Note: this story / interview was published in Galena, Illinois, May 28, 2008. This month I am celebrating 53 years since taking the Oath Of Allegiance as a proud new US citizen.
Eulogy: Ode to Joy (Dec 31, 2011)
Long before I knew you, we connected on the war-torn fields of my native land. Your patriotic father, Army Lt. Lester Gwin, serving his nation while freeing mine, made time to exchange snowballs and do some sledding with my friends and me during the winter of 1944-45. As a five-year old, I was awe-struck by the friendliness, generosity, selflessness and compassion shown to us the perfect strangers who had been occupied by enemy forces for four hellish years. Though we did not promise to keep contact after peace and freedom were assured, fate led to our meeting 21 years later, thousands of miles from my homeland in a new place called America, my new and permanent homeland.
It was love at first sight when, in the offices of an auto manufacturer in Detroit, our paths crossed and love inexorably bound us for a lifetime. Courtship wavered between certainty and uncertainty…. not on your part, but my foolish part … until almost seven years later when the knot was tied, and only after a few jocular threats of a shot-gun wedding befitting only a serious Okie like your dad. How could I resist your overwhelming charm and beauty, especially your sweetly accented manner of speech, combining to make me swoon and blissfully engage the life of my dreams?
Our life together has been blessed in so many ways: two wonderful kids, Bob and Chris, made of solid American character, love of family and God, true citizenship, and most importantly, committed to the care and feeding of their aging parents.
Oh how we traveled the world. My global career provided many opportunities for us to visit magical places in Europe and Latin America. Your love of history provided a framework for the places to visit and absorb: from the Louvre museum and a thousand other places within Paris, Julietta’s tomb in Verona to mystical castles in Bavaria, and Heidelberg on the Rhine. Remember the magical flower gardens in Giverny where Claude Monet transformed his impressionist paintings into real life? Remember the fun you had in Athens while I was sick and left behind in the hotel room? Remember Chrissy’s complaint somewhere between St. Moritz and Verona that America does not have thousand-year-old castles, nor famous couples like Romeo and Juliette, except if you consider Bonnie and Clide as a couple… the sadness on her face when it was time to leave the sound-of-music magic of the alpine region where cowbells were the only noise to be heard in the early morning mist, spoiled only briefly by a mean chain saw buzz; the fun of exploring the thousand year old casemates of the place of my birth. Lots of cute places we saw, spots I enjoyed visiting with you much more than when I lived among these history-book places.
But we also explored the new world of the Americas, north and south. We traveled together to Montreal and Quebec, accompanied by your sister Anita and her husband Dennis. You enjoyed telling the world that you understood the odd “French” of French Canadians better than I with my French-French; how embarrassing for me! But a good laugh for whoever heard your story multiple times.
Chrissy accompanied us twice to Buenos Aires Argentina where we have excellent friends and where she learned to swim in the 110 degree heat at Christmas time in 1982. You had Chrissy hold a baby tiger in her hands at the Buenos Aires Zoo, making daddy a little nervous. Nervous we were all when we took to the top of the world in the Alps of South America, the sky-high Andean peaks at Bariloche. Two rickety open stretches of ski-slope lifts made us all a little anxious, but left us with great memories. Chrissy unknowingly went with us to Mexico, carried by a pregnant you. Our son Bob, the self-appointed fuddy-duddy, never wanted to join in this globetrotting, but did have to travel on business with me once to Germany where at least he could taste legendary locally-brewed beer, which he does remember well.
But Chrissy’s good friend and sister-in-law Laura Wykowski did accompany you and me twice to Europe. Boy, did the two girls enjoy the scenery, including some of the young males on the Champs Elysees and other European boulevards….but especially shopping at the famous (famously-expensive) Galleries Lafayette in Paris. Laura had already become our virtual daughter even before marrying John Wykowski, the brother of Chrissy’s husband. She still remembers that all it takes to sleep in a better hotel is just a few more dollars…… You’re right, we have another virtual daughter: Jenn Poncher with whom you had a few loving mother-daughter sessions. She won’t forget you either!
The brightest star in your relationship constellation is of course Pat Winkelman, your best friend of several decades. You two horticulturalists produced gardens in our respective backyards that rival Monet’s and those of the castle of Versailles. Her support and solid friendship have made you a strong and persistent individual, and perhaps a little craftier… That crafty side probably is due to Larry the”husband guy” who is still today in your dog-house for a mean April Fool’s joke in 1987. He remains condemned to a life sentence in said dog house. I’ll make sure of it.
