Song For My Father

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My father’s birthday was December 8.  Every year I celebrate my mother and father’s entrance on earth.  This year I found the eulogy I gave at my dad’s funeral.  There’s an African saying that “If you’re a good person, even after death your grave is loved.”  My father’s grave is loved.

SELMER EVERETT PREWITT (1908-2004)

August 25, 2004

First, I would like to give thanks to our ancestors whose efforts allowed us to be here today.  I would like to acknowledge the last of the children of James and Virginia Prewitt, my aunt, Denotra Prewitt Rucker.  I would also like to recognize my mother and my father’s wife for sixty-three years, Margaret Anne Prewitt, and my sister Marcia Prewitt Spiller.

My sister and I agree with no discussion that we were blessed to have been born into this family where our role models and ultimately our heroes—once we were mature enough to know the difference— sat across from us each evening for dinner.

Our father wasn’t a very talkative man.  Sometimes he would come home from work, sit at the table, maybe asked what we did that day, and he was finished. He hardly ever talked about work unless something funny or strange occurred. At my first dinner over my parent’s house after coming home from Vietnam, my father looked at me, I nodded, he nodded, and that was our conversation about the war.

But when our father did talk, we listened.  I was about fourteen standing in front of the bathroom mirror getting my hair right for school.  Dad walked past, I don’t believe he even looked in, but as he descended the stairs, he said, “Don’t think you will be successful in this world because you think you are pretty.”

A few years later, dad was teaching me how to drive when a car pulled in front of us. I started to blow the horn.  Dad raised his hand and shook his head.  “Let it go, son. It’s not that important.” He looked at me and said, “If you have to blow your horn, you’ve lost control of the situation.”  I assumed he was talking about driving, but later, I found his advice was one of life’s lessons.

My father lived his life in quiet humility, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t pull a gun on you if you crashed his daughter’s party and suggest that you go elsewhere if you were looking for trouble, and it doesn’t mean that if you broke into his house, he wouldn’t chase you for almost a block, catch you, knock you down and hold you for the police, even if you were thirty years younger, four inches taller and twenty pounds heavier.

But as I watched our dad, I learned the most through his daily interactions with people.  Our father respected everyone equally.  You could be a person on the street asking for twenty-five cents; you might be a tenant from a one-room suite in the back of the office coming in to pay your rent; or you could be a congressman, a dignitary, or a president of a company, it didn’t matter.

And our father commanded respect without seeking it. It was just something people did. It was because of our respect that my father, the hunter, who killed and brought home a deer, elk or caribou almost every time he went out, never knew that my sister and I hated the taste of venison until thirty years later.

It was also because of respect that although my father and I worked together for ten years, we never had an argument.  I asked Marcia one day if she ever remembered our parents quarreling. Her answer, “No. I’m sure our parents did, but they didn’t do it in front of us.”

And it was also because of that respect that after dad determined that aging Cedar Avenue was the only location he needed for his real estate office and that computers were a fad and no better than a typewriter, we parted company. But, I remained vice-president of Prewitt Realty, and he became vice-president of Northland Research Corporation. I kept keys to his office and gave him keys to mine. I also bought him his first computer.

It was out of love years later, though, that when he asked, “Everett, what are you going to do with us when we get too old to take care of ourselves,” I could respond, “Dad, you and mom can move in with me,” and I was honored to have been able to do so.

I remember about fifteen years ago, I met a real estate salesperson at the County Auditor’s, and he asked how my father was doing.  I replied that he was doing well.  Then the man asked, “Your dad wasn’t as successful as some of the big time brokers around town was he?” I looked at him and laughed, but by the time I got to the third floor of the building, I was mad.  Shortly after, I became sad.  I was saddened for the salesperson because of his skewed definition of success.

Dad didn’t wear mink coats or diamond rings, and he was very satisfied with the houses we lived in on Olivet and Thornewood Avenue in the Glenville community.  When he visited Marcia in Atlanta at her 6,000 square foot house, his first comment was, “What do you need with a house that big?”  And you couldn’t melt and pour him into a Cadillac or any other luxury car.  Even if you gave him one, I suspect he would trade it in for a Chrysler New Yorker, because, throughout his life, that is the only car I remember him driving.

Our father was successful.  You can measure his achievements by the thousands of real estate people he mentored over the years throughout the United States.  You can measure his success by the number of friends and acquaintances here at his funeral, or who called, sent cards and expressed condolences in so many other ways. You can measure his success by the number of people he aided in real estate transactions, sometimes not charging a fee because he was more concerned that every party to the transaction be treated fairly rather than how much of a commission he would receive.  You can measure his success by his community work and his contributions both individually and through a host of organizations to make our city and neighborhoods better.  And you can measure his success through our family, and not just our immediate family, but the family sitting in this audience five rows deep.  Sociologists would call us an extended family, but we never needed to reach too far to touch each other.

A few years ago, I had thirty plus relatives over for Christmas, and I watched my father’s chest swell with pride as each of the children, and the adults, cited their accomplishments.  No one in the family was calling from Mansfield Penitentiary, and no one was in a drug rehab program.  Everyone was doing well.  All were productive citizens or good students.

He was proud even though he didn’t raise them.  But, he was responsible for their being here.  The family called my father Moses because he was the first of the children to move to Cleveland from Arkansas. The rest of his brothers and sisters followed, and we’ve been together ever since.

Dad lived life on his own terms, and he left on his own terms.  There have been times when we believed he was drawing his last breath, but every time he bounced back as if he was doing a rope-a-dope with death.  A few months ago, I had to pick him up and carry him to the car, because he was non-responsive. His pallor indicated he wasn’t well.  The doctor prepared us for the worse. His kidney had stopped functioning. We left the hospital that night with my sister looking for her black dress and my mother preparing to tell the rest of the family.

The next morning when we returned, he was sitting in a chair eating breakfast asking, “Where have you all been?  I’ve been trying to call you.”  We shook our heads.  Last Wednesday, my mother and I sat in his bedroom as our father labored to breathe.  I called Marcia. “This is it.  He’s passing.”  A few hours later, I had to call her back.  Dad’s breathing was normal again.  All my sister said was, “My daddy.”

As I look back at my father’s life and his accomplishments, I believe if our father could have one wish in life, if he might ask for the one thing that would make him happiest, it would be that the circle, that symbol of unity, the symbol of beginning and endlessness, the symbol of connectedness that has been passed from our ancestors throughout the ages and now rest with our family, not be broken.

And I believe Marcia would agree, that one of our fondest memories of our father who lived life his way and probably never regretted a minute he spent on earth, will be that as he drove through this world in his Chrysler New Yorker, as he drove through this life, our father never felt a need to blow his horn.

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