October 18, 2014
Yesterday my Dad left the stage. He picked a very nice exit performance. Sick with what he thought was a stomach virus for a couple of days. And then lying in his own bed next to his high school sweetheart of over 70 years, he simply slipped away in his sleep. About half way through his 95th year of a wonderful adventure story it was time to move on. The physical body his Spirit occupied will be reduced to ashes today and those ashes will be held in waiting for those of his bride when she decides it is her time to go. Then, with their Spirits always with us, the family they nurtured and loved will probably take those last physical remains of Bill and Fran and sprinkle them into the ocean from one of the mighty ships they loved to sail upon. The only hard part now is for my wonderful mother who has lost the physical presence of her dearest friend and lover. I know she will be fine but you can’t avoid the sadness for a time.
I think Dad probably would have left sooner except that he didn’t want to leave his sweetheart alone. Their love held him here even when the age of his body had made doing many things difficult. That had to have been hard for him because he had always been very independent, liking to do things for himself. I think he had accomplished and done more than he probably ever thought he would have if you had asked him back when Mom was still in high school and he went by her house to play ping pong with some of his friends.
Frances, my wonderful Mom, grew up in the house I would be born into some years later. She had a nice life like me in the well to do town of South Orange, New Jersey. The Montrose neighborhood that Frances grew up in was a prosperous area of large Victorian homes in the northeast quadrant of the town. The Ashmead home was a three story house – actually four if you counted the big basement. A long gravel driveway ran along the side of the house to a two car garage occupying one corner of the half acre lot. The garage actually had a gasoline pump so you could fill the car with fuel right at home – a big underground tank fed the pump. The house was set back from Montrose Avenue with a large front yard dominated by two majestic maple trees. The back yard was even bigger and had several tall pine trees and another tall maple between 100 and 200 feet tall. Most of the comings and goings of the family though were through the kitchen door at the back of the house. Three wooden steps took you up to the door – on the top step was an insulated metal box which was where the Becker’s Farm milk man would deliver fresh milk and cream every couple of days early in the morning. I can remember going out to get the icy cold glass bottles with the top quarter of the bottle thick cream that had risen above the regular milk in the other three quarters of each bottle.
This was the house where Frances would meet the love of her life, William Henry Brodie. They would meet by chance when a couple of mutual friends invited Bill to come with them to Frannie’s house to play ping-pong and listen to records. Bill and Fran hit it off right away. Frances had just gotten home after a cruise back from England on the recently launched Queen Mary, one of the elegant Cunard Ocean Liners. On the trip she had won a red suede vest. When she was showing the vest and some other things she had brought back from the trip, Bill apparently indicated he really liked the vest and even though she had just met Bill, she gave him the vest before he left from that first visit. Bill’s Mom was a little concerned about Bill accepting this rather expensive gift from a girl he had just met. Wondering a bit about it himself, Bill decided to stop by Fran’s again the next day. Bill was supposed to be going to church but instead, he dropped his sisters off at Sunday School and went back to Fran’s under the pretense of apologizing for taking the vest. Fran told him he didn’t need to apologize – she was very glad for him to have the vest – while she didn’t say it to him, she was also glad he had come up with a reason to come to see her again so soon.
Bill was four years older than Fran and World War II would interrupt the smooth sailing of their relationship for a few years. Bill had refused to get married before being shipped to Europe to fight Germans – he didn’t want to leave Fran a widow before they even had much time to live together. While he was off at war, she finished college at Hood and went on to graduate school at Columbia University in NYC where she studied Occupational Therapy. Luckily Bill would make it home without the need for any therapy other than her love.
He had been blessed with an easy time in the military compared to most people. Even though he had been advised not to volunteer for anything, early on a Sergeant approached his platoon asking for a volunteer that was a good driver and without thinking much about it Bill’s hand shot up. For that decision, he landed the cushy job of a driver for the Officer’s motor pool. Later on he would drive a mail delivery vehicle which was still a great job for a soldier even thought it did put him into a bit more danger - he had to regularly go close to the front lines of the battles being fought with incoming mail and to pick up letters being sent out by the troops. Love letters between him and Fran back in the States regularly went back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean that separated them with all the other letters and parcels he transported.
By the end of 1945 the War was over and Bill was home. It was time to get a job and plan a wedding. Bill’s passion for cars drove him to seek a job with Studebaker after being discharged from the U.S. Army. Studebaker entered the automotive business in 1902 with electric vehicles and in 1904 with gasoline vehicles, all sold under the name "Studebaker Automobile Company". By the late 40’s, Studebaker was past its prime with Ford in particular eating away Studebaker sales but Bill would start in the Parts Department picking parts to fill orders to dealers around the country. He had the good fortune of never really having any reason to worry about money since he and Frances would move in with mother-in-law Rachel after getting married. Bill never got to go to college but his work ethic and love of cars brought him success through the years with Studebaker and by the time Mercedes came in to take over most of the Studebaker dealer network, Bill had risen to a management position and Mercedes kept him on the team.
The long delayed wedding finally took place in 1946 four years before I would be born. When Bill and Frances got married, besides starting a family (they wanted to have two boys and a girl for children), their dream was to have a boat they could sleep on, to do a lot of traveling around the world and to spend winters in Florida. Every one of those dreams came true and I doubt either of them ever questioned that this would be the case.
Several years after the purchase of the first boat they could sleep on – “Cherish”. A 28’ Pacemaker Cabin Cruiser would be the first of four boats of progressively bigger size that they would sleep on and vacation on and eventually live on in Florida during the winters after he retired from Mercedes. So, they realized their dreams and had the three kids they wanted - me first and then at nicely planned four year intervals Peter and Lynn. They provided us with a pretty near perfect childhood and I always felt we were lucky to have such great parents. We took regular vacations as a family but each year Fran and Bill would go somewhere by themselves. The best part of having them as parents was that it was so obvious how much they loved each other and how much fun they had together. They were always very social and outgoing with lots of good friends.
Most of those friends are gone now but they still had each other – until yesterday. The loss of the two of them together is the sad part. I can’t think of any better love story than theirs. I know my mother will be fine because that’s just who she is. The gratitude she has that he didn’t spend his final days in a hospital and that they were at home where everything would be as easy as possible to deal with will push back her sadness. Her Mom, Rachel Ashmead had outlived her husband J. Edward Ashmead by a few decades and Fran and Bill had lived with Rachel. The Brodie / Ashmead home was where we lived for all of those years, blessed with the best Grandma you could have. I don’t’ think anyone could have created a wonderful adventure to live. Now Mom has her daughter and husband living with her so she has plenty of company and a familiar setting. Mom will bask in all the love and joy filled memories knowing, I believe, that her Bill has only left her in body, not in Spirit. I don’t think this was the first life adventure they have shared and I am pretty certain it will not be the last.
And so as another day here on this particular stage winds down, I want to thank you William Henry Brodie III for bringing me into your adventure story. You lived a great life and added to the joy and happiness of many people. I am counting on you to send me helpful inspirations any time you know I could use your help. In a way, I feel you closer now than when your body was around. I know your Spirit will be right there with Mom comforting her and letting her know you are right there and that you will never really be separated – you will always be together.
And so, again, thank you and just keep having fun. We will probably also meet again in another adventure. If it turns out that I get to play the part of Dad, I will try to be as good a Dad as you.