Yes Honey, you are also thinking of Bill Farrell and Delores Fortuna who became best friends since our move to Galena when Bill tailed my trailer back from a motorcycle event. No, he ain’t bashful…Both are expert potters and are intent on capturing your “feisty” spirit in one of their personalized creations….
Oops, I almost forgot our London stay at a place on Cockfosters Road; why do I remember the street but not the name of the country hotel? You and Chris ventured into the “Tube” often not knowing where it was taking you….but you always found your way back to …. Cockfosters Road…
The one activity I was unwilling to accompany you in was this card-playing business called “bridge”, but you had three excellent partners for over 30 years. This wild-women gang made up of Pat Winkleman, Cindy Gira, Debbie Laughery and you would meet for “Monday Night Bridge”, faithfully, addictively and noisily. This became a quarterly event after we moved to Galena. I miss the noisy gang so much…
My beloved Joy, the joy of my life, the family that you created, or should I say managed and organized, loves you dearly and gratefully. All of us have been properly trained by your loving hand to do things a certain way, the best way, your way, and there shall still not be any arguments about what is right… least of all now that you have infinite power with which we could not and dare not argue.
It is only this memory of you that softens the pain of your departure from this life. I am sure to follow you….. sooner or later … though I prefer later rather than sooner.
I, Chrissy, Bob, our son-in-law Jim and Anna our daughter-in-law and grand-daughter Kristin, our great-grand-kids Peyton, Dylan and Caleb, but also your 91-year-old mother and the rest of the family remembers you, misses you and loves you inexorably.
Norma Gwin: she is to this son-in-law the mother-in-law from …. heaven. That title of mother-in-law never sounded worthy enough of such a woman. I prefer the French equivalent – la belle mère – which means “beautiful mother” in translation. She not only produced two beautiful daughters, she allowed me…, NO … assisted me in my pursuit of her first-born beauty, Joy Gwin, Anita’s older sister. During my short courtship of Joy….. 6 or 7 years …. Norma never lost faith that I should be part of the family. Always kind, generous and above all patient…. though her husband Lester on occasion would propose a shotgun as a tool-of-persuasion to unblock my stalling. She never called me ‘fruit head’ as did Lester, but always addressed me lovingly, pronouncing my foreign name with that unique Okie accent into which Joy would slip whenever we visited Shawnee or when she spoke on the phone with folks back home. But who am I to talk about funny accents. I will always be grateful to Norma for serving as my intermediary whenever Joy was trying hard to make me irrelevant and ignore me. She would invite me to their home up north where we all met many moons ago, and be the peacemaker, or spark facilitator when I seemed to need that kind of jolt.
Over the years I have heard a lot about Norma the competent and pretty nurse, Norma the mother, Norma the wife of Lester. I heard about the years she spent without Lester who was in Europe fighting for other people’s freedom, from which my family benefited greatly. In fact, we theorize that Lester and I played together in the snow of that awful but last winter of WWII when I was about 5 years old. Norma and daughter Anita have been digging into the Gwin archives to find pictures and communications from that period in order to enshrine the memories of Lester’s and Norma’s all-too-brief life together.
Norma raised her children well, teaching them various fundamental skills that a future son-in-law could only admire and take advantage of…. Norma instilled the love of cooking into her daughters, making my home a first class restaurant, well, at least most of the time. Norma taught her daughters neatness, order and house deep cleaning… to which I got to contribute on occasion. Joy never permitted me to leave dirty dishes around after dinner; she taught me how to wash them and how to clean the kitchen after a delicious dinner… all thanks to Norma’s teachings; no complaints, in retrospect.
The great Chinese teacher known as Confucius is reputed to have counseled the males of this world that “if you want pretty nurse, you must be patient”. Well I was a patient of Norma’s all my married life. Medical advice was readily given whenever I had a cold, or toe fungus, dry skin or a mysterious pain in my body. The free advice was always worth it… I wonder what she would say about that Ebola thing?…
Well Norma, you are now reunited with your Lester and my Joy in eternal life, without pain and without this fruit head to worry about. The rest of us will catch up with y’all…. though I hope later rather than sooner. Eternal peace to you, my “beautiful mother” .
