My father lived the life of a proud, kind and gentle outdoorsman. His 5 foot 8 inch frame was slight in build, but sinuous and tough from 50 years of being an Adirondack guide. He was born in 1905 on our family homestead which is now located at the end of Emmons Lane in Bloomingdale, NY. His great, great grandfather, Lt. Benjamin Emmons had been given this land as payment for fighting as a Vermont volunteer during the Revolutionary War. Generations of the Emmons family had lived and died on that land but it has now passed out of our family and into the hands of others.
Dad spent most of his life, like his father, grandfather and great grandfather running the family farm or walking in the deep woods of the Adirondacks. The family values of past generations had been solidly grounded in him and I respected him in many different ways because of it. I especially loved him for how he instilled into me his joy of family life and his love of the valleys, streams and forests of the Adirondack Mountains. His pleasure and passion for his wife and children, and the pine scented vistas of our region, became a part of me at a very early age, and they are still living within me and my sons today.
At age 65 dad could out-walk me on our deer hunting trips around Bear Pond in Upper St. Regis, or during fishing excursions on hidden trout streams around Grass Pond, Deer River Flow and Winnebago Brook. His strength, stamina and personal knowledge of the woods were legendary and he never broke stride or got us lost, no matter where we went. He lived his entire life in the shadow of those ancient peaks, except for two seasons in the city. One was for a few years in Montreal, Quebec with his best friend Leo Furlong. Both were adventurous young men at the ripe old age of 20 and they went there to become professional barbers. The other was in New York City during the years that surrounded World War II. In that place, dad thought to make his fortune as a diamond toolmaker and jeweler. However, the real jewel he found while working there was my mother, Jennie Maria Rossi.
As a teenager I grew up in the rebellion of the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s. My parent’s values, vision and strengths were of little interest to me. They were from the older generation, and I was not. Like so many of the youth at that time, I decided to go my own way and threw off all my parents wanted to instill in me. It was clear to everyone that my dad’s independent spirit had found a willing home within me, and I began to live life as I saw fit. During those years I was never angry or aggressive towards them, I simply drifted my own way and departed from the values they had built our family on.
Even my salvation, when it finally came, was another departure from what my father hoped I would be. He really desired me to be a guide, or perhaps work for the New York State Conservation Department, but I felt the call of God. I didn’t know it at the time, but after dad got saved he told me that was actually the call on the Emmons family for many generations. Our ancestors, including my dad’s mother, father, many aunts and uncles, and all his sisters, had known the Lord. Some had been powerful revival preachers in the early Methodist Church. Dad, however, avoided organized religion altogether because of a bad experience as a youth. As he told me, “I’ve lived a good life Bill but I’m not a pious man. Church is for your mother and I go when I have to”. As a result, dad found his peace with God away from people during his frequent walks in the quiet, moist silence of the Adirondack Mountains.
During my rebellious years Dad and I grew distant, and an unspoken valley developed between us. We most certainly loved each other, but I can still remember the sadness I saw in his eyes as I lived a lifestyle he did not approve of. I was his only son and the youngest of three children born to them after ten years of marriage. He was fifty when I was born so his desire to impart his heart, family history and personal experiences was strong. I, however, was not ready or willing to listen. In all this dad never criticized, belittled or shamed me for my behavior. He simply continued to live his life with honesty, personal conviction and a deep love of family.
Above all else his devotion to my mother stood out as the hallmark of who he really was, and the kind of man he hoped I would become. I am certain that he knew in time I would come to learn, understand and follow the example he had set before me. In one afternoon, as he was nearing death from pancreatic and liver cancer, he taught me a lesson about love, strength and the character of manhood that forever changed the course of my life. This one event brought to bear all the years he had invested, and it thrust upon me the truth he had wanted to impart from the day I was born.
The day was November 27th, 1979. It was my parent’s 38th wedding anniversary and I had stopped to see them on the occasion. My father was now in bed, growing weaker and more jaundiced as the cancer did it’s deadly work. No matter what broth my mother lovingly made for him, dad was unable to keep it down. We all knew he was not expected to live much longer, and the shots of morphine I administered to him when the pain grew unbearable, did not help matters at all. We were living out a drama that would soon conclude in a way none of us wanted to embrace.
On this day I arrived at my parent’s home to find that dad had sent my mother on an errand just to get her out of the house. He called me to his bedside and said there would be no morphine today. He then asked me to get his suit out of the closet and I placed it on the bed, along with his white shirt, matching socks and tie. Next he instructed me to go and get him a flower, one red rose, and be back before my mother returned from her errands. When I returned I found my father fully dressed and sitting somewhat impatiently on the end of the bed. He was proudly wearing the suit he had been married in all those years ago.
