Friday, September 11, 2015

Roger Samuel: My Airplane Musings

The following was written on the flight to Los Angeles, on my way to celebrate the amazing life of Roger Samuel.

The last time I sat in an airplane was five months ago on a return from a truncated Chicago Spring Break trip. We needed to reach my mother’s side before she passed away. Tonight I’m flying to Los Angeles to attend the funeral services of Roger Samuel.  The two experiences share the same surreal melancholy and realization that I’m of an age now where my mentor generation is leaving me. And I am frightened that I’m not grown up enough to guide this starship on my own. But perhaps these are the kinds of losses that one must experience to ultimately gain the wisdom to be dubbed “the next generation.”  Our responsibility is to live the legacy of those mentors who can only live in my heart now.

"Walrus Face" circa 1985
It was strange when I was asking for the day off at work. We have a new computerized system so your “reason for absence” is a kind of drop down. Sick day or Personal. In our employee handbook there are additional kinds of days you can request based on NJ and Federal Employment Law. When my mother died, I was able to claim “bereavement of an immediate family member.” For that, one can get a week’s paid leave. Another designation “bereavement of an extended family member” allows one day. However, that designation stipulates “relative, uncle, aunt, cousin.” And I found this a very limiting term. For the depth of the emotions I have felt when my previous “California Moms”, Peggy and Norma, died was much, much more poignant than when my paternal uncle, or even paternal grandmother passed away.  What does “extended family” really even mean? In the case of Roger Samuel, I would argue that could probably mean anyone he ever met.

My first encounter with Roger was as the tag-along out-of-stater his daughter, Gail, decided to bring home from USC one early Fall Weekend. That drive out to Claremont would become a bi-monthly ritual for several years and by Thanksgiving of our sophomore year, I recall a veritable army of Trojans at the Samuel table. I don’t pride myself on having a very good long-term memory. I cannot recall too many specific moments of my college years. I blame it on having very little RAM space because I think too much.  So I tend to push non-desktop memories to the far recesses of my mind and emotion. Even only a few years after USC graduation I would laugh because my friend, Kendra, would tell me about events I participated in and I would be legitimately flummoxed about having been there. (I did catch her in a severe untruth one time when she insisted I had been at an outing to see When Harry Met Sally, because I do remember the films I’ve seen and that was decidedly not one I had seen.) But generally, as she would recall moments to me little edges of light would shine on the most shadowy of visions and I would recall certain USC experiences. I believe I can also chalk my version of memory erasing up to the fact that I’m very geographically-centered. I have more memories and feelings from the days before and after USC than those actual four years because I have “place memory”. Well truthfully, three years, because I was abroad for one year in England and many of those recollections have sharper edges, so it’s not about having been there often since I was only in England one year and only visited maybe four times since then. But I can even remember certain walks I took that year abroad. I think it is perhaps because L.A. and the USC Campus just never got into my soul the way other locations of my life have. I didn’t have a sense of rootedness or comfort so many of the events that happened there lost their clarity for me because I am the type of person who remembers space and comfort first, then event. However, there is one place where I did feel grounded and whole and myself. I was fully at home in Claremont, at the Samuel’s house.

Memories abound for me of that ranch home at the foothills of the San Bernadino mountains. I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye the kumquat tree at the edge of the driveway, the stone garden at the entry way, the funky pottery scattered through the sunken living room, the piano. I can hear Gail’s bird squawking in the kitchen, her brother Brent diligently practicing cello for hours in his room down the hall and feel the warmth of the fireplace in the den, surrounded by good friends who became my family when I was on the beginning journeys of my self-hood. I have vivid, palpable memories of spending a portion of my Senior Year Spring Break at Roger and Janet’s home when Gail wasn’t even there. I spent long hours in the narrow backyard, shadowed by Mt. Baldy, learning to juggle, but cognizant of the two people I really felt as close to as parents laughing at me from the sliding door. As I bent down innumerable times to retrieve the “Little Pinky” balls, I remember feeling utterly “at home.”

