Category Archives: Personal – Parents

My Dad’s 100th Birthday

My father was born exactly 100 years ago today on October 8, 1917. In his memory, I reprint a post I wrote on the 25th anniversary of his death.

Benjamin Edward Messerly, (1917-1989) was born in north St. Louis and dropped out of Hadley technical school at age 15 to help his family during the depression. He took a job at a small Kroger grocery floor sweeping floors. He soon became a butcher, which was his profession for almost 50 years. He was a fine baseball player and golfer, playing baseball at a high amateur level. He was also a single handicap at golf through his early 50s, despite only playing about once a week. He learned to love golf while caddying to help his family during the depression.

He served in the Navy in WWII and came home in January 1946 to his family in the suburb of St. Louis where I grew up. He only had an eighth grade education, but he read constantly and was well versed in the politics of the day. He was especially fond of the American President Harry Truman. I suppose a plainspoken Missourian without much formal education—and who promoted a national health care system—was a perfect fit for my dad.

Objectively, I suppose my father was better than some and worse than others—although I’d bet he was better than most. But the thing to remember about parents is that they don’t have to be exceptional, just good enough. And he was. Most importantly he instilled in me a passion for knowledge. I always accompanied him to his nightly work at our church, where we talked constantly about politics, history, and religion. I thought he was so smart arguing theology and politics with the priests and his fellow parishioners. Due to the many hours of discussions with him as a young boy, I came to love intelligent conversation.

I can still remember him telling me that I was inquisitive, in response to my constant questioning at the dinner table when I was 9 or 10 years old. Not knowing what the word meant, I asked. After he had explained its meaning to me I asked if it was good to be inquisitive. He answered in the affirmative. Years later the dedication to my master’s thesis read: “To my dad, who approved of my being inquisitive.”

He was especially fond of saying that great people do what they think is right and ignore what others think about them. I’m not exactly sure what he meant—I think he liked that President Truman fired General MacArthur—but I interpreted this to mean that I should seek the truth and then act on the truth discovered. And while he didn’t agree with most of my conclusions—I vehemently rejected his Catholicism and nationalism—he accepted me nonetheless. Perhaps he wished he had not unleashed such questioning, but I’d like to think he would be proud of me nonetheless. I even think he might have agreed with many of the things I came to believe had he been fortunate enough to receive the fine education that I did.

My dad was a good man, who taught me and loved me. Words are so ineffectual, but I thank him. I loved you dad.

Your son, John Gerard

My Mom’s Birthday

Nana

My mother was born 98 years ago today. In her memory, I reprint this letter which I sent to her 17 years ago.

April 29, 2000

A SPECIAL 81ST BIRTHDAY WISH FOR MY MOTHER

This letter should arrive on your 81st birthday—a time of rejoicing for a life well-lived. Emerging from the stable background of loving parents, a young woman with girlish charm, an ear and talent for music, a fluent reader of Latin, and pursued by a plethora of west St. Louis beaus, in 1935 you met a bicycle delivery boy, in whom, despite his relatively low economic status, you saw something good. His honesty and gentleness shone through beneath the rough exterior; you would marry him when you were just nineteen. A hard-working man who would be a devoted father—somehow you knew.

You courageously endured through an economic depression and a world war in which your husband was absent for two long years, forcing you to raise your first son without him. Your parents lived with you through the war and, as they prepared to leave at its conclusion, you and Ben told them they could stay with you for the rest of their lives. They had helped you during the war, and now you would care for them—they both lived with you for the rest of their lives and died in your home. In the post-war era you gave birth to three more children, all of whom you showered with the deep love and affection. With them you shared warmth and comfort—you were mother to them all. Like a chameleon you changed to meet their differing needs, always putting others before yourself. 

Your firstborn was typical of firstborns, independent and forceful like his father. He left home at an early age for college, and went on to travel the world and settle far from home, where he became the head of his own household. Your daughter was more like you—gentle, nurturing and cautious—an only daughter must have a special place in a mother’s heart. For your sickly third child you shed more tears than you deserved. You nursed him back from the edge of death, and even now you play an indispensable role in his life. And the baby was inspired by his father’s mandate to be inquisitive. This intellectual wanderlust caused much unintended heartache, but he’s still the same young man who talked of life’s search so long ago.

With your children raised, your husband’s love for you deepened, as did your love for him. The young boy on the bicycle—in whom you saw so much more than fifty years ago—had aged. No longer did he participate in the virile games of youth. The arms that once hit golf balls long distances, the coordination that nestled many a wedge shot close to the hole, and the shoulders that carried large sides of beef—did so no longer. As Thorton Wilder said, he was being “weaned away” from life. But his love for you was deeper than any that emanates from youthful vigor alone.

As his own physical vitality faded, his main concern was Mary Jane Hurley, the beautiful young woman on whose door he had knock so long ago. In his eyes that is who you still were. After fifty years of sleeping in the same bed, separated by war, struggling to make your payments, and watching children to whom you had cared for leave your loving home, after all that … you still had each other. A love so strong that all the cynics could not or would not ever understand. Yet, tragically, it ended after just fifty years.  But be assured that when Ben’s very last breath was taken, it was your name on his lips, your face in his eyes, your presence in his heart. The wind still murmurs outside your window, and its sound is his sound calling you. Now … wait.

