Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Remembering My Father

Posted in Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 17th, 2010

We held the memorial service for my father yesterday afternoon in St. Paul at Dayton Ave. Presbyterian Church. That is the church my family attended when I was young. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon in Minnesota, and the whole service was touching and celebratory. Many old friends and family attended (more than we expected: we ran out of bulletins), and they told stories about the good my father did in his life. I was glad, in particular, that my children could learn about the work my dad did on behalf of the poor, the afflicted, the ostracized.

It’s a strange boast, perhaps, but I always liked that fact that my father was on a first-name basis with every panhandler in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He knew them not as cases (he was a social worker), but as human beings. He genuinely liked them and, perhaps even more remarkably, they liked him.

Here is what I said during yesterday’s service:

My dad always told a story about when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls when I was born in 1961. He had a keen interest in history, and his professors thought he had real potential to become a historian. One of them even offered to get him into graduate school with a full scholarship. But with a wife and a child, Dad felt he needed to go into something that was more likely to provide a stable income to support his family. He chose to major in sociology and launched into a career as a social worker that was devoted to helping people who needed a hand: ex-convicts, poor people, veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress. It was a life spent serving others.

He never forgot that he was a frustrated history professor, though. He always enjoyed reading history. And as for me, from about the age of five, when we were driving somewhere or out for a walk, I’d find myself being drilled with questions about history: could I name the presidents in order? Who was the first governor of Minnesota? Which American secretary of state bought Alaska from Russia? So I figured out from a pretty young age that I was supposed to grow up and become a history professor.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: I’m now a professor of Japanese literature and culture, and if you read my work you’ll see that I’m really a historian in disguise. This past summer, I finished writing a history of popular music in Japan, and I was planning to surprise my dad next year when the book is published, because it is dedicated to him. My dad is the one who opened my ears to the pleasures of listening to strange music. When I was a child, he brought home LPs for us to listen to that sounded nothing like the music they played on KDWB or WDGY. He brought home copies of Alan Lomax’s field recordings from the American south, the strange blues music of Taj Mahal, the folk songs of Buffy Sainte Marie. One of the lessons he taught me is not to be afraid of the world out there, that when you hear strange music, don’t run away: if you give it a chance, you might end up liking it. It was a lesson that set me up to write the book about music in Japan decades later.

So I didn’t fall too far from the tree: I became the history professor my dad wanted to be. My father did a better job of rebelling against his father: Wilfred Bourdaghs, my grandfather and Ron’s father, was a lifelong employee of Andersen Windows in Bayport, the town where my dad grew up. Wilfred was against Ron going to college in the first place. If Wilfred had any say in the matter, my dad would have spent his life working for Andersen’s. Dad figured out how to run away from home, though: shortly after graduating from high school he enlisted for a stint in the army, where he spent time stationed in Germany, one of the great adventures of his life. It got him where he wanted to be: far, far away from Andersen Windows.

Dad suffered some hard knocks in his life. He lost his mother to cancer when he was just nine years old. Later in life, when he was just beginning to enjoy what looked like it would be a very active retirement, full of skiing and golf, playing with his grandchildren, he suffered another tough blow: during surgery, he suffered a traumatic brain injury that impacted his memory and mobility. His last seven years were hard on him. His loss hurts us all, but we also feel a sense of relief today that he doesn’t have to struggle any longer against a body that had stopped cooperating with him.

I have to say a special word of gratitude to my stepmother, Donna. My sister and I both live away from Minnesota, and during these last years, when Dad needed constant help, Donna was the one who was there, every day. She has taught me much about devotion and what it means to be a caregiver, about not giving up even when the situation seems impossible. I am eternally grateful, Donna.

My dad was a wonderful, patient grandfather who so obviously loved my children, Walter and Sonia. When I talked to him on the phone, he just wanted to hear how they were doing. He also always wanted to know how my wife Satoko was doing. He didn’t have to ask about what I was doing. He already know what I was up to, because I had become the history professor he intended for me to become.

23 years ago, my dad spoke at the funeral of his own father—the man who wanted Dad to go to work at Andersen’s. I remember vividly the conclusion of my dad’s eulogy for my grandfather that day. He said, “My father was not a famous man or a wealthy man. But he was a good man and a responsible man. I believe that his whole life he never knowingly hurt another human being.”

My dad didn’t end up working at Andersen’s, like his father wanted him to. And he didn’t end up as a history professor, like he wanted to. But he did end up a good man and a responsible man, just like his father, and I too believe that my dad his whole life never knowingly hurt another human being.

Last Tuesday afternoon, as I was driving up to Minnesota from Chicago after hearing the news, I suddenly had the unmistakable sense that my dad was there in the car with me. I couldn’t see him, of course, but I could feel his presence strongly. He was happier and more content than I had seen him in many years. Dad, rest in peace. We will miss you, but you are in a better place now, and you should know that you made the world a better place.

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