Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Papa Bear

A sketch from my last visit helping check in on things.
Time to rest before the Mariners game comes on.
The running joke in Barry Lewis' household, where long ago I sought the heart and hand of his second (twin) daughter, was that he'd give me the clothes off his back.

Would and did, since more often than not I'd show up for a visit without all my Sunday best for the mad mass scramble — a dozen or more people, darting about the house — for 8 a.m. Mass.

Dad would give me an extra belt from his pants (which barely fit my thicker frame) or a pair of socks. Shoes once too, if I remember right.

At first Nancy interceded on my behalf, quietly informing her dad of my ineptitude. After once became a trend, though, my forgetfulness went public.

"Daddy, he did it again!" a younger sister might shout through the house. "Guess who forgot his socks?!" another might announce.

Barry Lewis would put the needed attire in my hand with both his hands, his kidding gesture that maybe also I wasn't capable of keeping track of these loaners, or even of dressing myself. His eyes would crinkle and he'd laugh big but softly, his teeth showing in his beard, white even then. I was the visiting galumph, the sideshow.

I remember Barry Lewis that way, a quiet and serious man whose words and actions carried sturdy weight. When he welcomed me back after my crazy trip to his home 30 years ago, my wife said it was a moment a great significance, his imprimatur.

When he must have decided it was the last time he would see our children, he held onto both their hands and told them to pursue what they most enjoyed in life.

Barry Lewis liked simple things and liked things simple, quietly enjoying his country music and the outdoors. Mirth ran in a deep undercurrent, bubbling up in jets of quiet laughter.

He passed away Saturday on the road, which was his dream, but not quite this dream.

From a camping trip 18 years ago …
Barry and DeAnn raised their family in a sprawling house in Auburn, Calif. Not fancy, but quirky and oh so comfortable, with multiple levels and nooks and spaces enough to accommodate 11 children. The backyard was a cool arbor with a sloping lawn, just long enough for a game of catch. Horseshoes clinked constantly on summer afternoons in the pit Barry built by the side of the backyard. Screen doors front and back produced precisely the creaks and squeaks and slams you want from screen doors, the symphony of home.

Towering sycamores reached to the sky right against the back of the house, and a massive deck extended out the back, cut away to accommodate the sycamores' great trunks. Nancy and I spent most of our wedding reception thanking friends and family on that deck, or beneath its shade.

Sean, one of the sons-in-law, an architect and builder, designed a new deck to replace the well used and well loved one. All hands were on deck over several weekends, children and their spouses doing what we could to build according to Sean's plans. I think we'd all pound the railing or kick the planking on subsequent visits, not a little proud of what we had all built together.

As all our families grew — many of his grandchildren called him Papa Bear — we hoped for more years of weekends at the ultimate grandparents' house, but we knew better. It may have been part of our collective dreams, but not Barry and DeAnn's.

The youngest child knew from an early age that as soon as he had graduated and moved out, the house would be sold and Barry and DeAnn would hitch up their fifth-wheel and take the road, anywhere they pleased, schedule be damned.

They got one of those maps nomadic travelers buy for their trailers, with spaces for stickers in the shape of each state they visit. Their map grew a colorful swath across the southern country, with some tangential pocks of color; but the map never got filled.

Health issues curtailed plans. Barry and DeAnn took a permanent address again, in a quiet forested park in southwestern Oregon, populated by like-minded nomads. They lived on an efficient square of property, with room for the fifth-wheel and the truck, a fenced garden to keep out the parade of deer, and a sturdy storage shed.

It was still not Barry's ideal; he and DeAnn also briefly held a park site in the high desert west of Las Vegas. He loved the dry heat of the desert, just as he liked hiking the high chaparral around Auburn, trails and roads gashed into the bright orange dirt.

A roulette of circumstances put them in damp, green Oregon for the long haul, where they made a home among friends. Nancy, who was beside her dad and mom with his twin Carol and sister Susan, brother Greg and my daughter when he passed away, said park neighbors have brought food and kind words the last few days. The park where they live flew the flag at half staff in honor of Barry, an Army veteran.

Barry Lewis, like my dad, was a model. He showed by example. He and my dad were can-do guys; to me, their sense of providing for their families was palpable. Over the course of ordinary weekend days he'd be in all parts of the house in Auburn, in his faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt, landscaping here, fixing the furnace or the plumbing, working in a cramped workspace beneath the deck to fashion a piece of hardware for a new purpose.

Various segments of the extended family would visit, and he'd come in at a time of his appointing to get a meal or coffee and visit, then go out and fix some more.

Weekdays he drove the quiet Volkswagen bug into town, to his job as controller at the savings and loan.

He lived and worked around the edges of daily life, not in the center, that wasn't his way. From my viewpoint he was unpretentious, prone to quiet, speaking when he saw speaking was needed. Christmases, as you can imagine, were huge events in the house, just by the number of people. Gift opening could take hours. Barry quietly went under the tree to divvy the gifts, and put his own by his chair, which he opened usually much later in the afternoon, at the hour of least attention.

Over time I've grown quiet — I don't really know why — and think often of whether a social trait can pass down outside of immediate lineage. But his was a more comfortable quiet, like his faded jeans, while mine is a more disquieting quiet. Still, the similarity makes me wonder if we become that way over time.
This might have been a sketch … I have no idea who
any client might have been. Though the child is
awkwardly constructed, the man is a subconscious
meld of my dad and Barry Lewis, the hem of the jean jacket
being a dead giveaway …

We inherited the love for camping from both our parents, and passed it on to our children. We have also tried to follow what we saw as the example of keeping as much as can, as simple as we can.

Latently I inherited a love of hiking, at least in time for our children to join Scouting. I wasn't the biggest fan of the long family hikes Barry led in the hills around the Auburn hills, in the heat and the dust. But I grew to like them.

To be fair, he wasn't the biggest fan of my drawing, or of trying to draw for a living. He'd probably disapprove of these drawings, by the absence of comment. But he approved of me, and of my marrying his daughter, so I'll take that.

In the park in Oregon, Barry joined in the communal chores and upkeep in which the members shared, and walked the roads out in the greenness around the little faded lumber town. Then health confined him to his home in the park, then to the 20 or so steps from bed to his easy chair. The outdoors, his refuge, was kept outdoors.

Mine is only part of a story to tell, one view; mine is a tangent as one married into the family. The rest is for others to tell, as I say, if and as they wish.

Suffice it to say Barry Lewis fathered the great American novel, so like the epic novels of so many other families, yet unique.

He passed away in the comfort of Catholic faith, the faith in which he and DeAnn raised their family, the principles in which they tried daily to live, the faith in which his faithful wife could let him pass in the comfort of seeing him again. Soon we will celebrate his life in the structure of his faith, which he tended to each early morning in prayer. Prayer for all. Prayer for me too, I hope. I trust.

Goodbye, Papa Bear.

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