I was so happy to have my kids hugged by this man.
There was even the time when I flew to Los Angeles from Japan for less than 24 hours so I could attend my friend Eleanor’s wedding. I had just gotten married myself two months prior, but due to visas and work schedules and such, my new husband and I had to part company only one week after our wedding. So we were seeing each other again for the first time in two months at Eleanor’s wedding and while I don’t remember who orchestrated the Claremont rendezvous, I do know that Roger and Janet let Steve and I have a little “reunion time” in their home. And, I remember feeling the same kind of silly embarrassment one would feel when having sex in one’s childhood home for the first time. Their castle, truly was my castle. But I also know anyone ever invited into that home felt that way. And the primary conductor in that comfort and soulfulness of homespace was Roger, with his warm smile, his goofy giggles and his welcoming arms. I know there are many, many people who in the eyes of Federal Employment law could not claim “bereavement” right now, but who feel a profound and soul shattering loss because that stalwart father-figure is not going to be there to greet us in our second home in Claremont. We will gather at their contemporary mission style Catholic church where I first learned that it was ok to crack up in the middle of Mass, because, you know, sometimes things are just too funny. Or you know, because Roger was making wry remarks about something the priest said or the lady in the front row was wearing. The church where I learned about “Sanctuary” and Latin American “Liberation Theology”. The church where we celebrated Gail’s marriage over a decade ago on an occasion of joy and wonderment.

My California Family 1993
Roger and Janet Samuel January 2, 1993
As I write of weddings, I am prompted to recall my own as Roger and Janet Samuel were instrumental in it. As a liturgy planner all my life, I wanted the Offertory at my wedding to have extra special meaning, so I chose three married couples in different stages of their married lives to bring the gifts. My friend, Connie, had married only a year prior, she and her husband represented Green and “the bread of new life”. In the winter of their 50+ year marriage, my Uncle Con and Aunt Kitty represented Blue and the “water that sustains us”. Roger and Janet participated as my couple in the Purple “wine” years of marriage, the middle of a life of love and passion. It meant so much to me to have them integral in my ceremony, because truly, they were my family. And truly, they were a couple, more than my own parents I am not afraid to admit, who represented to me what genuine “union” meant. They worked in concert in all matters and I thought Gail so lucky that she had that example of collaborative love as
a model her whole life.

Roger and Janet at Gail's Wedding November 2002
My heart goes out to Janet more than anyone right now. Her love affair with Roger started when she was only 16 and the loss and unmooring she must feel right now must be so disorienting like she woke up and a limb was missing. Roger’s presence was so solid, so steady. He brought both warmth and humor to every situation and I can only imagine that someone like Janet, who experienced that at the age of 16 and knew well enough to keep Roger as part of her everlasting life, can only be experiencing a kind of epic colossal, almost mythic grief right now. But the one thing I know Janet has, and I’m sure she recognizes this, too, is a network of people who span the globe that experienced the warmth and power of her and Roger’s union, such that her “extended family” (the real kind, not the Federally mandated one) will surround her not only now, but continuously.

I still have times when I am in denial about my mother’s death. Because I don’t live near my childhood home, because she never even stepped foot in my house I live in now, I sometimes think I can compartmentalize my worlds into the one where my mother existed and the one where she didn’t, but that never works. I called my mother all the time on the phone, when something awesome happened at work, when the kids were driving me crazy, when I just wanted to hear the voice of someone I knew would really listen to me. I still have my parents’ number listed as “Mom and Dad” and I cannot bring myself to have it just say “Dad”. I wish I could talk to her right now, so she could help me through my grief at Roger’s passing.  But I think the depth of my grief now is so strong because I know deeply and profoundly what it is to lose a parent. I recently read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and she speaks of the loss of a parent as an “unmooring” and I think this is the perfect word.  We are floating, lost at sea, nothing anchoring us anymore. It’s disorienting, at times frightening, particularly the more the steadiness and comfort of that parent rooted us to this world. I will always grieve the loss of my mother, I am quite sure. I grieve the loss of Peggy Secor, Norma Wallace, and now Roger Samuel, too, with that same “hole in my heart that will never fully heal” emptiness. Roger was a model of patience and kindness, gentleness and understanding, but he also was someone who taught me to pull kumquats right off the tree and pop them in your mouth. He and Janet introduced me to artful pottery, ethnic foods, and going to the symphony. Roger was the one no matter if years went by before I saw him again, would smile and open his arms for a belly hug (the Samuel Family are all MUCH taller than me) and make me feel like all was right with the world because he was still caring for the world’s children. Roger’s the one who told me “if you have a heartbeat, you have rhythm, you just have to let yourself hear what’s going on in your heart.”