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  • Bits of Memories

    I love collecting bits of memories, the isolated stories about people, places and times past that inform and enlighten us in ways big and small.

    Everyone has these stories. Some are better than others at telling them, and the world lost two of those people this past week: my mom’s brother, Randy, and Ed Tunstall, a career journalist I happened to meet while waiting for a morning train.

    The news of their deaths during Thanksgiving week was a surprise, if not totally unexpected. Randy, who died at his home in Portland, Texas, last Tuesday, was 82 and had myriad health issues. Ed, almost a decade older at 91, also died at home on Friday, having moved back to his beloved New Orleans after his overall health began to decline.

    Randy, an intensely private person, allowed only a three-sentence obituary to be published. Ed, whose journalism, communications and marketing career spanned six decades, was honored with a glowing, staff-written 685-word story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he served as editor for six years.

    Befitting the changing times, the story was published online first. New Orleans, which once had morning and afternoon dailies, has published its print edition only three days a week since Hurricane Katrina.

    ••••••

    In many respects, relaying the basic facts about Randy’s life makes it sound like it was spent stranded in a turbulent storm. The child of high school sweethearts who married just after graduation, he spent his formative years in Baird, a small West Texas town about 20 miles southeast of Abilene.

    Randy was 8 when my mom was born several weeks premature. My grandmother died a week later of complications from the birth, and several months later, my grandfather joined the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Until he was 14, Randy and my mother lived with family members in West Texas while my grandfather served as Navy Seabee. When Pawpaw, as I called him, returned with a new wife in tow, they picked up the kids and moved to Longview on the other side of the state.

    Randy’s relationship with his father, and especially his stepmother, quickly became strained and he left as soon as he could. At 18, against their wishes, he married his 16-year-old high school sweetheart and joined the Navy, serving as on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic during the Korean conflict.

    Like father, like son.

    ••••••

    When Jill and I first moved to Virginia, I rode into work on the Virginia Rail Express, the commuter train located near our house. In 2003, I started noticing this couple waiting for the same morning train. Watching them walk in together, the gentleman appeared to be much older than the woman, but they were obviously smitten with each other.

    After several weeks, curious about their story, I decided to introduce myself and met Ed and his wife, Renee. They had just moved to the area from New Orleans so — in Renee’s words — “he can follow me around for once.” I soon learned that Ed was then approaching 80, an amazing sight because his hair had never turned gray.

    “All mine. Not dyed. Good genes,” he said in three sentences Hemingway would have been proud to write.

    Over the next several months, Ed, Renee and I talked almost during the 20-minute ride from Lorton to Alexandria. As it turned out, Ed and I had several things in common — journalism, twins, and second marriages. Ed had “retired” from his third career due to failing eyesight and moved to Alexandria with Renee, who was working for a high-end cruise line, but he was still helping in the mailroom to stay busy.

    Given that none of us had been in the area long, we became good friends. I peppered Ed with questions about his storied career — two decades at the Associated Press, including covering four NBA championships and John F. Kennedy while working in the Boston bureau; more than two decades at the Times-Picayune, a newspaper in one of the nation’s most colorful cities; and time as a journalism professor at the University of New Orleans. But mostly, we talked about sports, especially his beloved Boston Red Sox. I’ll never forget the look he had after they broke “The Curse of the Bambino.”

    In some ways, Ed’s life story bridged a generational gap between my uncle and my grandfather. Born in the decade between the two, he also served in the military (although it was the Army, not the Navy). Like Randy, he used the G.I. Bill to become the first in his family to graduate from college.

    Also, like Randy, life in his later years was not easy, especially as his body began to betray him. But they both soldiered on.

    ••••••

    After the Navy, Randy earned a business degree from Baylor University. The Vestals and their two children moved a number of times during his career, first as a pharmaceutical salesman, then as a manager for a company that made cosmetic prostheses, then as head of the South Texas Lighthouse for the Blind until his retirement.

    Randy and his wife, Merry, were together 61½ years until her death in 2013. He remained devoted to her and to her care throughout her lengthy battle with mental illness and then dementia, stubbornly refusing to put Merry in a nursing facility even as his own health became more fragile.

