19 August 1998

Introduction to My Father's Memorial Service

Introduction to this printed edition of the Service

The many interpretations of my father’s legacy that follow do much to support his creed regarding perception process. That we each got something different from our experience with him is a testament to the scope of his being. What we each got in common was the essence of his spirit.
As I consider the life of my father, and his role in the family, I find myself pondering the true nature of “home”. Was it a place and a particular set of people, or was it simply a feeling of peace within ourselves? While certain others may have accompanied the feeling, did we not each create our own experience of “home?” Can “home” be as much on the way somewhere as it is a specific place – someplace you didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy, but where you happened to be when you experienced this peace within?. . . perhaps in the beautifully manicured garden, but just as likely in the dump you had to pass through on route to it.
In this respect, my father seemed to carry his “home” with him and perhaps this is why people readily felt “at home” in his presence. He did this so well that one could easily forget that he probably felt isolated much of the time. The man who could talk to anybody about anything – bringing bemused smiles and fresh insight – often opted for solitude. The man who showed much generosity and offered pivotal encouragement to others, could be quite ungenerous and critical with respect to himself.
His childhood probably required both that he depend heavily upon himself and that he be able to charm strangers. His experience growing up also made it difficult for him to admit to relying upon anyone. Given all this, however, he showed remarkable flexibility and willingness to evolve.
The Service gave some 35 people the opportunity to reflect, laugh and cry about their experience with Robert Steele. It was a hot and humid afternoon, but trees provided adequate shade. All of the requests that he had outlined in his “In case of death” file folder were honored: my mother and I both played our instruments and the two Richard Wilbur poems were read. My brother and Ellen Levy (one of my father’s absolute favorite students) offered cogent analysis before their readings. Some may remember it, in a way, as Mr. Steele’s Last Class. The one thing we did not provide that Dad would have liked is printed copies of the poems for listeners to study. This booklet remedies that lack – providing not only the poems, but pretty much every word spoken at the Service (and then some). It is offered not only to console those who loved Robert Steele, but to provide perspective for anyone wondering about the impact their lives have on others, or anyone questioning the eternity of their own spirit.
One other related note: While I met Richard Wilbur on two occasions, my father never did. I approached the poet, following a reading he gave in the summer of 1974 in Cummington (where I worked at a nearby camp), and told him of my father’s interest. Wilbur offered his phone number. When Dad next visited, I dialed the number and handed him the receiver, thinking that he would suggest a meeting over coffee with his favorite living poet. Instead my father, as ever, did not want to intrude – saying something to Wilbur about it being best that we not meet our idols. I was disappointed, thinking, “There he goes again, feeling unworthy.” Or was I anxious for the meeting to take place more for my sake than for Dad’s? Perhaps, in spite of self-worth issues, my father was making a valid point. The second time I approached Wilbur was exactly twenty years later after a concert in Charlemont (which I reviewed) of his works set to music. He said he remembered me from before – and I believe that he meant it.

– Jeffry Hamilton Steele, 19 August 1998

16 August 1998

Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,
This may be the first time I’ve ever written just to you. It used to be “Dear Mom & Dad” – when I was traveling in England – and most of the time since we’ve just talked on the phone. Since I don’t know where to mail this, I will read it aloud here – for I expect you’re hovering over us all right now, listening intently, not wanting to miss a gathering in your honor of family and dear friends.
I believe that since you’ve been gone you’ve tried leaving messages. Four days after you left the body, Carla and I witnessed an intense double rainbow over the sea from the Atlantic Path. We recalled how you had told Carla, a few months back, that she would be seeing “new colors”. Upon gazing at this spectacle in the sky, we could almost hear you gloat, “Not bad for someone who just got here, eh?” Then you visited my dreams. Like a child homesick the first days at sleep-away camp, perhaps you hadn’t yet made new friends or found those special places that would eventually distract you from thoughts of home.
There was another time – while you were still more or less with us – that you appeared in my dream and seemed to be asking for permission to go and for assurance that we would be OK if you did. As difficult as it was for me to say “yes”, you must have received an answer in the affirmative because you did depart soon after.
The more ill you became in the body, in recent years, the more vulnerable you became emotionally. At first your tears were hard to see: when you were recovering some years back from the knee operation and the final movement of Mahler’s Third played on the radio; when I played “Song of the Fisherman” on your catamaran (Julia was there also) in ChristChurch, England. This was also the last piece you ever requested from me, this past June from your bed.

play “Song of the Fisherman”

