Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Missing Richard Craig Lemons

Suzanne has said that we are now officially retiring from Sunday nights. This past Sunday, we lost her father Richard, quite possibly the greatest man I've ever met. He'd been ill for a while but this was still completely sudden and unexpected and we're all still in shock.

Mr. Lemons was always the coolest guy in the room, no matter what room he was in. Part Ernest Hemingway, part Santa Clause and part Ben Kenobi. When you say someone is "a good man", you're talking about him. He was the kind of guy you aspire to be but you never can because you just aren't cool enough. He was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne, for Pete's sake! What hope do the rest of us have?

My mother-in-law likes to tell me I passed the "Richard Test" but that's news to me because I never realized I was being tested. That's because that's the kind of man Mr. Lemons was. I'd been "taken home" to meet my share of parents before I met Suze and in every case I could tell the fathers were wondering who this shabby-looking art student was and that they were just biding their time, hoping their daughters would lose interest. But with Mr. Lemons, it was different. He treated me with respect and kindness from the minute I met him, even though I had a lousy job and no real prospects. His respect was mine to lose. I never had to prove anything to him. His daughter liked me and that was good enough for him.

Not that I didn't try constantly to impress him. I was incredibly intimidated by him the first time we met. Suze drove me down to Williamsburg, where her parents were living at the time. They were Carolina folk and were not happy to be living in Virginia but had been transferred here when BASF bought the company they both worked for. We pulled up to a gate to the neighborhood with a guard house and Suzanne had the guard call up and announce us. I looked at her slack-jawed. "You've got to be kidding!" I was already nervous. But, by the time we pulled into the drive of their beautiful two-story brick house with the manicured lawn, I was practically a puddle in the seat.

But the Lemonses, particularly Richard, were nothing but welcoming to me. No appraising stares. No trick questions. No backhanded compliments. They sat me down, handed me a beer and made me feel at home. And Mr. Lemons spent the next 20 years making me feel that way. Never once in the entire time I knew him did he ever make me feel like I wasn't good enough for his daughter. Turns out the gated community wasn't something they'd wanted to be a part of but a lot of the transferred employees were living there. The whole gate thing wasn't their style at all. Mr. Lemons was a farm boy that had worked his way up in life through hard work and scrappiness. He didn't put on airs and didn't care for people who did.

Over the years, intimidation gave way to respect and admiration, then affection and finally love. I've had a lot of heroes in my life and I decided long ago that your heroes always let you down. But Mr. Lemons never did. He was a wonderful man that had so many great qualities. And he was true to the end.

He was such a considerate and thoughtful person. Whenever we went down to visit, he would hand me the Sports Illustrated Magazine he'd invariably saved for me because it had a Packers article in it. He'd always make sure to have my brand of coffee or rum or beer or whatever he thought would make me happy. He would grill the most amazing steaks and chicken you've ever eaten and then tell everyone I did it because I came down and stood beside him while he cooked. He'd always make sure I got the biggest steak in the bunch too.

He loved his NC State Wolfpack (his alma mater) and was delighted when he found out I "rooted" for them before I'd ever met Suzanne. (I liked that their colors were the same as my high school's.) We would have the best time watching the games with him and, if we weren't down there, he would call us to let us know the game was being televised.

I've always hated martinis because...well, because they're terrible. But her father could make the most spectacular martinis. They were ungodly good. We always called him "Bartender Rick." I think he was proud of that.

He had a catchphrase. Each night, when he got tired, he would stand up and say, "Well, you can stay up all night if you want to..." and then sing a rousing verse or two of "Goodnight, Irene." It made us laugh every time.

He was such a patient man. When we got down to the house 3:00 Monday morning after we got the call, Suzanne's sister told us how her husband Scott had said that he felt like he learned something new from Richard every time he came down for a visit. And I had just been thinking that very thing on the drive down. Because Suzanne's dad knew so many neat things. And he never judged you for not knowing. He would show you how to tie a knot in a rope to keep the boat secured or just the right way to throw an anchor or how to steer the boat. And he would never get angry if it took you ten tries. Or if you forgot everything he showed you between visits. He'd just laugh and show you again.