I handed him his flower just as my mother arrived on the front porch. She was looking for her key and trying to quietly get the door open without disturb my father. From somewhere deep inside, the overwhelming power of love and the iron strength of manhood rose up within my dad. He stood with firm resolve and walked quickly across the living room floor. A wry smile melted across his face and a twinkle sparked in his bright blue eyes as he waited with his hand on the doorknob. Just as my mother reached to turn the key, he winked at me, gave that mischievous Emmons look, and pulled the door open.
My mother looked up in total shock, and then an expression of pure love and joy swept over her face. To her amazement she saw the only man she had ever loved, standing in his best suit with a cane in one hand and a rose in the other. They embraced and kissed, as I had seen them do countless times in the past, and then my father said, “Did you think I would forget? We are going on one last date sweetheart”.
Quickly my mother fixed her hair, touched up her makeup and changed her dress. In a few minutes they headed out the back door and I watched the two of them through the kitchen window walk arm-in-arm across the lawn. My sister lived next door, and at my father’s request, she had cooked dinner for them on this very special occasion. I could see them pause and look up as a flock of geese passed high overhead. I saw them talking and looking around the land they had lived on and improved, all their married lives.
I saw my father point with his cane to direct my mother’s attention to Whiteface Mountain, Slide Mountain and Signal Hill, where our family homestead had been. Above all this was the deep, rich love they had for each other as they paused to embrace in this last, lingering twilight of life. In that moment time stopped and they were lovers, companions, friends and travelers together in a life made rich and wonderful through commitment, trust, honor and endless affection.
During the meal my father could not eat, but he sipped a cup of tea and looked with wondering love at all of us, and his bride of 38 years. I don’t know what was going through his mind, but I am sure he was reviewing the many blessings he had experienced with this woman he so deeply loved. What he and my mother did do was pour out the treasure of their lives to us during that meal. They shared with us the rich tapestry of the life they had woven together that had built our family. As I watched them that evening, I realized they were summing up for us an entire lifetime of living, and loving, and we had been the beneficiaries of this great, life-long blessing.
When the meal concluded we hugged and it was clear that dad was ready to go home. He took my mother by the arm and escorted her back across the yard. On the way they paused once more in the crisp fall night to look up at the stars, and then to look at each other. No words were spoken as their eyes met, but in that shared silence, volumes were said. I watched my father lift his hand and gently touch my mothers face to wipe away a tear. He then held her quietly as they took one last look together around this earthly realm. Finally they turned, helped each other back inside our family home. and locked the door.
In the warm darkness of that November kitchen, my father held my mother in one last, strong, sweet embrace. He kissed her tenderly, gently, passionately for the very final time. In the silence his baritone voice drifted out to where I was sitting, and I heard him speak these words of deep, abiding love. They filled the air like a rich perfume and they hang there still in my mind. “I love you Sweetheart. We have had a wonderful life together … haven’t we? Happy anniversary my dear.” There was another moment of silence while they held each other in a tender embrace…… and then it was over.
My father had pushed aside unimaginable pain all day, without complaint, and reserved every last bit of inner strength for this very special occasion. Now his energy and life were fully spent. He literally had laid his life down for the only woman he had ever loved. They headed for bed and he was so exhausted he could no longer even undress himself. As he sat on the bed my mother undressed him and helped him put his nightshirt on, and then lovingly placed his head on the pillow. Next she hung up his suit, and as mom got herself ready for bed, dad motioned to me that it was time for his shot of morphine. In a few moments mom was beside him and soon they both drifted off to sleep.
Whatever was spoken between them as they laid in that warm, sweet darkness together, I do not know. These words are held only in my mother’s heart and in the mind of God. No doubt, they were heady with the rich aroma of a life well lived, and a love unbroken for 38 years. That life and love was now about to come full circle and it would soon go back to God who had given it so many years before.
Fifteen days later my father wore his wedding suit again. This time however, my mother would not be taking it off him. In the twilight I watched my parents as lovers once more. My mother slowly bent over her only love… and kissed him tenderly, gently, longingly,…. one last time. As she did, a sob rose up in my throat, and tears streamed down my face when I heard her whisper in his ear, “I love you Jim. Good bye Sweetheart”.
Even though he did not respond, it was clear to me that this man had known what it was to love, and really be loved. It was then that I realized I would follow in his footsteps. More than that, I committed my heart to becoming the kind of man my sons would want to follow. I knew I could be a real man, the kind who would love someone and be loved with that same fierce devotion. That is when it hit me … and I knew my father had to be smiling. His hope had finally come to pass and I had indeed become my father’s son!
What about you? Can you honestly say that your children will be blessed if they follow where you have been or are now going? If not, then my thought for you today is simple. Perhaps it time to look at where you are walking..because others are most certainly walking in your foot steps.