Music had a direct line to your feelings, making it impossible to conceal them. Watching your face when you became engaged with it, it was clear you experienced music as deeply as any man who’d ever lived.
As less of your intellect became available to you, soccer on TV became the favorite diversion. And tears came again sometimes when you could not find a game to watch. In moments such as these, I was torn between wanting to be completely present for this good man grappling with his feelings on the one hand, and wanting my dad to keep it together on the other. But by the time you were in the nursing facility, and you sobbed at the conclusion to my reading the “Clear Away” program notes, we had reached a new level: you realizing you had permission to cry without stopping yourself, and my realizing that crying along with you was indeed the only way for me to actually remain present.
On the last of these occasions, you seemed to be addressing people from the past – as though they stood just behind me. With one foot already in the Spirit World – where these apparitions perhaps resided – you repeated, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
Ever since then, I have had no desire for even a sip of alcohol. Now you probably wouldn’t agree with this, but I was suddenly struck with the feeling that – even though you did not drink heavily (and never before 5 PM) – you had used alcohol to postpone making peace with the past.
Anyway, those moments, when there was nothing left for us but to cry together, were a great gift for a father a son – and I will always remember them. We both could think more clearly after a good cry. I can just imagine the combination of tears and uproarious laughter with which you would respond to everything said here today.
As Gordon Bok’s Saben made a pact between man and boat, so you seemed to make a pact between Spirit and body:

“If you will hold yourself together just a few days more, until we reach the land, I promise you that I’ll take you apart as well as I ever put you together, plank off plank and timber from timber, and you’ll never serve a man again.”