He could get angry like anyone else. But I never once heard him raise his voice in anger. He didn't have to.

He had this one mannerism that I loved. If you asked him a question about something he felt strongly about he would pause and kind of half-shrug, half-tilt his head and cut a sideways glance away from you. Then explain it to you, trying to sound like he wasn't an expert but you knew damn well he was. I would sometimes ask him a question just to try and get him to do it.

He never made me feel bad about myself for not liking to fish or hunt or for not knowing how to work on cars. One time, I went out on a fishing trip with Mr. Lemons and Suzanne's Uncle James. They both dressed in thermal underwear (It was December.) but, oh, I knew better. I just put on some jeans and a sweatshirt and jacket. And froze nearly to death. I had the gut shakes so bad, I thought I would die. It was ridiculously stupid of me. James has teased me mercilessly about it ever since. But Mr. Lemons never did. Not once.

The thing I remember most about him was the way he moved. He had this calm deliberation about everything he did. At first I mistook it for just slowness. But over time, I realized that he didn't waste a single movement. Everything he did, every gesture and action, was thought out beforehand. It was almost a metaphor for the way he lived his life. Every decision was thought out in advance. I came to love that about him and would just watch him move and admire it. I wish I could do that. But I'm too impulsive.

The only time I think I ever impressed him was our last visit in September. Mr. Lemons and I shared a love of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies. We were watching a John Wayne movie that I hadn't seen. A character actor came on-screen and Mr. Lemons said, "Who is that guy? He's in a lot of these movies." I said, "Ben Johnson" without missing a beat and he looked at me like he was seeing me differently. A kind of "You're okay, kid" look. I played it off because knowing an actor's name isn't really that big an accomplishment. But I cherish that look he gave me.

I could go on and on but it's very late and I'm very sad and I just want to go to sleep and forget this week ever happened. If just for a while.

It feels strange to have this much affection for the father of your wife. You're not supposed to like your in-laws, after all. But I really did love that man. But he was so cool that I could never bring myself to call him "Richard", to his face or otherwise. And I knew he didn't like me to call him Mr. Lemons either. So I would play this game where I would have to word my sentences with creative uses of pronouns to avoid either one. I don't know if he picked up on it or not but now I wish I'd just called him Richard. Even just once. didn't call the Fonz "Arthur", did you?

Good night, Richard. I'll miss you more than I can express.


Denis said...

Sorry for your loss, to both you and Suzanne.

thank you for sharing this post. If he's even half the man you describe him as, and I'm sure the truth is that he was actually twice that man, then i can only hope to have someone say such nice things about me some day.

I hope you both take comfort in the fact that he clearly lived an extraordinary life, and made the world a better place during his all too short a time here.

Brian said...

Very sorry for your loss.

todd said...

Thinking of you both.
I only met Richard that once and we all had other things on our mind. I remember him being so very kind and sincere, treating Craig and I like family right away. He was a true patriarch...but yielded to Cecil with style and grace in a fine gentlemanly fashion.
You have ALWAYS spoken so highly of him that I knew him more through you. Sharon and I send out love and prayers and share in your sorrow.
Love ya~

Lisa said...

Matt, this was so beautiful. I can barely type I have so many tears in my eyes. You describe him so well I can picture him with us when we were younger. So patient and kind. So giving. I wish I could be with you guys this weekend. I want to hug each of you and tell you how much I love you all. Give Suzie, Jenny and Peggy all a big hug for me. I love you guys and will see you soon. (your a good man for writing this.... so beautiful)

Matt Wieringo said...

Thank you, Lisa. Miss you guys.

Buck Creek said...

Matt, My name is Julia and I grew up with the Lemons family. Just want you to know that people remember Richard and his wonderful family with great affection and respect. Didn't know Richard as an adult, but it sounds like he learned a lot from his wonderful Mom. Many people looked forward to his visits to his hometown. Sounds like he had a great family with you guys, too.
Thank you for your lovely eulogy and be assured Richard and his family touched many.

PJ said...

My condolences to you both, your father in law sounds like the epitome of a great man - like all great men, modest in character but strong and graceful. That he developed such a bond with you his son-in-law and made you feel welcome exemplifies how he lived his life as an example for us all.