Lefty Dufresne 1926- 2013
The last time I saw Lefty we sat outside the nursing home, and I asked him to sing “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town,” the Johnny Long extended version, which he favored. He didn’t hesitate. And he remembered every word. His voice was eloquent if a bit strained and faint. He sang, “There’s a queen waiting there with a silvery crown, in a shanty, in old shanty town.” Make no mistake, his wife, his sweetheart, Doris, the center of his life, was the queen waiting there in a rocking chair.
When I learned of Lefty’s passing earlier this week, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, at a bookstore, reading from a new book in which Lefty was a thinly disguised character. I flew home on Tuesday from Memphis and happened to travel with a planeload of WWII veterans, taking an indirect route east to Atlanta and then west to Pearl Harbor for a reunion. Men, I realized, that Lefty might have known, known about, or fought beside. They wore Pacific Veteran ball caps and laminated photographs of their handsome young selves draped over their chests on lanyards. By chance and by irony, I sat beside an elderly Japanese couple who were fussing with their passports. When we passengers were asked by the pilot to cheer our American heroes, the wife beside me wept, wiped her eyes, and then folded her hands and prayed.
Over the Christmas holidays in 1999, Cindy, Tristan, and I spent a weekend in a cabin in Cacapon State Park in West Virginia with Paula, Dennis, and Andrew. On one of those nights, after a hike in the woods and a meal at the lodge, I stayed up and wrote a draft of a story, a bit of speculative fiction. I wrote this passage trying to fashion a happy ending for all of our lives. Here I’m imagining what I’ll say to Tristan five years into the future. We’re warming ourselves in a bar in Pinedale, Wyoming.
I’ll talk about my old man, Tristan’s pepere, Lefty, who was recruited by Jesse Burkett to pitch in the Boston Braves organization. This was after the war, after seasons in semi-pro ball, after no-hitters and a perfect game, but Doris was pregnant with me and preferred not to move to Evansville, Indiana. The man worked fifty years for the power company, shoveling coal dust in ash alley, supervising a line crew, driving a back hoe, and went to work every day whether he was sick or tired or hung over, and when he retired, they gave him a table lamp made from a service meter, and he went blind within a year. Lefty’s grandfather had abandoned his family when my grandfather was a toddler, took his name, Burt Ash, and his heritage, and vanished. And Lefty’s been trying to find old Burt all his life. He has the idea and, perhaps the wish that we’re Irish and not French. By this time I’ll be on my second martini, and I’ll tell Tristan how Lefty and I once went to Arkansas, where I had lived, where I had met Tristan’s mom, to Hot Springs, so he could have these acupuncture treatments on those afflicted eyes, and how every morning and every night in our motel room he prayed the rosary, prayed for his vision, for the chance to drive his truck again, to see his great-grandchildren, to be independent.
Lefty’s hopes were dashed when the treatments were ineffective, when the scales did not fall from his eyes, when the darkness did not lift, but he remained undaunted, uncomplaining, and unvanquished. He was going to live a joyous, and if the mood struck him, a riotous life, no matter what.
Stories are how we make sense of our lives, how we come to understand our place in the world, and how we distract ourselves, at times, from misery and squalor. And Lefty was a spectacular, relentless, and entertaining storyteller. He had a flawless sense of narrative structure and a profound understanding of our flawed human nature. And most importantly, he had a sly, nimble, and infectious sense of humor. He lit up a room when he entered, and he never met a stranger. I could, and I often did, get him talking about his life and his friends just by mentioning a name from his past. He could do a half hour on John Shea or Ralph Koski at the drop of a hat. Ask him a week later and he’d do another hour without repeating a scene. The same for Peaches McHale or Joe Fink. Mac McCullough would take a couple of hours. So would Lee Weatherell. If you mentioned Timmy Foudy, you’d better pour another martini. And Foody led to Nunzie and to Frankie the Golfer and Pat the Finn and Flipper White and Sookie and Bunny Battelle and Mecca and Jumbo and and Porky and Tacky and Lip O’Brien and Midge and Rub and Hoofy Jandron and on and on. You can’t even make up names like that. And all these characters live on because Lefty told their stories to anyone who listened, told them with love and with lavish attention to detail. And we all listened. His beguiling charm was irresistible. He never judged these friends; he just told us what they did as dramatically and vividly as he could. And he never let the facts get in the way of a good story because he understood that nothing is less important than a fact. The stories were never about him. They were about these people who’d passed through his life and whom he chose to praise and to celebrate.
I first learned to love stories by listening to the ones Lefty told me at bedtime. Fairy Tales. I didn’t know they’d been told for centuries, or that they’d been collected by folklorists. I thought my brilliant father made them all up. I thought he invented wolves and talking fish that granted wishes and giants who savored the flesh of Englishmen.
We all knew the phone number by heart. PL 2-9476. The Post. I dialed.
—Is Lefty there?
Lefty was always there.
—What is it?
