I cherish the surprise visit from my parents six weeks earlier, when they came to the university I was attending to deliver clean clothes, to take me to dinner, and to spend a few hours with their only son.
It was the second semester of my freshman year at Bowling Green when I received a telephone call from my sister Lorraine. “Papa is sick,” she said, and I “should come home.” Not understanding the gravity of the situation I said I could come tomorrow after an exam, but she pressed me to return as quickly as I can. I recall the ride home, which I did by hitchhiking, and having the worried feeling that my father was indeed sick, perhaps deadly sick.
That was the situation when I entered the house. Papa was sitting in a chair in his bedroom attended by a doctor and surrounded by my mother and some of my sisters. He was unconscious and non-responsive and the doctor’s face revealed the severity of the ailment.
Papa had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as it was called in 1949 and what we could say today was a severe stroke. Papa always had stocky build and carried excess weight all his life. He and my mother had once gone to the Mayo Clinic, and when they returned Mama cooked a special diet for him. It is clear now that he suffered from excess weight and high blood pressure, much of it a result of a life of rich foods in excessive quantities. Add to that the stress of a lifetime of hard work, the use of tobacco, and with today’s hindsight, the results were predictable.
However, I have my own theory as to the cause of the untimely death of my father. The previous November, Papa was working in the tavern installing a large keg of beer in the basement directly underneath the bar. The metal beer keg is under great pressure, and there was a rod in the keg, which during the installation was released with great force, hitting Papa in the cheek. I learned of this severe injury only when I came home for Christmas. I suspect that the hemorrhage was the result of a blood clot that formed and found in time its way into the brain.
Within a few hours of my arrival that afternoon, March 28, 1949, Papa expired. I don’t recall a scene of loud crying. I believe we were all in shock. Telephone calls quickly went out to the family and to friends, and a date for the funeral was set.
Uncle Frank was summoned from Detroit, and I was sent the next day to pick him up at the train station, along with my brother-in-law Bill Scott, and one other person. No one spoke a word as we rode from the station to the house. When the car stopped and everyone got out, Uncle Frank still had not been told of the situation. It was left to me to say that Papa was dead. By this time the gravity of the situation must have been obvious, but still he needed to be told before he came into the house. That instant was perhaps the most serious moment of my life, and only as I look back do I see it was a turning point from adolescent toward adulthood.
Papa was beloved by all his friends and acquaintances. Funeral services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus, and the church was filled to capacity. The number of automobiles parked in Broad Street beside the church was four rows deep. Mama was devastated, and I have the vivid image of walking her out the church with my arm around her shoulder. I recall thinking that I did not want to be there. I don’t want this responsibility. But there I was, an eighteen-year-old standing in for my father, a prop to my mother.
Hundreds of people came back to our house, where women had prepared food. I was surprised to learn how hungry I was and how relieving it was to have the burial over. One high school classmate, Jim Barnes, came to the house to offer his condolences, and that was an act of kindness that I have never forgotten. Many other classmates would have come but most of them were out of town attending college.
My sister Lorraine has vivid memories of older persons traveling to Columbus for the funeral. She recalls the sobs of our Aunt Hiceebe, and the anguish of the elderly George Cantees. Papa’s sudden and untimely death was a shock for many life-long friends and cousins who truly loved and respected Abraham Bassett.
I returned to the university and finished my studies for the year, completing what was a mediocre first year in college. That summer, I traveled with my brother-in-law Bill Scott to California where we visited and stayed with my dear sister Alice and her husband, Jack Rutherdale.
When school resumed in September I had no notion that I was a different person, but from that time on I was a serious student. My grades, and this is in the days before the so-called “grade-inflation,” were always above a 3.25 average. I was very active in extracurricular activities and in working. I never thought that this improvement had anything to do with the death of my father, but now I do. It was time to grow up and take responsibility for myself because no one else would be there to take care of me.
I think of Papa often, and wish I could bring him back for a 30-minute conversation. My feelings for him are very warm when I look at his photographs. His look is so familiar, but sometimes I think I don’t know him. I can’t remember his voice, but I do recall the smell of his suits because he was a smoker.
I know that Papa loved me. Papa was 45 and Mama was 39 when I was born, and they had worked very hard to raise their family of six children. I was the baby and only son. By the time I was born, they had become wise parents. We lived in a safe city and times were safe. There was no hovering over me, no super directing to guide my every step. And while in the process of learning to become an adult I yearned for more guidance and more direction, I appreciated the love that I always knew my father and mother had for me.
Love is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.