For my father
My father described my mother’s mother, who was not known for her prowess in the kitchen, like this: He said she’d cooked some toast for him once, and it was the best toast he’d ever eaten. He described it with his hands. He said, “She buttered it all the way into every single corner. I’ll never forget it.”
My father described one particular turn in the road you’d take when you headed East out of Albany. He said there was a moment when you came around a corner, and the ground fell away into a valley, and the land stretched out, and the sky grew, and you could just feel that you’d crossed into Vermont.
My father described a particular donut, an old-fashioned, made in a particular bakery in Watervliet. This, too, he described not by its taste but with his hands. How it was shaped almost like a meatball and too bulbous to support even its own hole, and how heavy it was, and crispy on the outside, and how no other donuts are like that and no matter how hard you try, you just won’t find one. I think it was its authenticity he loved the most, its donut-ness, and how nobody else got it … quite… right. And also, I suspect a little bit, he loved how temporary it was, because by early afternoon, it was just a big ball of grease - so you really had to make the trek to Watervliet pretty early in the morning or just not bother going at all.
My father described his mother, in his youth, and how she could peel an apple from top to bottom in one long coil. He was lost in admiration for that, his whole life.
In fall, my father’s favorite trees weren’t the gaudy bright red or yellow ones that people drive around to see and say, “Ooh, look at that one.” His favorite kind didn’t come until the next week or the week after that, when a few of them turned a kind of burnt copper.
Everybody knows the lovers’ arias in La Boheme, but my father preferred the one in Act 1, when Colline sings farewell to his overcoat.
My father loved Cormac McCarthy from day one, at his earliest, grittiest, and most essential – and, to my dad’s great pride, he found him and loved him before Cormac McCarthy was cool.
And, to be fair, my father also loved Elizabeth Taylor, with genuine affection - long after it was not cool to do so.
One of my father’s only memories of his own father is of being invited to reach into his father’s overcoat pocket, during the Depression, in winter, in, let’s face it, a grayish industrial town, and finding a Hershey’s kiss in there, that his father had brought for him. His first one ever.
The thing about beauty is that you have to be paying attention. Sometimes beauty comes a little early and then goes away before people figure it out. Sometimes it comes a little late and everybody’s already drifted off. Sometimes it’s there but tucked in among ordinary things, or it’s an understated burnt copper color no one notices among the reds, or it’s stuck in a little bakery under the thruway.
I’m not saying that my dad was a simple man, or just happy-go-lucky, easy-to-please or that he took pleasure in the ordinary and the plain. He wasn’t. He didn’t. That’s not it. At all. What I’m saying is that he paid attention well enough—a hard thing to do—to identify something exceptional when it came along, even if the thing came along quietly.
I have a daughter whom some of you know, and she and my father (after she was born we pretty much all started calling him Pop, and my mom Murph) spent a lot of time together–from her infancy when Pop changed her diapers and taught her to say “Pew, pew, pew,” through her toddler and preschool years when they made cookies together and invented these ridiculous “whodunit” riddles, and all the way up into his last few days, when, with effort he would never have let her see, he perked himself up in bed in order to ask her how her basketball game had gone.
My dad watched Finn in a way I don’t think anyone else watches her, including me, and a way in which I remember being watched, not just as a child but all my life – and I’ll bet a lot of you know this feeling. When a person is in action, my dad has almost no instinct to interrupt them or re-direct them. He actually just watches them, and finds genuine joy in the observation of a person. Bemused, yes. Appreciative, yes. And also, gathering up all the little details.
He gathered up little details – and he also gathered up little stories. Funny ones, especially, and yes, I have an example. As it turns out, he read it in Roger Angell’s This Old Man, so maybe some of you have heard it before. Here goes:
A woman was at one of those outdoor ice-cream stands waiting in line for an ice cream cone and it somehow came to her attention that Paul Newman was standing behind her in line.
She noticed and smiled, trying to be super cool about the whole thing, she took her turn, placed her order, got her stuff, got her change, smiled at Paul Newman again, and walked to her car.