The Last Lecture Monday evening, December 15, 2014 I was staring into the vast, empty and quiet room when five Chinese students returned to the scene of the final exam so that a picture could be taken with their teacher, as a souvenir for them as well as for me. Indeed a touching moment of transition to a new chapter. This all-too-brief career of eight years could have started over forty years ago, were it not for a stint in the dynamic world of international business. The end came fittingly in the form of a final exam… how else do I know and how else does a student know what he or she retained about the subject of our semester’s study? When all 66 students had handed in their exam papers and left the room, my body simply could not gear up to depart. A strange sadness swooped down on me in MTAC 146, the largest of the class rooms in one of the newest buildings of the university. There was no faculty committee bidding me farewell, no invitation to hold a “last lecture”, an honor not accorded Adjunct Professors. An unremarkable, imperceptible exit, a slow-motion ending as if to deny or even reverse the inevitable. As if by habit, I addressed the three sections, a mix of American and Asian students, who only weeks ago were negotiating an international deal across the simulation table in that same auditorium. I frequently would exhort them to remember something useful from this course, if only in the form of catchy phrases bearing weighty meanings intended to prepare MBA candidates for a masterly future in the often-brutal world of business. During the 2-hour exam I had started to read a book about “The Strangeness of the French People”, presumably a counterpoint to “American Exceptionalism”. In it Philippe d’Iribarne explains the “value differences” between the French people and other nationalities, particularly Americans. I had just been asked that question by acquaintances who expect me to have the answer to their obsession about the French and their perceived unfriendly demeanor to foreigners: “why do they hate us so?” But my concentration was derailed by the eerie silence, i.e. the silence in the academic setting …. No students to address, no students to ask clarifications of the reading assignment, no reminders to dole out. Did I not really want to have this end? Did I resign prematurely, having just told the students about my cancer diagnosis, which, according to my doctor,” is no reason to retire”. I thought: could such a short career mean that much to me that emotions would fill my tear ducts? Alas, it was not a lifelong pursuit; perhaps I regret having stayed in the business world beyond my original intended period of two years….. “But you silly”, I reasoned with myself, “those 32 years prepared you to teach the lessons you have learned – learned first-hand”. “No, nothing to regret. No, no regrets,” as those famous Edith Piaf lyrics bounced into my head. I gave back to the younger generation the benefits of my experience. And they did listen, accepting the science such as it is at the moment. Yet, the one truth that they seem reluctant to accept from the science of cultural anthropology, is the fact that generational change in values is marginal, when intuitively it seems the opposite to them. Even Asian students who live in a collectivist value system that highly respects tradition and group-think, seem skeptical, perhaps wishing for major changes… The night-time silence of the evening witnessed a scene staged by that small group of Chinese students armed with their cameras, grabbing one last souvenir. Emotion almost overcame me; the urge to hug them all imposed itself on my being. I shook their hands as if we found ourselves in a serious farewell, and wished all of them well. I dearly look forward to receiving copies of those pics, pics of my last class… pics that will be stored next to those of my first class, and of the in-between classes. I loved all my classes. I will miss them all. 679 words
“Man is born free, yet is in chains everywhere”, was the bold proclamation of the Age of Enlightenment, an age in which the idea of a Free America saw its foundational genesis. The idea of life, liberty and property had been proclaimed almost a century before the French Revolution generated its own version with these words: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. But it took the American Founders to provide the human touch to this notion by adding the notion of Life itself and the Pursuit of Happiness to the gift that is Liberty. Slogans about Liberty abound, but reality has clouded Liberty’s past as well as future. Many are those who shout Liberty from the revolutionary mountain tops, from the professorial lecterns, from community organizations and from global enterprise summits, yet many of us feel not free but contained, constrained by the rules crafted by well-meaning but often misguided leaders. And all too often leaders see individual liberty as a threat to their power to govern. Oh yes, Liberty is the gift that all freedom loving nations bestow upon their citizens, but is soon abridged by an oppressive ‘rule of law’, by concerns for fairness, for group sensitivities, and above all by attempts to legislate it, i.e. legislate protection of the weak who will or cannot exercise their Liberty, from those who maximize theirs. Liberty, alas, is an awesome power, life-giving when it is in hands that understand its purpose and consequences in the long term, or a tool for autocrats taking some of that Liberty from the strong and pretend to give it to the weak who have been made afraid of too much Liberty. “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice”, said one of our politicians, for often extreme measures need to be taken in its defense, lest oppression by military or political means turn us all into robots or slaves to the state.