At Thanksgiving time I think of people who deserve a thank you. These are people who came into my life and left a gift, and then went their way while I went mine.
This year I’m thinking of John A. Richardson. Here’s why.
One Saturday morning when I was 8, my grandmother died. She had lived with us, my mother’s mom. She did all the cooking, slept in the back room of our little house, offered her lap when we watched TV at night.
Her sudden and unexpected death was a blow to me, and not just seeing her dead in her bed, but the tumultuous disruption it brought to the gentle security of home. My mother was nearly hysterical with tears and anguish and cries of disbelief. My dad tried to console her, but she pushed him away, leaving him helpless, not knowing what to do.
And I — my world shaken — stood watch in a corner, unattended, untethered, afraid.
Our parish priest came by cab. His presence in our home felt weird. And when he explained that, yes, the sacrament of extreme unction would “take,” that she had not been dead that long, her soul was still around, well, that felt weird too.
I was there when they carted out the body and there when my parents went away. They had to go to the funeral home, they said; they wouldn’t be gone long. My sister had been sent to a friend’s. I was left there in the house, and what had been a cozy home on a typical Saturday cartoony morning was now a scary, foreign land. But I’d be OK, my parents assured me, tears and pain in their eyes. John Richardson was here; he’d take care of me.
I hardly knew John Richardson. He was my parents’ age, was their friend.
But that afternoon, wearing dress slacks and a starched white shirt, he sat on the floor with me and played with my Lincoln Logs and little red plastic bricks that snapped into place like old-fashion Legos. We built little wood cabins and little brick houses for my toy soldiers. He built them with me, too, and made suggestions, asked my advice, and set up the soldiers, the cowboys and Indians. He was on the floor with me as if he were just a kid himself. And he talked to me and made me smile and his presence brought comfort into our imaginary play.
I still have that mental image of him smiling at me from that day 56 years ago.
If that is all he would have done for me, I would remember gratefully his soothing and steadying manner in that watershed day of my little-boy life.
But I will also remember John Richardson for a single comment he made — just something he said one time, that was equally significant to my teenage self.
John Richardson had lived next door to my mom when they were kids on Mildred Street in Shreveport, Louisiana. He grew up to be a prominent lawyer, the district attorney for years and years, and a widely respected civic leader.
My dad was an accountant and, when I was 17, he could be an embarrassment to me. He knew little about sports, did not fish or hunt, fix cars or build additions on our home. He was more of a background presence, politely and passively yielding to his wife, awkward in social situations, dutiful at work and church, a good man perhaps but not especially strong or heroic, funny or as interesting as others fathers I knew. He had served in World War II but had not seen combat, had only been a supply sergeant in India. He was not what I — at 17 — thought I wanted in a father.
One night, for reasons too complicated but unimportant to recount here, John Richardson gave me a ride. Through the years he and I had only exchanged cordial hellos at occasional social gatherings. We had never really talked, and on this night we’d had no meaningful conversation. But as he made a final turn before dropping me off, he said, “You know Kerry, your father is the finest man I have ever known.”
I was struck dumb. And the fact that it came from a man as prominent and as respected as John Richardson made an impact that forever changed the way I thought of my father, the way I looked at him from then on.
It proved to be another turning point in my young life.
I doubt John Richardson would remember either of these episodes — small, inconsequential acts in a life lived long and well. But I have remembered both all these years. One brought some normalcy to a little boy’s traumatic day. The other — a one-sentence appraisal of my dad — was a gift that I never spoke of but carried with me till the day he died.
Kerry Temple ’74 is editor of this magazine.