    I wish he and my grandfather had been able to navigate their relationship better. The two didn’t speak for more than a decade and things were distant when they did. As my mom has said, “If either had married someone else, our family’s story would be much different.”

    Even though our families did not see each other much, the love my mother and her brother had for each other was evident, never more so than in the years following my dad’s death and my aunt’s illness/passing. Watching them together this past May, when Randy and my cousin, Melissa, came to see “Newsies” in San Antonio, it was good to hear often-told stories one last time.

    ••••••

    As a writer and photographer, I’ve always been fascinated what you can see behind a person’s eyes. What you could tell by looking at Ed and my uncle was they both knew the beginning, middle and end of the stories they were about to tell. Their eyes seemed to twinkle when an anecdote or story was in the cue.

    For those with whom they held court, their stories had the feel of watching original back-to-back Thursday night episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” on NBC. Ed, like many journalists I’ve known, would have been very comfortable in the Boston bar with Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla and Woody. And his stories would have given the writers plenty of plotline fodder.

    As Renee said of her husband, “Life was an adventure and he was on it.”

    Randy’s anecdotes felt like a pungent episode of “Seinfeld,” Mostly about “nothing” in life’s grand scheme, they always left you thinking even as you laughed. His comedic timing and sense of humor were priceless; I always held on for the punchline.

    Last week, Jill and I watched the classic Thanksgiving scene from “WKRP in Cincinnati” and laughed until tears came to our eyes. Jill noted the scene’s pace and how it unfolded in a much slower manner than most of today’s sitcoms, all in the interest of the big payoff at the end. It made me think of my uncle and his stories.

    That night I called my mom on the way home and she told me about Randy’s failing health. She said they had talked for an hour and a half and he seemed at peace with where he was.

    The next evening, my mom called again to tell me the news. It wasn’t much more than the three lines that appeared on the funeral home’s website.

    The rest of the stories, now hers to tell, will have to wait for another day.

  • The Writer’s Pea

    Do you remember the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, immortalized in the musical “Once Upon a Mattress”? The evil queen — a staple of fairy tales — gives Winnifred a test to see if she’s sensitive enough to marry the prince. The test: Will placing a pea under a stack of mattresses prevent Winnifred from falling asleep?

    Of course, we all know how it works in fairy tales. Winnifred — the feisty, unrefined heroine (fairy tale staple #2) — becomes a raging insomniac, all because of a stupid vegetable. And in the end, the evil queen is proven wrong (fairy tale staple #3 in this scenario). 

    I thought of this story — sadly I can identify with the raging insomniac part — when I tried to come up with a reason for explaining why I have not been writing much in this space for the past month or so.

    It’s not like I haven’t had ideas. Most of this blog is writing about our family, and there’s no shortage of material there. And even though our schedules have been jammed, it’s not like I haven’t had a few sleepless nights to work on things.

    But every time I’ve started, I’ve stopped for some reason, so my desktop is cluttered with a series of half-formed ideas for essays that are still marinating in my brain. This explanation is my way of trying to get back in the groove — “The Father’s New Groove,” now that’s an idea for a fairy tale.

    The best way I can describe it is that I’ve had the “writer’s pea.” I hope that I’ve managed to now remove it successfully, and that, having relaxed and done something productive, that we can now return to our semi-regularly scheduled programming.

    Back soon, I promise. Thanks for indulging me.

  • Family Stories

    When I was growing up, my parents were storytellers. And sadly, I gave them no shortage of material.

    Because they were both teachers, they loved to note how I mangled grammar and pronunciation. Of course, reminding them that I was a toddler at the time didn’t help.

    “Garwhineits” was Weingartens. “Maimee Farceame” was Mainland Pharmacy. And there were others. But the biggest story — and I think one of my mom’s proudest moments — was when she learned I could read.

    “Ford,” I said as the drove past the local car dealership. I was just 10 months old, and at that point, my academic career had nowhere to go but down.

    I never understood why I heard these stories over and over again, except that I knew they found them funny and interesting. Now I realize that they were reliving a time that was not terribly complicated, a period from the first few years of marriage before my dad got sick and before life became a series of doctor’s visits and medical bills.