He Loved Ice Cream and Taught Me How To Be a Man

ElmerNEarleyJrMy eulogy, which I read at my father’s memorial service.

How do you describe a man’s life in a few minutes, especially a father as special as my dad, Elmer N. Earley?

Perhaps the answer is by my sharing some memories with you.

One of my first memories.

I am afraid. It is raining hard outside. It is late. We are driving from Oklahoma to New Jersey to visit my Aunt Alice and Uncle Millard and my cousins, Lorraine and Arlene. It is where we always go on vacation because they are my Dad’s family and family is important to him. We can’t find a motel on Interstate 40. Only glowing red No Vacancy signs. I am little – maybe six — and I am scared. I curl up in the back of our Ford Falcon station wagon, close my eyes and tell myself that everything will be okay. My father will find someplace safe for us. He will carry me inside and when I wake up, it will be morning and the sun will be out. I know my father will take care of me. All I have to do is fall asleep.

I am safe because of him.

It is in the 1960s now. I am older and the cover of Time magazine on our coffee table has a headline – The Generation Gap.  “Don’t trust anyone over30.”  Revolution. Anger at the Establishment. Raised fists. Defiant Children.

When my English teacher tell us to write about the man whom we most admire, my classmates select John Kennedy and Bobbie. Another chooses Mickey Mantle. I write about my dad. He is the wisest man I know. There is no generation gap in our house.

On Wednesday nights, I sometimes go with him when he makes “house calls” as a minister. “You never really never know someone unless you visit them in their home,” he tells me. I watch and he teaches me how to make conversation with people, how to get them to open up about themselves.  “Everyone has a story,” he tells me.

It will become my mantra as a reporter.

Another memory. This one painful. My sister, Alice, is struck by a car. I am at summer church camp and my father comes in the middle of the night to fetch me. He was with her in the emergency room when she died. He couldn’t save her and he cries and strikes the steering wheel with his open palm as we ride home in silence. She was seventeen and was struck in a blind intersection while riding my motor scooter.

My father tells me that my mother and brother, George, and I will not sit behind a screen in our church during my sister’s funeral, which is the common practice in our small town. Instead, we will sit as a family in the front row and shake hands with everyone at the funeral as they walk passed her casket. My father tells me that Alice is in Heaven and as Christians we will not feel despair. “Oh death, where is your victory? Oh Death, where is your sting?” Our actions must reflect our words and our words must be based in our religious beliefs.

So many memories. A lifetime of memories.  Some funny.

My father had to be in charge. When it came to making a decision in the Family, he made it. Everyone else had to fall in line, even my mother — especially my mother. Otherwise, he became angry. He was OLD SCHOOL. A man’s house was his castle. The fact that he kept the thermostat at 80 degrees — even in summer — was proof of it.

My father loved playing cards and afterwards, always eating a big bowl of ICE CREAM.

Another memory.

It’s afternoon now and Patti and I drive my parents to a buffet in Harper’s Ferry and after we eat, we watch my father return to the dessert table  – not once, not twice, but six times for pieces of pies and cakes, all different. He then eats five ice cream cones, although in fairness, the real number is unknown because he didn’t make himself a new cone each time. He simply ate down to the cone and refilled it.

Another memory.

It is 1986 and I am trying to decide whether I should leave the security of my job at the Washington Post and risk being a self-employed author. My mother is against it but my father tells me a story.

He grew up poor. He was born in the bedroom of a small house that his grandfather had built in a working class New Jersey town.  His father – my grandfather — was out of work for a year. It is the Depression. Hard times. One night after Saturday church, all of my father’s boyhood friends were going to a movie. Ten cents. But my father knew there was no money, not even a dime, to spare. My grandfather saw what was happening and opened his wallet. The only money in it was a single dollar bill.

“As long as I have a dollar, you will have a dollar,” my grandfather told him. He gave my dad that dollar bill —  and then reminded him to bring home the change.

“Go ahead and quit The Washington Post,” my father told me. “As long as I have a dollar, you will have a dollar.”

My parents came to live with Patti and me when they were in their late 80s. They moved into a small house that I own that serves as my office so that I could be with them every day. I would be sitting at my computer ignoring the sound of FOX NEWS screaming from the TV in the living room since both of my parents were hard of hearing — when suddenly they would turn off the television. I would find them sitting on the sofa holding hands and talking.

“After seventy years of marriage, what in the world do you still have to talk about?” I asked one day.

My mother was genuinely shocked by the question.

“Lots of things,” she replied. “Mostly: What we are going to do about you!”

My parents, Elmer and Jean, were joined at the hip. It was impossible to talk about Elmer without mentioning Jean, and impossible to talk about Jean without mentioning Elmer. And they loved to worry, worry, worry – nearly always about George and me. Even though my brother and I are now both in our sixties, I don’t think either of them were convinced that we’d know what to do without them telling us.

Memories. So many memories. How ironic that at the end of my father’s life, his memories were stolen from him by his dementia. Despite the fog, his love of family and of his God remained deeply rooted. He had no idea what day it was, but ask him to say a prayer and he would do a beautiful one– as those at Arden Courts in Fairfax, who were taking care of him, can attest.

My father gave me many gifts, but the greatest was not money, although he gave generously to my children and me. It was not advice, although he gave me lots and lots and lots of advice.  Nor was it the religious values that he instilled in me.

He saved the greatest gift for the last fourteen months of his life. He let me take care of him. Unless you have had the privilege of caring for someone who is helpless, someone who needs you to feed them, to wash them, to change them when they can’t use the toilet and to hold them when they are naked and afraid, you will not understand why this was such a precious gift.

A final memory.

It is a warm autumn afternoon and we are sitting in the Arden Courts courtyard. I am on a bench and he is in a wheel chair. We are holding hands. Every few minutes I answer the same question that he asks me repeatedly.

“Have you seen mother today?” A reference to my mom, whose death he mercifully doesn’t remember.

“No but I know she is safe.,” I reply.

“Good,” he says, squeezing my hand. He looks at me and says, “You are a good son.”

How do you describe a man’s life in a few minutes?

You can’t.  It is enough to simply say that my father was my hero in eighth grade and he still was when he died.

That says it all.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.