Remembering the Quiet Man by Carlos E. Cortés

Sometimes writers just have to write. Hm, that’s the same line I used to begin my previous column about how I was driven to write about the death of our beloved kitty, Tigger. But that time the “have to” was propelled internally. This time the impetus came from the outside.

This “have to” began a few weeks ago with a phone call from my wife’s sister, Joy. Her husband, Bill, had just died after years of declining health. A proud 85-year-old retired lieutenant colonel, Bill wanted a formal Marine burial in Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego.

As Joy explained to me by telephone, the cemetery allotted a strict thirty minutes for such events: a ten-minute Marine ceremony; ten minutes for the family; and ten minutes for the burial itself. Then came Joy’s request: would I be willing to present a ten-minute eulogy about Bill as part of the ceremony? Of course, I answered. This was one of those “have to” moments, one that created a formidable writer’s challenge.

I’d never given a funeral eulogy. Plenty of talks at celebrations of life, but never at a funeral. In fact, I had never even attended a military funeral. As I thought about my eulogy, the word, “appropriate,” hung threateningly over my head.

I also was never a Marine. Just two years doing public relations as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where my major assignment was writing press releases for social events of the Officers’ Wives Club.

On top of that, I didn’t know Bill all that well. I saw him occasionally, mainly at large gatherings of the Vermilyeas, my wife Laurel’s casual, sprawling (eight siblings), outgoing family. During those boisterous Vermilyea events, Bill, a friendly but innately reserved man, tended to share little about himself. Over the course of forty years, he and I probably hadn’t spent 60 minutes total in one-on-one conversation. As I thought about my challenge, those ten minutes kept getting longer and longer.

Fortunately, in his last years Bill had written down a few of his memories of growing up in Mariposa, California. That was a start.

Then there was his family. Besides Joy, Bill had five daughters, now spread from Nebraska to New Zealand. So I wrote to his daughters, asking if they would briefly share with me some stories about their dad. Three responded with charming reminiscences. Now, how to put it all together?

Compared to most creative writing endeavors, preparing an imminent funeral eulogy is truly high pressure. There is no waiting until you’re in the mood, no gracious time to let your ideas gestate, no ruminating about who might read it, no opportunity for second chances. With a funeral eulogy, you’ve got one shot at it. Opening night is also closing night.

And you know your audience. In this case, there were six people I wanted to please: Joy and Bill’s five daughters at a time of supreme loss. Anyone else was a bonus.

My writing predisposition is to choose a single image and then build a story around that. So I began the eulogy with an image: “When I think of Bill Stewart, I remember him as The Quiet Man.” From there I constructed a narrative about Bill, integrating some of his own written childhood reminiscences as well as stories from his daughters.

How I labored over those six pages! Draft after draft. Laurel remarked that she had never seen me work so hard on a piece of writing.

The ceremony began with the Marines conducting a profoundly moving American flag ceremony in front of Bill’s ashes and firing 21 shots in honor of their deceased comrade. When I got up to speak, I felt as much pressure as I ever have in my long public lecturing career.

I think the eulogy went well. Joy and one daughter hugged me. Two others sent me very nice thank you letters. Maybe best of all, my sense is that The Quiet Man would have been happy, too.

Carlos E. Cortés is professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside and author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time.”

Memories of Mom’s Travel Journals by Carlos E. Cortés

“And then to bed.”

Those iconic words, sometimes with minor variations, provided closure to just about every day’s entry in my mother’s detailed travel journals, which she wrote scrupulously during each long driving trip our family took as I was growing up.

I still recall the steamy July, 1946, day when I first saw my mother open her bound spiral booklet of blue-lined paper and begin recording the day’s events. The four of us had just left our Kansas City, Missouri, home, heading south toward Mexico for our first lengthy family vacation. Just 12, I watched with fascination as she carefully noted every stop, sight, and event: meals; gas stations; hotel rooms; natural wonders; tacky roadside museums; Dad’s ripostes; Mom’s souvenir purchases; and the often irritating antics of my six-year-old brother Gary and me. Nothing seemed to escape her notice; nothing seemed too miniscule as to avoid being memorialized by her.

Mom kept her meticulous daily journal throughout our five-week trip to visit Dad’s mother in Mexico City and his aunt in Guadalajara, the aunt who had raised him after his father, a prominent Mexican Revolution politician, had fled to the United States in 1913 to avoid execution. She created another journal in 1948 when we visited my folks’ extended families in California and still another in 1951 when we motored through eastern Canada and then down the Atlantic coast to Boston, New York, and Washington, DC.

Mom wrote while Dad drove, sometimes during meals, and every night in the hotel, bolstered by her omnipresent pack of cigarettes and a scotch and soda. No matter how full the day, she refused to go to bed without finishing her beloved journal, as if fearing that sleep might permanently eradicate precious memories. The next morning, usually during breakfast, she would read aloud the previous day’s journal, a mandatory event that commanded our full and delighted attention.

Those journals were probably as close as Mom ever came to “official” creative writing. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t write poetry or fiction. At least she never told us about it. She sang in local opera productions, but didn’t compose any songs that Gary and I are aware of. Her writing creativity went mainly into those journals.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the old saying. Sorry, but I don’t completely subscribe to that cliché, no matter how often I hear it. I watched Dad’s old movies and methodically mounted his photos into chronological albums: Mexican pyramids and California forests; skyscrapers and skyscraping mountains; Mom posing in front of half-visible monuments; Gary and I acting like little jerks in nearly every state in the union. Yet as much as I enjoyed those visuals, they never held a candle to Mom’s travel journals, page after page of artistically looping handwriting, fastidious grammar, and carefully chosen nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Always detailed and relentlessly chirpy, those journals provided us with hours of fascinating reading and happy recollections. Even when the glow of actual events faded, Mom’s words helped us recall those long trips and embedded them in our memories.

The glory of the pyramids at Teotihuacán. Scaling the hill up to Chapultepec Castle with Uncle René, Dad’s half-brother who managed to end up six months my junior. My initial taste of abalone in Monterey. The mystery of our first night in a Yosemite tent. Being soaked at the base of Niagara Falls. The awe of our first glimpse of night-time New York City’s glowing towers.

I often encouraged Mom to write her memoir, but she never got around to it. She was always too busy, whether working as office manager of our small family construction business or being active in the community, especially during Dad’s brief political career. Then lung cancer snuck up on her, suddenly, mercilessly, and terminally.

Even if Mom had written her memoir, it probably wouldn’t have been all that engrossing. Her relentless attention to detail, which so enriched her travel journals, became her bane when she orally tried to tell a clear, simple story, inevitably losing her audience as she elaborated minutia and lumbered into tedious side trips. But, wow, did she ever write fabulous travel journals! And, at the end of each day, she always made certain that everybody knew we had all gotten a good night’s sleep.

I don’t know if it’s through genetics or mimicry, but somehow or other I’ve inherited Mom’s travel journal keeping habit. My storage cabinet overflows with journals about Laurel and my trips to all seven continents, including Antarctica. Yet, while writing these journals has helped me recall those trips with greater clarity, I doubt that they will ever bring anyone as much pleasure as Mom’s magical words brought to Dad, Gary, and me.