Saturday, March 6, 2010

R.E.B.'s Office

This coming Monday will be two weeks since I had an office day in Ohio-in my buddy R.E.B.’s home office. His office was made for a guy like me…overflowing with books and shrouded in Vanity Fair caricatures and various military paraphernalia. Things germane to the home office-the study-the library-the nest of a man who taught British history for over thirty five years. It was a bit difficult to focus on my conference call mid morning because there was always another book-bullet-gadget or something that I’d rather be pondering.
I’ve often said that I was probably an art history professor in another life and initially, that’s what made R.E.B. my kind of guy. He loved the back story-the lore-the collateral circumstances that made seemingly irrelevant objects intriguing. He could spend an hour telling you about why soldiers in WWI preferred a certain kind of snuff or why they kept it in a particular type of tin…something to do with the mud and dampness of the trenches. 
How do I know this about R.E.B.? Because after I’d buy something like a snuff tin in Camden Passage for two quid I would sit with R.E.B. and others in a Pub and get an “R.E.B. Lesson”.

He was destined to be a teacher-a teller-a mentor and he lived his calling for all of those years. That’s at least half the key to life if you ask me. Living everyday doing what you and your DNA-dharma-destiny decides that you should do. That was R.E.B. and similar to Richard Merkin’s thirty plus year teaching career at R.I.S.D., I only knew of R.E.B.’s academic contributions collateral to my personal friendship with him. I’ve now become aware of how much R.E.B.’s students through the years as well as his faculty peers revered him.
My father died when I was fifteen and what God did for me in compensation has been remarkable. I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors and surrogate fathers along the way and R.E.B. was one of my best. Five of these surrogates, along with their wives attended my wedding. Here I am with R.E.B. at my rehearsal cookout.

I had each of my fathers stand and I introduced them to everyone at our reception dinner and publicly thanked them for being there for me. I’ve had my moments of being aloof and inattentive to those who care about me but I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity that I had to tell these men-in front of everyone else that I cared about-that I loved them and appreciated them being in my life. I’ve lost three of them in the last two years.

My introduction to R.E.B. predates the age of email and Google searches. Nowadays I can browse the inventory of a print dealer in Paris with just a few mouse clicks. Google allows all of us to ferret out obscure things from the other side of the world. I found just the other day-a 19th century watercolour caricature offered by a guy in New Zealand. I kinda miss the old days of print and caricature hunting though. Twenty years ago I would check the yellow pages for print dealers in whatever town I rolled in to and then take a cab at lunch time over to a shop or two and hope to unearth a treasure. If you are a collector of anything-you understand the associated endorphin flush. I also remember creating Wants Lists and faxing them to print dealers all over the world. Nothing was more fun than hearing the fax machine go off at four in the morning with the resultant thermal paper curled up in the fax basket with a report of treasures offered by a dealer in London.

I received such a fax in 1990 from a dealer in San Francisco and called her strait away. She was as kind and accommodating as could be-not always the nature of print and antiquities dealers. We agreed to a deal on a few things that she offered for sale and then she mentioned a recent customer. “There was a guy and his wife in here recently who bought many of the same things that you are interested in. He’s a history professor in Ohio and you’d probably enjoy talking to him”. She gave me his phone number and the rest as they say-is history. I love the delicate randomness of life-most of the time. Had I not gone to the Giant grocery store in Old Town one day; LFG would not be here. I met her mother in the checkout line. Had I not faxed a query to this nice lady in San Francisco; I wouldn’t have met R.E.B.

