Thirty years ago today, I was running an important meeting at work; as the PR director for The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, I was in charge of a big chunk of the festivities marking the 150th anniversary of the oldest continuously operating public art museum in the nation. At this team meeting, we were working out logistics surrounding the impending visit from then First Lady Barbara Bush, who was coming to help us mark the occasion. I was to be the point person for her visit.
As the meeting hummed along, I was surprised by a knock at the conference room door — and more surprised to see my assistant (and dear friend) Monique poke her head in. When I met her at the half-opened door, she apologized for interrupting and handed me a pink phone-message slip addressed to me, Jennifer: “Call home.”
Monique had been right to interrupt. “Home” in this instance meant my parents, who lived in the house I’d grown up in in Rockville, Maryland. They would never think to call me during the work day — unless…. well, you know.
Monique took my place in the meeting as I rushed to my office. I closed the door and dialed, nervous. My parents, at ages 64 (Da) and 65 (Ma), weren’t exactly old. But they weren’t exactly young, either. My heart thumped as I waited for someone to pick up.
My mother sounded surprised to hear from me, but not the least bit alarmed or upset. When I explained why I was calling, she was flummoxed. Turns out they hadn’t in fact called me, didn’t need me to call home. Relieved, I chatted with her for a moment before she asked if I’d like to say hi to my father. Of course, I said. Why not?
True to form, Da was cheery and full of chit-chat. He read me a joke from Reader’s Digest, something about a little boy peeing. We shared a laugh and talked for another few minutes.
As we were hanging up, my father said, “I love you.”
And I said to my father, “I love you, too.”
That was a Thursday.
On Saturday morning, my then-husband and I were sleeping in when the phone rang. My husband answered. His face darkened, and he handed the phone to me, staying close, rubbing my back. “It’s your mother,” he whispered.
My mother, calling to tell me that my father was dead.
My parents had a strained marriage; they loved each other, but they weren’t a match made in heaven. After my brother and I left home and launched our own lives, friction festered, and the two became estranged. I’ll write more about that another time, but all that’s important for you to know now is that Ma and Da, Thelma and Charles, reconciled after their rockiest patch. That Friday, the day after our phone conversation, they had gone to a matinee — A River Runs Through It, I want to say — then stopped at our family’s all-time favorite dive/pizza place, Gentleman Jim’s, on Veirs Mill Road in Twinbrook. They ordered a pizza and a pitcher of beer. Once the beer arrived, my father, never one to miss a swig, said he was feeling little off and was going to step outside for a breath of fresh air.
Then my father, Charles John “Chic” LaRue, stood up, alive, and fell down, dead.
Gentleman Jim’s sent a rubbertree plant as a condolence.
When I returned to work after the funeral, I found a handwritten note from Barbara Bush on my desk. She said she knew how instrumental I had been in preparing for her visit, and she was very sorry not to have met me. Most of all, she wrote, she was sorry for the loss of my father. “He must have been a wonderful man, to have a daughter like you.”
Life went on, as life, mercifully, does.
But what about that phone message? The phone message that led to my being able, the day before he died, to tell my father that I loved him–and allowed me to hear him say, the day before he died, that he loved me? What was THAT all about?
Turns out a new intern had started working in the museum’s development office that week, so recently she hadn’t yet met the receptionist.
A new intern.
Rest in peace, Da. I miss you all the time, and, gosh, don’t I wish you could have known your wonderful grandkids Sophie and Charlie — and, now, your delightful great-granddaughter Mabel.
You all would have loved each other, too.