For living this well lived life, one of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, you are to be praised. In the times since your husband left you—not of his own choice—you have endured and survived and re-created yourself. While the body deteriorates, your heart is still strong. You are the hero of your own life—my dearest mother.

With my deepest love and affection,
With my most gracious appreciation,

With yours and my father’s spirit always within me,
I remain, your devoted son, John Gerard

(Postscript – Mary Jane Hurley Messerly died in of a stroke on Sunday, September 18, 2005. She was 86 years old and had taken her usual walk the day before.)

 

50th Wedding Anniversary

My parents on their wedding day in St. Louis, October 27, 1938

Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. ~ Kahil Gibran

The last wedding anniversary my parents celebrated was their fiftieth, in 1988. I remember all my siblings and I pitched in to send them on a vacation. They never made it; my dad died just two months later. But they had a good marriage; their love satisfied and comforted them—it was sufficient in its own time.

As for marriage in general, it is hard to talk sensibly for, as George Bernard Shaw noted, “There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage.” Will Durant wrote somewhere that no institution was so designed for unhappiness as marriage—and this from a man happily married for 68 years.  All I can say is that anyone happily married for 50 years has succeeded in one of the hardest jobs in the world: living and loving a single person for a half a century. That is no small feat. They have instantiated in their microscopic world what is so desperately needed everywhere.

So if your parents or friends are celebrating 50 or more years of a happy marriage, think to yourself “in at least one respect, they are worthy of respect.” Remember too, as Will Durant said, “The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.”

As for how to have a good marriage, the most poetic advice I’ve ever heard was from Kahlil Gibran, an almost embarrassingly sentimental (some would say mawkish) poet whose work I encountered as a teenage. In his most famous work, The Prophet, Gibran says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Mom

Nana

Mary Jane Hurley Messerly (1919 – 2005)

The tenth anniversary of my mom’s death has just passed. Eventually, like every one of us, she will be forgotten. But in another sense those who came before us aren’t gone; they pulsate through our being in ways unknown.

I have written about both her and my dad before, and it is difficult to add to those sentiments. But there is something about remembering, that which motivates the ancestor worship of the Far East, which is valuable. Worship is too strong, but we should remember that, as Santayana put it, “We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.” I am a futurist; I find the only hope for our species and their descendants in the future. But the future will be built upon the past as surely as it is built upon the present.

As for my mom there what I can say is that she loved me and my siblings unconditionally, showed us with her affection, and lived for her family. There are many stories to tell about her, but her is a simple one from my childhood that I remember vividly. Our near unbeatable St. Ann’s grade school soccer team had just suffered a devastating loss in the semi-finals of 6th grade division of the CYC. We lost because of bad luck—multiple shots of ours hit crossbars and goal posts—and an incredibly bad play by me as goalkeeper—on the only time the opponents got near our goal. Even a couple of my neighborhood friends came with me and mom to watch our expected victory. I was devastated. I had cost the  team the game singlehandedly. What did my mother do? She bought me and my friends ice cream on the way home. And not just any ice cream. That rare treat of 1960s St. Louis—Velvet Freeze!

And what better way to comfort an 11-year-old than ice cream. What she was really comforting me with was love.

My Dad

My parents on their wedding day, October 27, 1938

My dad, Benjamin Edward Messerly, (1917-1989) died twenty-five years ago today from complications of diabetes. At the time it seemed unexpected, but in retrospect he had been hospitalized for the last couple of months of his life, so I suppose it wasn’t really that unexpected. He did get to die at home though.

He was born in north St. Louis, dropped out of technical school at age 15 during the depression to take a job with the Kroger company sweeping floors. He parlayed that into a job as a butcher which was his profession for almost 50 years. He was a fine baseball player and golfer. He played hardball at a pretty high amateur level and had a single handicap at golf despite only playing about once a week. He served in the Navy in WWII and came home to continue his family in the suburb of St. Louis where I grew up. He only had an eighth grade formal education but he read constantly and was well versed in the politics of the day. He also read a lot of history, and was especially fond of the American President Harry Truman. I suppose a Missourian without a lot of formal education who spoke his mind was a perfect fit for my dad.

Objectively, I suppose my father was better than some worse than others—although I’d bet he was better than most of them. He instilled in me a love of golf, and though a somewhat trivial gift, I still possess that love to this day. But more importantly I followed my dad around constantly while I was growing up; accompanying him to his work at the church almost every night. I thought he was so smart arguing theology and politics with the priests and his fellow parishioners. In fact I owe my philosophical nature in large part to him. Due to many hours of discussions with him as a young boy, I realized from an early age that difficult questions exist and easy answers to them elude us.

I can still remember him telling me I was inquisitive, in response to constant questioning at the dinner table when I was 9 or 10 years old. Not knowing what the word meant I naturally asked him! After he had explained its meaning to me I asked (remember I was inquisitive) if it was good to be inquisitive. He answered in the affirmative. I dedicated my master’s thesis to my  dad “who approved of my inquisitiveness.”

He also was fond of saying that great people do what they think is right and then disregard what others think about them. For me this translated into seeking the truth and then acting on the truth discovered. And while he didn’t agree with most of my conclusions—I vehemently rejected his Catholicism—he accepted me nonetheless.

He was a good man, who taught me, who loved me, and who inspired me. Words are so ineffectual, but I thank him.

I loved you too dad.