Thursday, January 30, 2014

Goodnight, My Pete, Goodnight

The remembrance of her father never approaches
her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all
livelihood from her cheek.

All’s Well That Ends Well, I.1

This week we lost one of humanity’s best. Not just an impressive figure, but a deeply good person who brought that goodness to bear on so many righteous causes and infused so many little lives (like mine) with a hunger for purpose that it is not hyperbole to say his “worth’s unknown although [his] height be taken.” [Sonnet 116]
Waking up to the news the other day that Pete had died in the night left me feeling that a considerable quantum of light had abandoned the world, irrevocably. For most of my life, he has been more than a distant icon. To speak quite candidly, he was the first of a very select group that I chose to be my father.
I chose Pete to play this part when I was four and the post had suddenly been left vacant. I’d met him thanks to the very first album to come into my possession: Pete Seeger Sings to Children in Town’s Hall. The girl on the cover, perched next to him on a stool and looking up to him with rhapsodic interest—well, she, seemed like a proxy for me at the time. And Pete’s utterly authentic voice—wailing with the banjo or telling a rambling story tale continuing to strum nimbly on his 12-string guitar—spoke to me from the start—and reliably thereafter.
During the years while that daddy position on the home-front remained vacate, I collected a few other contenders for the role. Most notably, Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. But first and foremost among the Ideal Daddy Pantheon was and remained Pete. To this day, I keep a framed picture of him on my desk at home along with other family photos, the earnest, lovable standard by which all others were measured.
I did see him in person a few times--in concert, peak experiences to be sure. Especially memorable was the time when I was 7 or 8 when my mother took me to see him at the University of Houston where she was then a hippie graduate student. At the intermission, I was able to slip away while Mama was engrossed in conversation with friends. I ducked passed the security guard, ran back stage, and found Pete chatting with a group of African musicians who had joined him for part of the performance. Before the guard could catch up to me, I was able to secure an autograph on a napkin replete with his signature sketch of a banjo, a relic I carried around for years along with my Pete-heavy record collection—until the lot was destroyed in the flooded basement of my college boyfriend’s rental house.
Not long after the autograph-seeking episode, I decided to take action. I wrote Pete a long, gushy letter, taking care to remind him about our recent encounter. I sent it care of PBS headquarters in New York City since he had recently made a cameo appearance on Sesame Street (one of the first vehicles whereby he made it back on the air after years on the blacklist). I did my best to convey my eternal devotion to him. And he actually wrote me back! His tone, however, was all-business—for there was serious business to be done. He explained about the project they were undertaking up north called “Clearwater” to clean up the Hudson River that was then full of “garbage, garbage, garbage” just like the lyrics to one of my favorite songs of his from that period. In a postscript to his letter, he observed that in Houston, where he saw that I lived, there was a bayou running through the very heart of town that, as he understood it, could use some attention too. So he had included some pamphlets with his letter that explained all about how I might start organizing folks in the community to take action, see if Buffalo Bayou could become something other than a vile cesspool.
Since I was only 7 or 8 at the time, I didn’t get very far with that initiative. Or at least the fact of being 7 or 8 is my convenient excuse. Because I don’t think folks like Pete ever thought of anything—age, income, stature—as an insurmountable obstacle, as an excuse for inaction.
I thought about his refusal to accept any obstacle as immovable tonight while driving home from work. My job as a commercial litigator is not one that Pete would have disdained, because he was not the sort of person to have those kinds of petty emotions; but I suspect it is a job that he would have found a bit perplexing. But maybe it would have cheered him to know that a person engaged in such an unlikely pursuit can and often does easily conjure up his voice inside her head.
Without any concerted effort, tonight I heard him singing a verse that he had written as an addendum to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” According to his intro on whatever album it was (I once, but no longer, had most of them), he said that he had written the verse on the occasion of his 50th birthday. How apropos that that is precisely the age that I have achieved this year when he has left us. That synchronicity, as well as the verse’s content, made it a perfect choice for the occasion. The verse was dedicated to his biological daughter.  As I remember it, it went like this:
Daughter, daughter, don’t you know,
You’re not the first to feel just so.
Ah, let me say before I go,
It’s worth it anyway.
Someday we may all be surprise;
We’ll wake and open up our eyes.
Then we all will realize
The whole world feels this way.
We’ve all been living upside down and turned around with love unbound--
Until we turn and face the sun,
Yes, all of us, every one.


I see it now. That is what he was always trying to get us to do: turn and face the sun.

So I hope anyone who stumbles upon this post in search of some pithy (if occasionally strained) analogy between Shakespearean text and the practice of law will forgive this diversion. The impulse to make this confession and to pay tribute was just too strong, and I fear I had no other readily available outlet. Although I can think of some stirring father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare’s plays and an occasional father-daughter team in the law that I could have tried to pull together to make sense out of this post, the effort would have cheapened the moment. Besides, when a person has lost one of the only remaining ones whom she has loved the longest, complete coherence can hardly be expected.
What can be expected is an effort to heed Pete’s legacy of dogged optimism. As the NYTimes quoted him in its own tribute: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

1 comment:

  1. I once saw your belly button. It was many years ago, you were my philosophy teacher and we went to your play. I know I wasn't the only one that took some delight in the performance. You were a good teacher, and this blawg is appreciated. Today I saw your heart.