—Paula won’t listen to me. I told her to go to bed three times, but she thumbed her nose and swore at me. She’ll never be a nun if she keeps this up. And Mark’s got a knife right now and wants to know who knocked down his house of cards. No, of course not, I said, Dee Dee never does anything wrong. She’s an angel. He told me that he and Mom would be right home—one and done, he said—and I believed him. Every single time. I believed everything he told me, even that he was the Cheyenne Kid, a straight shooting cowpoke with a square jaw and unerring sense of justice. That was an actor playing him on TV. Because he couldn’t be in two places at once, now could he?
Aunt Lou always said Lefty was the handsomest guy on Grafton Hill. He was Montgomery Clift-handsome, and he was handy, too. He once fixed our leaking toilet with a cold chisel on the night before Thanksgiving. By fixed I mean he split it in half with one tap of the hammer. That’s when his handiness kicked in—he mopped up the flood and called a plumber. Then he and the plumber enjoyed some holiday cheer, long into the night. Handsome, handy . . . and strong. He was a heavy-hitting outfielder for Grafton Hill in the Barleycorn Softball League, and he could lift my brother two feet off the floor with just one hand around Mark’s neck.
What does one ask of a father? Love, of course, guidance and later on friendship, respect, even when you don’t deserve it. Lefty’s love was unconditional and demonstrative; his friendship unwavering; his respect, forthright. The lessons he imparted that I took to heart were these: there is no whining allowed, no time for self-pity. It’s unbecoming and quite useless. Just get on with it and take responsibility for your egregious behavior. Honor your word—it’s all you’ve got. A man is judged by the company he keeps. Friendship doesn’t just happen; it’s something you work at. Love is a selfish emotion until it finds expression in tenderness and compassion. The way we live our days is the way we live our lives—don’t squander this sacred time. Two things I hate, he told me as many times as I needed to hear it, are liars and thieves, and if you’re a liar, then you’re a thief.
Not that he didn’t lie, of course, but his were often lies of omission, of the “don’t tell your mother” variety. “Don’t tell your mother I was playing cribbage with Barney at the Cosmo.” He once pawned his wedding ring, and I suspect there was prevarication involved in his explanation.
And one other lesson. I had done something terrible again that involved cigarettes or money or alcohol or disobedience, I can’t recall which. Lefty tracked me down in front of Burl’s Shell at Rice Square and told me to get in the car. He did not look happy. I said, What are you going to do? He said, I’m going to drive to Lake Park, let you out of the car, count to three, and when I catch you I’m going to kick your butt. We ended up at the Wonder Bar, Lefty’s frustration and anger replaced by charity and forgiveness. He talked about his own profligate childhood. We all screw up. We all misbehave. We all disappoint those we love. We all deserve a second chance. A third chance. As many chances as we need.
Every Christmas he brought home five Christmas Hymnals, and we would all practice the carols—some of us—Paula—with more enthusiasm than others—in the living room, in preparation for going door to door with our Dickensian musical review. Since at least one of us was tone deaf, there was no attempt at harmony—just volume and verve. We never once made it out a-wassailing onto the frigid streets of the neighborhood. That wasn’t, we realized, the point. Every Easter Lefty took Mark, Paula, and Cyndi to the Easter Parade on the Common—dressed in all in their Easter finery, the girls in their bonnets and white gloves, clutching their matching purses. And every night he carried the girls, fireman-style, up to bed, tossed them down, and tucked them in.
As admirable and devoted a dad as Lefty was, he was even a more fabulous pépère. He adored his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. His affection for them was unbounded. His last unofficial job at Mass. Electric, apparently, was to visit his grandchildren several times a day, chauffeuring them to school, taking them to football games and out for treats. And when one Saturday morning the dutiful grandson Matthew locked everyone out of the idling car with the keys still in the ignition, Lefty only asked him why would he do such a thing. Because his mother had told him the last one out of the car locks the doors. So Lefty called the still sleeping Doris to come to the rescue, and turned to Matthew and said in a slow drawl he’d learned at Paris Island, “Oooooooohhhhhhhh, you’re gonna get it!”
Unlike my story and unlike those childhood fairy tales—life, alas, does not come with happy endings. We don’t live happily ever after. The bitter fact at the center of our existence is that we die and that everything we love will vanish. Our nobility comes from the fact that in the face of this obscenity, we go right on loving and trying to hold on to what we cherish. The only true ending here today is Lefty is dead. And we, his family and friends, are bereft and despondent. We weep and gnash our teeth.
Lefty did not rage against the dying of the light. He did go gentle into that good night. He was, we know, a man of simple, pure, and abiding faith, who understood that in death he was going to his other home. He handled his passing with mercy and dignity. He waited until Mommy was gone from his room to spare her the shock; he held on until Conrad arrived, so Cyndi wouldn’t be alone, and only then did he allow himself to leave us. And when he did, grief filled up the room.
When I think that for the rest of my life, my father will be away, when I know I’ll never see him again, will never be comforted by his voice, will never share another drink or another story, I can’t even catch my breath. I want to shake my fist at the heavens and say, Give me back my dad! What will we do without him? What will fill the air where he would have been? We can take his lead and tell his stories, today and for as long as we have voices, and in those stories we’ll find our solace, and he’ll live on in our hearts and minds, this inventor of wolves, this thief of hearts, this bard of Grafton Hill, who blessed us all with his presence, his honesty, his love, his exuberance, and his grace.