WR Editor Blog: Marta Shaffer
“Not Fucking Fixed in Place”: A Eulogy for My Dad
Of course, this is not a real eulogy. My dad did pass away, three weeks ago from when I first started writing this. And I was prepared to write his eulogy, had even asked a friend for examples of eulogies she had written to use as a basis, because I had never written one before. My sister and I had agreed we would deliver it together, every other paragraph, but I would craft the words.
But I never wrote the eulogy for his funeral, and the reason is this: my dad was an independent thinker until the end. Take, for example, the only thing of his I took home to California with me from Minnesota. My mom said it was the last purchase he made: a coffee mug that has a list of English words and phrases that, grammatically, are often confused. “You’re” and “Your,” “They’re” “Their” and “There,” etc. For each word or phrase, the coffee mug provides an explanation of its proper use—but each explanation incorporates the expletive fuck.
“You’re = You Fucking Are. Your = Shows Fucking Possession.”
“Could’ve = Could Fucking Have. Could Of = You’re a Fucking Idiot.”
I took the coffee mug because my dad, like lots of fathers, had sayings he would use over and over again. The world is just a bunch of assholes and idiots, was one of his favorites. Don’t take any wooden nickels, another expression of his general distrust in humanity. But a lot of them were also grammar-related, because my dad, like his dad, had a deep love of English, and he took any accidental misuse of it not only as an assault against language as an institution, but also as some kind of personal insult. Thus, as a child, if I finished my dinner and announced, I’m done! my dad would clear my plate and reply, Cakes are ‘done,’ people are ‘finished.’ A lesson in superlatives was squeezed into a rhyme that I hope to someday cross-stitch onto a pillow: Good better best, never let it rest—until your good is better, and your better is best. If I ever used a word incorrectly, my dad would let me know immediately, and tell me to Go look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s. And if in a fit of teenage rage I ever said, YOU’RE the one that’s being unfair! he surely would have replied, who’s.
That coffee mug is sarcastic, hilarious, smart and irreverent, just like my dad. And it’s completely fitting that it’s the last purchase he ever made. This is the man whose last email to the family from his deathbed was not to express remorse or love or final wishes—but to complain about Trump. trump thinks Jackson would have prevented the civil war, per a CNN report tonight. Don’t know trump’s point on that. going off the deep end, he is. And the entire reason why I never delivered his eulogy was because he never had a funeral—he expressly told my mother and my aunt that he did not want one.
Half of the reason he never had a funeral was because he had his body donated to science, which I find incredibly cool. The other half is because around the age of sixty-three, my dad stopped believing in God. After growing up the son of an Episcopalian reverend, as an altar boy in an Episcopalian church, and living his adulthood as the brother of an Episcopalian reverend—believing in the Bible and practicing the golden rule his entire life—my dad decided in his twilight years that it was bogus. I talked to him pretty extensively about it, because where most people would seek comfort in religion at his age, my dad rejected any promise of an afterlife, because it stopped making sense to him. After years of struggles, he no longer saw any evidence that Jesus was looking out for him, and rather than dig his heels into the dirt and insist that Episcopalism was going to save him someday, he simply changed his mind.
I saw his flexibility of heart at another very poignant moment between the two of us. He was so proud when, as a grad student at Chico State, I was hired to teach freshman composition, a class where first-year students are taught how to write academic papers. He assumed his progeny was going to make sure that teenagers in California would know that cakes are ‘done,’ people are ‘finished.’ And in a heartbreaking conversation, I had to explain to my dad that grammar is no longer taught to first-year college students.
Then how do they learn to WRITE? he asked incredulously.
I described how we are taught to edit their papers for organization and clarity, how forming an argument and supporting it with facts is top priority. But if we see grammar that is not prescriptive, we are not supposed to alter it unless it’s unclear writing.
“Prescriptive”? he asked.
“Proper English,” I said. For example, a student growing up in a household where both English and Spanish are spoken likely uses a form of English that old-school grammarians wouldn’t consider “correct,” but as instructors we honor whatever language they use, as long as their ideas are clear.
And you agree with this?
I didn’t at first, but now I do. My dad sighed. It took a few more conversations, but in the end, he actually came around. He was able to accept that his ideas of language—concepts that to him were literally more holy than religion—were changing, and he was willing to change with them.
This is what I mean when I say that my dad was an independent thinker until the end. I hope, if I have learned anything from him, it’s how to be a cork in the stream, to bend and not break, to be elastic in my ideas forever, and to keep a sense of humor through it all. Because there is a vital difference between losing, and being loose. Or, as his coffee cup will remind us:
“Lose = Cease to Fucking Keep. Loose = Not Fucking Fixed in Place.”
Written by Marta Shaffer (with unwavering help from Jenna Roebuck)