Eulogy for Charles H. Alfred August 17, 1926 – January 4, 2017
In 1922, before my father was even born, a man named James Barrie said,
“God gave us memory, so that we might have roses in December.”
It’s a lovely thought, that our brain carries the power to conjure the ephemeral things of our life and replay them to be savored at our command. All of us collect an abridged version of our lifelong memories in our fragile brains, and title it our life. The stories we recall the most are the ones we imagine define us best. We edit it and add to it as the years go by, hoping to eventually make sense of the way it all plays out.
Dad, in his last years, was all about his memories. As his 90 year old brain remembered less and less about what happened ten minutes ago, it filled with vivid details of memories from the distant past. His visits became a continuous narrative of the same handful of stories: Stories of all the mischief his grandmother and beloved uncles endured on his behalf. Stories of how he escaped death in a multitude of close calls; by pneumonia, by getting struck by a car, by jumping a barbed wire fence, by two massive heart attacks, by cancer, and even by broken heart. Stories of his adored mother, that made me sad I never knew her. A woman who was so smart and talented he said, “there was nothing she couldn’t do. And I mean nothing.” Stories of his adventures as a young sailor on a carrier in World War Two, with his first taste of independence and accomplishment. And how he returned unannounced on a city bus carrying a duffle to the front door of his mother’s house without her even knowing he was back from the war. Stories of joyful times as a teenager managing his orchestra and going to hear the big bands in Providence and Boston. Sad and excruciatingly depressing stories of what I came to refer to as, “The Death Anthology.” These were accounts in rapid succession of the deaths of practically everyone he ever knew and his mother, his uncles, his father, and of course, my brother and my mother. “If you get to be this old,” he would say, “You get to know a lot of dead people.” And just when I thought if I heard the death story one more time I would die myself, right there in front of him, and he would have to add my death to his next telling of it, he would loop back to his most favorite and joyful story of all. The one of a beautiful girl who would rather waltz than jitterbug, who he met purely by coincidence at a town dance he never intended to go to, “as though,” he would always say every time he told it, “as though it was part of some great plan I didn’t even know I had.” It was the story of a girl named Mary, who stole his heart, as he told it, “So he could never get over it.”
All of his stories led back to my mother in one continuous loop. Probably because all his stories were actually about the same thing. The story my father proclaimed of his life in these later years was as simple as this. He came into the world as a solitary and lonely only child and spent his lifetime trying to build a family to surround himself with. He looked for friends to be his brothers. He embraced my mother’s family, her parents, her sisters, her nieces and nephews, as his own. He reportedly told my mother, before they married that he wanted LOTS of children. “If we can’t have many children,” he said, “I don’t want any at all. Because it’s a terrible thing to be alone.”
I guess that is the oldest story since Adam met Eve. Maybe it’s the single narrative of life itself. Maybe it’s really that simple.
But if any of you knew my dad, even just a little, you know there is nothing simple about him. If that is his story, then there is bound to be a sequel ... or two. Because this larger than life personality, this tough as nails but charming as a fairytale-prince man who ran the town of Warren with respect, integrity and brilliance for 25 years, this no excuses, straight shooting, sincere, passionate, emotional, witty, lyrical, totally incorrigible man, got that big family he asked for. Six children. Eleven grandchildren. Nine great-grandchildren.
Someone do the math for me. First add that number of offspring plus friends, extended family and the entire population of Warren and multiply that by the number of times all of us intersected with my father’s indomitable spirit and benevolent influence through his 90 years. Factor in an untold number of the unforgettable “Dadisms” that flowed daily from my dad’s mouth to our ears (like wet chewing gum stuck to the soul of our keds), and influenced pretty much everything we did from then on, including what we said and did with our own children.
I believe the answer to this word problem will give you the exact number of stories that because of this one-in-a-million, lonely, only child, are still left to be told. I think the number is potentially infinite, and I know this for sure, some of these stories are hilarious. Some of them are not. But every one of these stories is precious to us who had the honor to love, and to be loved so intensely by him.
“God gave us memory so we can have roses in winter.”
Or maybe so I can remember my dad pushing the grocery cart at the grocery store in Bristol, with me in the little kid seat up front, eating my animal crackers, watching what seemed like every woman in the store greet him with a hug saying, “Charlie! So good to see you!” and then to me, “Aren’t you so lucky to be Chuck Alfred’s daughter!”
God gave my family memory so we could see our luck and his charm even through the difficult years of his care.
God gave us memory so I can see my mom and dad dancing in their bare feet in the kitchen, as they did so often when I was growing up on Barden Lane. A spontaneous break in the middle of doing the dishes. Looking like a couple of love struck teenagers.
God gave us memory so I can see them dancing in heaven.
Our brains sometimes compromise our memories toward the end of a long life like my father’s. Watching this happen made me think a lot about how much of our personality and our lives are defined by what we remember. It made me fear losing the fondest memories, as though if we no longer remember, it is like those memories didn’t happen.
So I pray as we say goodbye to my dad today, that memory does not die with us. I pray that God gave us a Soul to remember what our brain may have forgotten. So we can take whatever was lost in our mortal time on earth with us to the next place. And that the stories that bind the living and the dead, between heaven and earth, will be joyful and eternal.
by his daughter Leslie Alfred McGrath, spoken at his funeral January 9, 2017 at St. Mary of the Bay Parish, Warren RI.
This Eulogy was followed by a list of "Dadisms" my brother John Alfred compiled and had his son Will, read:
What I have learned in 51 years from my 90-year-old dad
No one gives you anything for free except for your mother and father
Honor your mother and father and never, I mean never, disrespect your mother
Treat everyone as you would want them to treat you regardless of class, race or so called importance.
Parking a 3000 lb. car in mud or as he referred to it as -porridge will always require a tow truck
Do whatever job you want to do, but always work hard to be the best at it.
There are only two definites in life and they are death and taxes
Your father was once your age too
Always pay your debts fairly and on time
No one can ever take an education away from you
Stubbornness is something that stays with you your whole life and sometimes even intensifies at ages 88-90.
Be careful when answering questions from your father because many of the questions he already knows the answers to.
War is horrible when you are in it in real life and looks nothing like the movies.
Your name, your efforts and what you have done for others is all you leave this world with.
Following a drunk friend home from a college party is dumb and may result in totaling your father's car while watching your friend total the garage door of his house.
Showing affection for your children and telling them you are proud of them should continue your whole life and their whole life.
Men, eighty-five-years-old and older, no longer have any filter.
Once you have children as great as it is…..you worry about them and have them for life.
Dogs are often smarter than people.
Calling your older, bigger brother on to a fight is dumb especially when your only backup is your 5' 2, 100 lb. sister.
Being an only child is no fun
There is nothing open or good happening after 1:00 in the morning
Don't worry about what you can't change (even though he preached this he did not always live it).
Listen to what your father tells you in your teens because you will hear it through your own voice later in life.
If you can eat pizza for dinner several times a week and still make it to 90 then have at it.