he was at doing so many things. Although as I grew older, he seemed less of a superman, I remained impressed with the range and intensity of his interests - especially those connected with music - and his endearing if sometimes obsessive pursuit of them. Surely there was never anyone who took on NY Times crossword puzzles or searched record stores for CDs with Penguin Guide rosettes more assiduously than he! Such things we will remember often and fondly about my dad, but of course they were only little parts of the whole.

For all my father's intellectual gifts and his accomplishments as a husband, father, teacher and so on, one thing has always stood out to me as the most remarkable thing about him - and that was his incredible generosity of spirit. Bill John, as the saying goes, was the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back - never mind that that shirt might come with a few stains on the front. As well-read, culturally-minded and intellectually curious as he was, he was also completely unpretentious, down-to-earth and approachable. My father could carry on a friendly conversation with just about anybody on just about any topic - and he frequently did just that. As my mother says, if he didn't know about something, he'd pick your brain until he did.

My father wasn't perfect - no one is - but I do believe he was about as fine a human being as you could ever meet. I never knew him to say or do anything deliberately unkind. Never. As unlikely as it sounds, I don't even recall ever hearing him and my mother have harsh words, and certainly nothing anyone could call a fight. But then, theirs was the love story of two very remarkable people, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Over the years I have both marvelled and shaken my head at the way Dad was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, even if it meant he might be taken advantage of. Sometimes that happened too - but even then, I never knew him to bear a grudge. The bigger picture was more important. My father had the remarkable gift of being able to let go of the big and little things in life that eat away at so many of us. I suspect it was partly by nature he was an optimist and always looked for the best in people, but I believe it was also by conscious choice because it brought out the best in himself. It was also one of the many ways he tried to live his Christian faith, a faith which remained central to his life, even as he was slipping away from us these last few months.

There are many wonderful things to say and remember about Samuel William John, but his generosity of spirit was, I believe, the most remarkable and enduring of them all. How grateful I will always be that I could visit him just two weeks before he died, and tell him one more time that I loved him and how proud I was to be his daughter.

Bill John Remembered by Karin Smith

We’re here this morning to remember and give thanks for the life of our own Bill John – a kind and gentle man we came to know, love and admire.

A devoted husband to Ruth, his soul mate of 63 years, and caring father to Katherine, Mary, Bill and Patricia and their spouses, and a most proud grandfather and great-grandfather.

We remember Bill as a good and a wise man, enthusiastic and cheerfully optimistic; a man of integrity, who gave generously of himself in service to others, to his church and his community; a good neighbour and kind, considerate friend; a benevolent teacher, school librarian, chorister, occasional thespian and so much more – “a man for all seasons.”

We also remember a man passionate in his love for music which his daughter Mary likened to “Dad’s Magnificent Obsession” referring of course to his vast and expansive musical library. YES, music was a life-long passion for Bill. A long-standing member of the Litchfield County Choral Union he would joyfully and enthusiastically sing from his heart and soul. Tanglewood Summers with Ruth and Bill were special events and a tradition, combined with occasional ventures to the Met, or the Bushnell and other places that create music.

One of my personal recollections about Bill was, that after hearing an unfamiliar piece of music on WMNR Fine Arts Radio, I had phoned Bill to inquire and learn more about that particular musical selection. You could ask Bill anything – he had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge, especially about music.

Woe to the unsuspecting soul, hoping for a quick answer. You had to be prepared for a most thorough lesson on the subject in question, which would include a “biopic” of the composer, a complete run-down of recorded works rated by the Penguin Classical Music Guide and most likely the actual copy of work, on LP, Tape or CD delivered to your doorstep that same day. Oftentimes, he would call back later with additional information.

The other evening, listening to a delightful musical offering unfamiliar to me, my first thought was to call Bill …

Allow me to share with you, this short quotation by a 19th Century American theologian, William Henry Channing. It is entitled “My Symphony” and so eloquently speaks to the essence of Bill John, as we remember him.

To live content with modest means;
to see elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion;
to be worthy, not respectable, and
wealthy, not rich;
to listen to stars and birds,
babes and sages, with open heart;
to study hard; think quietly, act frankly,
talk gently wait occasions, hurry never.
In a word, let the Spiritual, unbidden and
Unconscious, grow up through the Common—

This is to be my symphony

Bill John’s good works and most of all his humanity will live on in memory and continue to inspire all of us to live as he did – joyously and spiritually grounded.

Karin Smith
Saturday, November 19, 2005

How Lucky can You Get?

It's been a long time since my last post. On the 29th of October my father died. While this was not unexpected as he had been failing for the past few years, it has left me without the urge to write. I want to write about him, but I can't determine what it is I want to say.

The way it seems to be today is that everything can, must, should be put into words 'somehow'. The concept that there are some events or situations which are really and truly beyond words is not easily understood, let alone accepted.

Bill John
Samuel William John (Bill) was no ordinary man. He loved his wife, his family, his friends -- and tried to love his enemies. He was/is a devout Christian and tried harder than most to live up to his beliefs. He loved music: the opera, the concerto, the symphony, the ballet, Tanglewood. He wasn't really crazy about food -- he didn't like cheese, fish or mushrooms! He loved pepperoni pizza, in spite of the mozzarella!

He loved to talk, to laugh; he also love the Baltimore Oriols, the New York Giants Football team and was a staunch Democrat. He loved books -- possibly he loved books more than he loved reading them! It seemed to me there was not anything he could not do. He was the plumber, the decorator, electrician, roofer, painter, golfer, baseball and football enthusiast, actor, opera singer, theologian, layreader, teacher, campground manager, outdoorsman, chauffeur and photographer, for a start! He was an English teacher and a librarian.

But for me, he was my inspiration. The one it was most important to please. He was also my comforter when things went wrong -- sometimes life-changing events, sometimes just the everyday. I always felt he understood -- even when he didn't 'understand' exactly. Even when his advice was taken -- exactly.

For a long time we thought he was suffering from Altzheimer's Disease, which in fact he was not. He was a victim of a series of 'mini-strokes' which slowly ebbed the life out of him. He also lost the sight of one eye through a botched cataract operation several years ago. About two years ago it was discovered that he had Macula Degeneration in the other eye and so he was virtually blind. Most of all he was tired -- a fatigue that finally and irrevocably incapacitated him. He was 87 years old when he died, and for him death was a release. We were all ready.

My mother was a 'star' through all of this. He was 'the love of my life' she always would say -- she still says. They were each other's best friend and soul mate. I had planned to visit them two weeks after he died, but was prepared to buy another ticket and fly in for the funeral service. My mother was quite surprised and said she had already planned to have a 'memorial' service a few days after my arrival in two-weeks time and it really wasn't necessary to change my plans, but I could if I felt it was really necessary. She had decided to have a short (five minutes) service at the graveside where his ashes were to be interred -- but absolutely everyone -- except immediate family -- was forbidden to come!

Her Rector explained that 'your mother has been through a very long Lent, and she is ready for Easter!

So it has been sad, but a 'release'. Now we remember him as he was before the ravages of time and age took their toll from him. In those last years he was so tired and rarely smiled. It was especially difficult for him when he had to stop driving. That seemed to take the wind out of his sails and I wasn't very understanding when he explained that was why he was depressed. But he didn't go on about it -- he only said it once.

I grew up with parents who not only loved their children but loved each other. They were not perfect, but they were/are the finest parents that I know about. I was well into my adulthood when I discovered how envious my friends had been of me because of the parents that I have. Always there for us, accepting even when they couldn't understand.

You can't get luckier than that.