So I call this guy out of the blue and he’s as brusque as can be. He thinks I’m a cold caller-insurance-time share salesman or whatever. As soon as I mentioned how I got his number and what my caricature collecting interests were-the world changed. And it changed in a great way. We talked weekly and traded prints and stories and just had a ball. Soon thereafter I met R.E.B. and his wife S.D.B. and our friendship was set. They would visit Baltimore frequently to see their son and grandkids there and we would connect when they were in town.
But London-London is where I really got to know R.E.B. And I will always see London through the his eyes because it was through his lens of thirty previous years visiting England and living in London on sabbatical that I first laid eyes on The Empire. R.E.B. raised four kids on a professor’s salary so he knew all of the great and inexpensive ethnic places to eat. He and S.D.B. always rented flats in London through networks of other academics who knew how to do London on the cheap. 
S.D.B. and R.E.B. one night in 1994-standing in front of Alan Brett's print shop in Cecil Court. I think we had just been to dinner at Rules. In R.E.B. I had a personal tour guide who reveled in taking newcomers to every significant historic site in and around London and he knew more than the local experts.
I’ve lost count of how many times I met R.E.B. and S.D.B. in London. It wasn’t the free sofa upon which to sleep that would draw me there. It was the relaxed and erudite ambiance that this British history professor would create for me while we walked around every nook and cranny that contained books, militaria, prints and other remnants of the Empire that he knew so much about. Here we are in the early nineties with my buddy from Worthing-C.R.'s little daughter. I bought her a Barney animal and a Barney bag from the States. She's grown now. I heard that little girls do that and it's not going over well with me.
Same brown Weejuns that I have today. Damn sure wish I still had that coat. I'd just bought it earlier in the day at Bertie Wooster on Fulham Road. R.E.B. never got my sartorial habit and called the used coat "dead man's clothes".... Two button SB/Peak...
R.E.B. and our buddy M.P. ...another print collector who lives in Chicago-also one of the guys I define as a surrogate father. M.P. is retired now but he was a Judge and when I took him to Bertie Wooster he walked out with enough suits and sportcoats to last him for his remaining years on the bench. We were getting ready for Trooping the Colour. 
These past five or so years had not been kind to R.E.B. His health diminished rapidly after his retirement and as infrequently as I saw him-the physical changes became pretty dramatic when our paths did cross. One of the things that I am SO grateful for is that he and S.D.B. got to meet and spend some time with LFG a few years back. 
I told S.D.B. during my recent visit that when he was talking to LFG, I saw a version of R.E.B. that I’d never seen before. It just reinforced that fact that he was made to be a teacher-a story teller-a connector.

So the fact that I’m standing in the Customs line the other week at Heathrow when I get an email about R.E.B.’s further decline is particularly poignant. I commented that a few of us should go and see him rather soon. Here is an excerpt from an email that his rock-his high school sweetheart-his wife of over fifty years sent me….

“….I'm afraid you would be shocked at the weight loss and I'm not certain that is the last picture you want to have if you should see him. Please know that the decision is yours...but not expected from me. I know you love both of us no matter where you are. That's the important thing. Don't disrupt your days to comfort Me. If it's needed for You then that's your decision.

When _______ goes from this life to the next, I still believe you and I will stay in contact and visit each other.

With much love,  _________”

I always called S.D.B. “Saint ________” because of her devotion to R.E.B. and their now adult kids-as well as her grace-there’s just not a better word for it-her grace in dealing with R.E.B.’s decline is one for the record books. They are both products of the Greatest Generation and I rarely see people anymore that are made from their kind of stuff.

My only criteria for visiting R.E.B. the other week was a selfish one. Would R.E.B. recognize me-know me if I came to see him? Between Hospice-the MOST saintly and dignified organization on earth-and S.D.B., R.E.B. was resting comfortably at home and in no pain. I wanted him to know that I was there and I wanted to tell him one more time how much I loved him and what he meant to me. Once I was assured that he would know me I was out the door to Ohio.

Another email from S.D.B. after I confirmed that I was on the way…..

“…..I am very anxious to see you. I just told _________ tonight that you were coming. He kept saying, "ohhhh, _(ADG)____" He doesn't talk much, but we'll hope to keep him awake for a while. Be prepared...he is thin. xooox _________
p.s. You'll stay here. That gives us more time with you. There will be aides here most of the time, but we'll excuse whoever is here at the time and you can have some time with ______ by yourself if you wish.

There is an assemblage of three Whistler  paintings in the Freer Gallery in D.C.. The three that Whistler requested be in his view as he spent his last days in bed at his house in Chelsea. They are arranged the same way he asked them to be arranged so that he could see them as he left this world. What I love about Hospice is that dignity and privilege that they afford people who are exiting. My buddy was amidst the things he loved. Caricatures, books, family, friends, home.

I’m not sure there’s a lesson that I’d like to share in all this. Mostly the reason for this post is to organize my recollections and honor my friend. But if I could offer a trite and maudlin bit of advice…here it is…If there’s anyone who needs to hear you tell them how important they are to you-don’t f_ck around about it-call ‘em-go see ‘em. Make sure they know. If there’s someone who was formally in your realm that you need to make an effort to bring back into your fold because you miss them-do it. Life is so busy for all of us that it’s easy for these things to lose priority. And finally, if you have an extra penny to give-send it to your local Hospice organization. I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing their efforts in real time-at the bedside and these people are nothing short of incredible.
When I saw R.E.B. he was indeed thin but still handsome with a full head a gray hair and eyes of clear blue puddles. He was lucid but couldn’t really talk anymore though his hand squeezes and eyes were communicative enough and he could nod his head in acknowledgment of me. This wall in their retirement townhouse personifies their symbiotic connection as a couple. Their they were.

I spent the afternoon and most of the next day with him before flying home. I didn’t crack a bit till I kissed him on the forehead and told him goodbye-forever. When I landed at BWI I had the following text message from his son….

