In "Stuff That Won’t Be in the Book: Part 3," I was DASH dieting and feeling good about reaching my goal of 150. At the same time, my oldest daughter Carlene began a school project that involved her late father – my first husband, Bruce, who died in a train-tractor wreck in 1983 when Carlene was 11 days old. To read more about Bruce, I’ll provide links to blog entries at the end of this piece.
Here’s Part 4:
In order to graduate from high school in Pennsylvania, seniors must design and implement a project in which they demonstrate the accumulative knowledge they’ve gained throughout their high school years. Some kids raise money for charity, others perform community service or write a play or a song. Carlene decided to write a biography of her late father (husband #1).
She wanted to get a head start on her project during her junior year and began planning shortly after I started the DASH diet. I was 100 percent behind her project, fully expecting to stay detached from her research. I’d lived with her father. I knew him and loved him well. Bruce was never a ghost in our house. Anything she learned would just reinforce what I’d told her all her life: that her father was a kind, gentle, fun man who loved us very much.
We sent a press release and letters to editors of newspapers serving the area in southwest Minnesota where we used to live, explaining her project and asking people who knew Bruce to share their memories with Carlene. As we waited for a response, I told her to not be too hopeful because it had been nearly 17 years since Bruce was killed and probably not many people who knew him would see the articles or even remember him very well.
More than 40 emails and letters later, it was clear I’d underestimated the memories of the good folks of Jasper. Carlene’s project became an almost sacred place where Bruce’s friends could finally share their memories, love, and profound pain. They needed to tell Carlene about her father, like they’d been waiting all this time for an invitation, and they remembered him in incredibly precise detail.
Bruce’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, sent Carlene the get-well letter Bruce wrote to her in 1967 when she was recuperating from an illness. In it he wrote, in his best second-grade penmanship, that his cousins had visited over the weekend and that when his nephew messed up the house, they had to clean it up. After supper, he said, they watched “The Monkees.” He signed it “Your Friend Bruce.” She also included the playbill from the community play Bruce was involved in when he died and she told Carlene the story about how Bruce brought a banana cake and a Thermos of coffee to practice the night after Carlene was born to celebrate.
One of Bruce’s classmates, Darcy, gave Carlene a piece of sheet music she’d kept from a wedding at which she accompanied Bruce on the organ.
“Bruce had written the words of the second and third verses on the first two pages so we wouldn’t have to keep turning the page back and forth,” she wrote. “I remember having a lot of fun practicing this song with Bruce. It’s difficult for me to give up this piece of music since it brings me back to that time in my life, but after seeing your article in the paper, I feel it may mean a lot to you. Not only was Bruce very talented, but he was a fun, upbeat person to be around. I’m am sure that Bruce would have been very proud of you.”
A groomsmen from our wedding, James, sent Carlene a letter and photos of a fishing trip he and Bruce and some other friends took when they were out of college. Another friend, Rick, wrote that some of his favorite memories of Bruce involved hanging out with their friends drinking a few beers and listening to music. And as only Rick could tell it, he told Carlene the story of how Bruce, who when he was 18, snuck his friends who weren’t 18 into a drive-in that was showing the X-rated movie “Pom-Pom Girls.”
“He was worried that if we got caught they would kick us out and he wouldn’t get to see the movie!”
Bruce’s neighbor, Marilyn, wrote that she and Bruce rode the bus to school together. Sometimes they’d walk down to the creek near their farms and throw rocks in the water and talk about school and baseball and her brother, who died in a car-train wreck in 1971 at the same intersection.
“This seemed to bother Bruce,” she wrote, “and we talked about it many times; I in grief, he in curious compassion. Ironically, his life would end at the same spot.”
Almost everyone who responded with a memory also included the story of where they were and how they felt when they’d learned Bruce died. Our friend Jim’s response summed up what many people expressed: “It’s amazing how people will remember so much of a single moment in their life. It’s like a picture was taken at that moment I heard your dad died and I remembered everything. God, it was so tragic. I thought about you and your mom for days and how devastating it must be to your mom. This is still hard to write about….We all missed out on a lot since Bruce was killed. What would have been different if he were still here? Watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I wonder how much better things would be in Jasper if her were still here.”
Jim was right about “It’s A Wonderful Life,” only we were watching it in reverse. Instead of Bruce being shown what life would be like without him, we, his family and friends, were actually living life without him, and there was no Clarence in our lives trying to earn his wings by saving us from jumping in the river.
For more blogs about Bruce, click here to go to the entry I wrote earlier this year about Bruce. In it are several other links to entries I’ve written about Bruce over the last few years.