And so, during those final weeks – in spite of how difficult it was for you to focus for any length of time – you managed to remain engaged for the entire show on June 6. Just to enable that experience for you would, in and of itself, have justified all my preparation for “Clear Away”.
Then, as promised, you took the good boat apart.
Your passing brought with it a spiritual and emotional deepening of family bonds. We may have lost you, but gained a new level of connection with each other and with Spirit. Thank you for the conscious and unconscious ways you helped bring that about. An example of the former would be when you gazed out over those gathered for Nancy and Carol’s baby shower, last May, and declared, “There is so much love in this room!” Jonathan may have hinted at his spiritual side in the past – after all, he did sing in one of his songs, “There’s a reason why I’m here and why I bought this gear” – but I especially felt it coming through recently as he sat at your bedside.
Was this, perhaps, the true quest of your life: To be born into it surrounded by people’s pain and to leave it surrounded by people’s love? For those who reached out to help the young Bobby Steele, who saw his goodness and preciousness, your gratitude never lapsed. I hope that you finally figured out that you did not deserve to be neglected as a young person, and that you did deserve to be loved as you were by all of us gathered here today.
Now, while I have your attention, I’d appreciate some specific information. About two weeks before you went into the hospital (it’s strange to date back from an unplanned event) you read me a poem you had apparently only recently discovered, the one about flowers growing by the road. None of us can find this poem – which, judging from the tears you shed at the last line, clearly meant a lot to you – and we therefore cannot read it today. Now, of course, even if you were here you probably wouldn’t remember where you left it. It was not an author I recognized. Did you xerox it from the New Yorker? I wonder if we’ll ever know. Anyway, it described driving past some beautiful flowers having only the moment it takes to speed past in which to appreciate them – concluding that Heaven shares her greatest wonders with those who have the least time to take them in, that even in just driving by we may receive the flowers as deeply as anyone who may have come close enough to smell them, even as deeply as the gardener who may have planted and cared for them. Did you feel, on some level, that you had let life pass without taking the time to breathe it in fully? That there were flowers you wished you’d smelled? Places you would like to have visited? People you would like to have known more closely?
Once you cried to me, saying, “My only happy years were those at Cranbrook, not before, not since.” I pointed out some of the other good times you had spoken of, but I could see why it might be hard to look back favorably when you sense you haven’t much time ahead of you. What was it about Cranbrook anyway? It must be that you had a clear sense of purpose, appreciation from others for your many skills, a feeling of community. But there were a lot of headaches too, if we took time to recall all of it.
Not having seen Cranbrook since 1980, it seems like something out of a dream. But I can certainly recall many good times since. My 34th birthday stands out; we were in ChristChurch with Julia and feasted on a huge fish served whole in a fancy Chinese restaurant. Almost every time you and Carla were together there was a lot of laughter, even when you were bid-ridden. There were many probing and lively hours around the supper table, particularly when there were guests you resonated with. And each time the dementia, as you called it, closed off a part of your mind, another part of your heart would open in response.
You may wish to have completed some monumental work such as getting a book published or an invention marketed, to have more to “show for” your time here. But your legacy is not to be archived on a shelf or pictured in a catalog; it is in the gift you left to every person with whom you spent time. I may have envied my peers for their particular skills or material possessions, but they usually envied me for my parents and family. After a visit to Folly Cove, some friends have commented that in their own families so much energy was spent in the struggle to get along that little was left for the thoughtful exchange of ideas they experienced in my family. And speaking of your accomplishments: if the ability to get a large roomful of hushed people hanging on your every word when you have no idea what you’re going to say next isn’t a major accomplishment, I don’t know what is.
You were always determined to find the newer, better way. You were a pioneer as a parent, as a teacher and as an engineer. I got the strong message that I was not to do things in the same way anyone else had. And while this has been my knee-jerk reaction at times – rather than a carefully considered choice – I do appreciate that you modeled this non-conforming and questioning stance.
Thank you again for bringing us to Cape Ann. You must have had a gut feeling that the area would provide richness for us beyond sheer coastline beauty. But thank you also for balancing our experience here with that at Cranbrook, which provided a nurturing learning environment for all of us that we may not readily have found here at the time.
Thank you for teaching me to write well. I’m not sure how you did this. I must have been in the ninth or tenth grade, and I recall going from being totally frustrated to attaining a level of accomplishment in a matter of a few days, without being taught a single grammatical rule. I guess I was finally receptive and you must have figured out the particular information I needed. Only in studying Spanish did I realize that what I had mastered were things called “noun clause”, “adjective clause” and so forth.
Thanks for giving me an appreciation of things nautical. Although it’s been about a decade since I’ve sailed a boat – last time must have been with you in England – I take pride in the fact that I know how. You preached on the beauty of engineering, whether marine or otherwise, such that I too become engaged with the study of how something has been made and enjoy talking to people about their work with anything mechanical.
Thanks particularly for being able to relax enough about the “Dad role” to be someone to hang out with. I appreciate all the places we visited: Georgian Bay, down to Honduras on the Talamanca, standing outside the Met (after Edna’s wake) until we could procure a pair of tickets to Turandot, and that spur-of-the-moment bus trip to Montreal from where I lived in Newburyport. Although it was somewhat arduous, I appreciated our last trip together, one year ago: the Liberty Ship cruise out of New London.
It was you I first heard require of a group (or class) that no one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once. Nowadays one might think of this technique as having been learned at a personal growth training, but it just came naturally to you. You simply wanted members of a group to get the most from each other, and you respected everyone’s thinking, regardless of age or experience. As much as you liked to tell stories or pontificate, you seemed to derive the most satisfaction from enabling meaningful group process. When you would rate the success of our annual Christmas party, it was always had to do with whether the group was engaged in something together – singing in particular.
Your spirit – as Carla often pointed out – is very strong and continues to be so. Even when you could barely speak, you still chose your words carefully and creatively – as if to say, “I may be in pain, but language can still be enjoyed.” One time when you were in an otherwise disoriented state at the nursing center, you had no trouble advising me on the proper use of “who” and “whom”. Whenever you spoke to one of us on the phone – both recently as well as in the past – you would offer an amusing anecdote, often improvised on nothing more that what you could see out the kitchen window. No physical suffering could keep you from extracting a listener’s smile; in fact, you couldn’t pass up the temptation. Right up until you became unconscious, there was a strong grip in your hand for greeting a visitor and a strong gaze to match. Watching you make transition, I gained a thorough understanding of how distinct the Spirit is from the body. I could feel your spirit departing in stages; but rather than disappear, it simply relocated. Once the corpse remained, it appeared as nothing more than the vehicle you’d rented for this particular 83-year visit to the planet – a vessel now ready for the scrapyard, no longer able to carry your spirit. And I’m counting on that spirit to stick by me. Just keep feeding me those dry one-liners and I’ll know you’re there.
During the period of your last illness, I had loaned you my boombox – and would often leave music on at the conclusion of a visit. Knowing that it would be over in an hour, I would start a CD playing and hope its effect would be healing. At some point during your last two or three days of physical life, a nurse pushed the repeat button – either intentionally or inadvertently – such that the opening plainchant to the Missa Pange Lingua repeated non-stop for 30 or 40 hours. Sung in Latin by the Tallis Scholars, the text spoke of the Christ, but may as aptly apply to you:

“. . . having dwelt in the world
and scattered the seed of the Word,
he concluded in a marvelous manner
his life on earth.”

And didn’t we have fun singing together during your final weeks? I had never seen you so totally engaged in folksongs, moving with the beat and piping in with whatever words you could remember. One was the Bill Staines song, “Down the Road”, where you would echo the chorus line with abandon. Given how much you loved being around people singing together, I hope we can all do a decent job of it for you at the close of this ceremony.
Your Son,