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On Tuesday, August 16, 2016, my father, Theodore “Ted” Wazenski made his transition from this life to the next. He was 83 years old. Son of Polish immigrants, he grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and later made his home in north Baltimore, where he and my mother (also Polish) raised three children — a elder daughter, a son, and me the youngest daughter. He died in Annapolis, Maryland, where he and my mother had settled in the later years of their lives to be closer to their son and his family and to receive care and support from their local senior care residence.
I’ve always found that death has a funny way of bringing life into sharp focus. For me, the journey of celebrating my father’s life this past week has been profoundly life-changing, a travel through time, through my heritage and identity, through my relationships with distant family and friends. It asks me to think about how I live and how I love. Suddenly, I am more aware of my own mortality than ever before.
The eulogy below, which I read at my father’s funeral mass, is my way of honoring the unique relationship I had with him. And at the end of this post is a recording of a song that I made just for him. I did not sing it at his funeral, opting instead to sing Ave Maria, a favorite of his. But this song, Oh Shenandoah, is one that often makes me think of my father, his love for the open waters and the mountains of Appalachia where he spent much of his life. His journey, and mine, continues…
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Cathy, Ted’s youngest daughter. Or perhaps I should use the nickname Dad always liked to refer to: I’m “Cathy Jo from Kokomo.” That was how he knew me. I’m also the “long lost daughter from California” — another reference he liked to whip up. Dad always got a kick out of introducing me as his “long lost daughter from California” whenever I would come home for a visit. He’d say it like he was bragging to others. He seemed strangely proud, as though I had accomplished something great.
I was reflecting on this point recently as I prepared for my trip here to lay my daddy to rest. I thought of the sense of homecoming that I felt in this moment, how much I was looking forward to seeing family and friends whom I had not seen in quite a while. I thought of this gift that Dad was giving me in allowing this opportunity to reunite with you all, even if our moments together here are brief.
It’s strange, sometimes, to be the long lost daughter that grew up and moved thousands of miles away from family and home. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, the way Dad was. But I realized that maybe the reason Dad seemed so proud when I would return for a visit was because he and I both shared a similar yearning to move beyond our roots, to venture from our homes a bit and explore our place in the world. I thought about Dad leaving his home to go work in the Merchant Marines along the Great Lakes when he was a young man, and later going to school in New York. I thought about his time serving in the Korean War, the times he would take our family on vacation up and down the East Coast. I remembered the excitement and pride he felt in his later years, after he retired from his post at the Food and Drug Administration, when he traveled to Germany and Belgium and other spots in Europe as a consultant. He seemed to enjoy those adventures. He took great pride in all of them.
Perhaps it was Dad’s love and yearning for adventure that made him so supportive of mine, even when it made very little sense. I stayed pretty close to home until my 20’s, choosing to go to college just 25 minutes down the road in Baltimore City. But when I graduated from college, I went through a period of moves from one neighborhood to the next, trying to solve an itch that was stirring in me. I moved five times in my six months after graduation, and several of my moves involved schlepping large pieces of solid wood furniture (my entire bedroom suite from home) from one upper-level apartment to the next. Staircase after staircase, elevator ride after elevator ride, Dad helped me through every move. I don’t know how he kept a straight face through it all.
After my last move settled me in an apartment in Baltimore for all of seven months, I announced to Mom and Dad that summer that I was packing up and heading off on a cross-country adventure. I concocted a series of conferences and workshops to string me along from Indianapolis to Chicago to southern California. And from there, I didn’t know where I might end up. But that was my decision and I was gonna do it!
Well, you can imagine Mom and Dad’s befuddlement at all this. After five moves around the Baltimore beltway and schlepping all that heavy solid-wood furniture up and down countless flights of stairs and elevator rides, now I was going to stash it all in their house again, pack my car, and head off into the hinterlands, final destination unknown.
I think Dad lost it at that point. He was baffled by me. He thought I was crazy (and I was!). I don’t think we said much to each other for several weeks leading up to my trip. But I’ll never forget the morning I pushed off from our home at 7 Old Spring Court in my grey Toyota Cressida. I packed the last set of belongings that I could squeeze into that vehicle, and Dad pulled me aside. And in a sullen, resolute tone, he calmly walked me through a couple of the recent enhancements he made to the car over the past week while I was packing.
“So I put a new set of tires on the car. I fixed the air conditioner. It should be working better now. All your oil and fluids are fresh and fully stocked. There’s a couple of extra bottles of motor oil I stashed in your trunk in case things dry out along the way. You should be good to go.”
My Dad. He may not have fully agreed with my decision to ride off into the future. But I believe he understood my yearning to see the world. And he was going to make darn sure his youngest daughter was as safe as she could be.
In the years that would follow, Dad would help me with a few more moves. He helped me make a move from Colorado, where I had settled for a year, to northern California to start graduate school. We packed my newly acquired Colorado belongings into a big Uhaul (which he drove), and I hopped in my Toyota Cressida again, and we caravaned across the Rockies, across the Nevada desert, stopping in Motel 6s and nameless diners, all the way to Oakland, California. He got me all settled in to my new co-housing set-up there, helped me paint my rooms, met my new roommates and charmed the socks off of all of them. I stayed put in Oakland…for a while. And then the adventure bug bit me again and I took off to go overseas on several occasions near the end of grad school. No matter where I ventured, no matter how questionable my moves were at times (and they were!), Dad was always there to greet me when I returned, to welcome me home, to make sure I was fully supported, and to smile at me with pride.
Dad, your long lost daughter is here today, here to see you off on your own adventure. I want to let you know that we, your family, we’ve got your back now. Your family that you so wonderfully protected and loved and supported all these years are going to be just fine. So go enjoy your adventure, Dad. I bet it will be incredible. We’re here praying for your safety and sending you off with love and blessings along the way. And when you return to us in memory and spirit, it’s our turn to smile with pride.
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August 26, 2016