“…hope you arrived at BWI safely….dad passed away at 8:50pm. Same time as your flight home. We enjoyed your visit and appreciate your friendship with my father. We feel it was a blessing that he passed away at home. Thanks for coming to see him-it meant a great deal to my mother….”

Some of R.E.B.’s ashes will be buried in Hannibal Missouri where he and S.D.B. grew up. The remainder will be ever so aptly sprinkled in London-a special place in the Cotswolds and finally some in Cornwall.
Here’s what I wrote to him on his memorial site…..
February 25, 2010
"________...I wish that we were in London-at Cecil Court-arguing over who was going to get the gem of a bargain Vanity Fair print we might find! You'd relent and let me have it because that's who you are. But then for sport, you'd razz me about it for the next year.
You are one of the fathers I never had.
I love you______."
D_____ G_______,
Alexandria, Virginia


Kathy said...

A lovely tribute. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Preppy 101 said...

Today is the first day that I have read your blog. I got here via a couple of blogs, not really sure how I traversed the waters to you, but I am glad I did.

A very poignant post about something that I have experienced sans Hospice. We didn't get to that point. But I feel for Mrs. REB for I know what lies ahead for her in the days to come. I trust you will be one of the lovely people who will not be afraid to talk about REB nor afraid to reminisce with her. That was and still is such a comfort to me. I suppose that was/is one of my fears - people would forget him. I am so sorry for this loss.

I have rambled on too long. I am thinking about you today. What a wonderful friend/son you were.

November said...

A most poignant remembrance.
Thank you.

Gail, in northern California said...

You blessed, blessed man. What a loving tribute this post, to a man you were proud to call "Dad". No doubt he was just as proud, adopting you as part of his loving family.

I'm so happy that chance print session brought the two of you together. You're a better man today for having known him, and I'm so sorry he's gone.

LPC said...

A celebration of a man and a relationship that surely kept sentiment close at hand but still at bay. You have such a gift for plain voice.

James said...

How lucky you are not only to have known him, but to be able to articulate your feelings in such a wonderful manner. Wow.

Doug said...

An extraordinary tribute to the man and to the relationship you cultivated. Peace be to his memory.

ADG said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind words. I feel nothing but happiness and joy as a result of writing about R.E.B.. It lifted my heart a great deal after two weeks of really missing him. He lived a great life and left a solid legacy.

Thanks again.

JFP said...


I read your blog every week since you started it, and this is the first time I write you a post. The reason it's obvious.
I'm so sorry for this loss.

Anonymous English Female said...

ADG - I agree with James, you are indeed gifted to be able to articulate your feelings in such a wonderful way. You have honoured REB's memory in a way that is inspiring and gives something to each of us who read it. I'm sure he would be proud of you.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Very touching. Truly. Thanks for sharing this. I will reflect upon this post in more detail in private. I'm very familiar with the places and shops you mention.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely tale. Written in your voice, but with so much emotion. Friends and mentors are true treasures in this life. Thank you for reminding your readers. Remember your friend fondly.


John Johnston said...

Thank you for sharing this marvelous tribute to your friend and mentor. You obviously shared a special relationship and I imagine you both were the better for it. I am indeed sorry for your loss.
I echo your sentiments about hospice care. My mother passed away a bit over a year ago (Alzheimer's) and hospice provided the means for her to remain at home her last days. It was as much a help to my father as to her - they were such kind and gracious people. Several of the aides and nurses still call my father from time to time to check on him.

Sorry to ramble - your post certainly resonated with me.

Pigtown-Design said...

I feel your pain and am so sorry for your loss.

Thinking of you.


Bow Tie Guy said...

My condolences on your loss. Surely your twilight visit meant a great deal to REB in addition to Mrs. REB. I, too, lost my father at a developing age. Thank you for your salute the surrogate father types.


Turling said...

Very touching. Very sorry for your loss.

Patsy said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Thanks for bringing a little of REB to life for us.

A great love story.

DAG said...

ADG - I am so sorry for your loss. I was 35 when my father died. Hospice was a wonderful thing for all of us, but especially my mother.

REB was a lucky man to have had you in his life - and you for having him. Many people today simply do not take the time to become a friend.

He will be with you always.


The Blushing Hostess said...

I am so very sorry Dust.

Anonymous said...

Your best post, ever...God bless you for sharing this with all of us.

ADG said...

Thanks....Thanks....Thanks to all of you for your kind words. I'm not sad. As a matter of fact this post left me feeling really good about a man whose life was well lived.

Thanks again.


Lisa said...

I'm sorry for your loss. How blessed you are to have known/know such wonderful people and thank-you for your support of Hospice. When my 28-yr-old sister was dying (cancer) around Christmas time 2002, my dad called them the closest thing to Santa we have. They were wonderful and I've supported them ever since, financially and by volunteering at our local hospice two-days a week.