But when she got to her car, she realized she didn’t have her cone! So she looked all around, in the car, on the roof, and then she went back up to the window, said "I’m SO sorry, but I just paid for an ice cream cone and I don’t think I got my ice cream cone?"
And the guy in the window said, "Yeah. You put it in your purse."
He totally loved that story. Just laughed and laughed. And it’s a perfect Bill Dumbleton story because it’s such a tiny story, so understated, but just so, so funny, and it grows on you. It starts out super small and you’re like, what is this story even about? Where is this even going? But then the laugh you get is this perfectly Bill Dumbleton laugh, from when a punchline lands just off to the side like that, and somehow you love the story more the next day and more the next day.
So, he was a gatherer of funny stories.
But of course he did this with more literary things as well.
You’ve had this happen. You’ll be having a kind of normal conversation about, whatever, and he’ll tell you about a line from a poem or a passage from a story, a scene from a play, the way the light does something particular in an area of a painting. And the way he describes it just makes you need to see the thing right that minute. Like, jeez, ok, I have really got to see this. And sometimes, he’ll be able to just pull a book right down off a shelf for you right there and then.
But either way, he’d describe these things to you with his hands. He wasn’t a big dramatic gesturer. Not at all, actually. What I’m talking about is just these little descriptions with his hands, little indications of craft. He gestured to show you that care had been put into something. The meter in a line of poetry, the craftsmanship in a piece of jewelry, a skill in a thin-sliced lemon.
Sometimes at first, the thing he was showing you or telling you about would seem a little dull or weird, and you wouldn’t “get it” right away. Like, this just looks like an old tacky piece of jewelry to me or a weird candy bowl or kind of a scratchy old blanket or a plain wooden box or…whatever. But, then he’d give you some kind of lovely Bill Dumbleton backstory full of pathos and all these sensory details and a soft level of sentiment, and a little turn of his hand and then . . . you could see it. It was all over. Suddenly the object had become precious to you, too.
Maybe it’s because I’m his daughter and I love him, and that kind of thing casts a halo, but my Dad loving something was, all on its own, pretty much all I needed to fall in love with it, too.
My dad was not what you’d call materialistic – but he was definitely sentimental about objects. One particular thing he always wanted to find and have – and never did – was the door handle to the butcher shop that his father ran in Troy in the 1920s. It was meaningful to him that that handle was something that his father, whom he hardly knew, had touched every day to open the shop, and touched every night to close the shop.
It makes sense to me that this would be the thing he would want, to sort of find his father and feel his father, because the things that summon my dad most closely for me are his spice cabinet, that his hands sifted in and out of on a daily basis. His bookshelf, that his hands navigated so intimately. His flour scoop. The handles of the bag he took on errands. The places he set his hands every day.
His careful sentiment fell upon everyday objects that he saw as out of the ordinary and, in doing so, he drew out of the ordinary.
He also did this with people. It would be hard to convey well enough to you, and maybe I don’t have to - how many people have written us in the past couple of weeks to describe the totally unusual way that they felt seen by Bill Dumbleton. Maybe on one particular occasion, or maybe across the course of years, people said he had heard them, he had asked them, he had listened - and person after person said that he had seemed to recognize some hidden value in them that they may not have seen in themselves, or at a time when, maybe, no one else seemed to be paying attention.
I don’t know if my father knew that he was exceptional. He certainly didn’t act like he thought he was exceptional. But I know of no one else like him. I also know it meant so much to him during periods of his own life, when someone cast an eye out and somehow found him and saw him and listened to HIM, that I think it was important to him to keep a watch out for lost people, and to repay that favor.
If you measure what’s exceptional by the things a person does that only they can do, then everyone in this room knows how exceptional Bill Dumbleton was. Somehow a man who could have been ordinary, but wasn’t, managed to leave a hole in the world that is so huge we know we will never fill it, and honestly, don’t really want to. For now, we just set up camp around its edges - and stay still and watchful for beautiful things that others might not see.