A week ago this morning I was waking up from yet another sleepless night in East Texas to attend, and speak at my father’s funeral. My dad was a complicated man, and if you only want to know the good, then I suggest you skip this part and scan on down to the eulogy I gave that day. If you want to know the truth, read both.
I have struggled deeply with my feelings this week. My father was a lesson in contrast. I have some wonderful memories of his amazing sense of humor and his playful side, certainly his wealth of knowledge and his love of music, and I also have very painful memories of being abandoned emotionally and physical many, many times, and of walking on eggshells my entire life to make sure I didn’t upset him because then I wouldn’t hear from him for weeks or months or years. It is hard to have a true bonded loving relationship with another human being when anxiety is at the core of your relationship. When I was eighteen I got married. My dad was so angry with my decision, he called me all the way from Africa to yell at me and hang up, hardly giving me the chance to say two words. That would be the last I would hear from him for five years. Despite many letters asking for forgiveness and trying to prove to him that I hadn’t screwed up my life and that I was a good person, nothing. Well, except for the one time I found out he was in Arkansas on home leave and I called to see if perhaps two years had been a long enough penance and maybe if I just broke the ice he would respond. He responded alright…”How did you know I was here? I have nothing to say to you.” And he hung up. I was a mess. Sobbing and pleading for him to want a relationship with me. I sat on the floor, a grown married woman, and sobbed. He eventually contacted me three years later and we moved on, never discussing those five years. It wasn’t the last time he cut me out of his life, but usually for only a couple of years at a time after that.
I realized a long time ago that if I was going to have a relationship with him, it would be on his terms and I made the decision to have it, knowing it would always be me that apologized and sought him out, whether it was my fault or not.
My parents split when I was eleven, and the next six years weren’t much better than those years of no contact. There were occasional phone calls and some letters. Though, when my sister and I visited him five years later in Africa, we found a drawer full of letters from us that had not even been opened. Letters full of things we had been doing in our daily lives as a young child and a struggling teenager. Letters asking how he was and wanting to see him and sharing personal things. I understand that my dad had great difficulty with the divorce from my mother, and I will never know what pain he endured for that. But, that was such a kick in the gut to my seventeen-year-old self, for him to never have even read my heartfelt words to him during those difficult years. Years spent with a destructive stepfather. Years where acknowledgement and a kind word from a father would have meant the world. Instead, there was great loneliness.
When Dad finally decided to speak to me again, we continued down the rollercoaster ride that would be our relationship for the next 25 years. My siblings didn’t fare any better. My brothers both spent a least a decade each out of contact, and my sister was on and off as well. Each time for silly disagreements about how we should be living our lives. Perceived offenses which most families would just acknowledge as disagreements. Or just things teenagers and young adults do, and parents who love unconditionally talk us through. I said that to him once…”Dad, I’ve just never felt that unconditional love.” For years he joked about that. Mockingly saying “oh you want ‘unconditional’ love…”. I know his joking about it was his way of expressing that it hurt and that he cared, but at the time, it was hard to hear him make fun of my deepest desire.
We had wonderful times, too. Many, many laughs. But, I have grown up with the sense that I have disappointed him so often. He has said very cruel things to me and to all members of my family. He has also given me wonderful compliments. It’s just hard to know which was the truth. Perhaps he really felt both. All I know is that I grew up never knowing.
So, here I am. I’m almost 48 and I don’t know how to feel. Do I miss him? Did I love him? Did he ever love me? He asked me a couple of years ago if there was anything of his that I wanted when he passed, as he had been in ill health for quite some time at that point, and I told him there were things that were special to me, but the only thing I really deeply wanted was his guitar. I have such fond memories of him playing it and listening to Hank Jr., Willie and Waylon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller and so many more. He wrote many country songs and had this dream to get one recorded. I connected with him through music and through that dream, because, for a man who spent 40 years serving his country in the military and the Foreign Service, risking his life at times, dealing with such bureaucracy, which he didn’t always love and did it because it provided a stable paycheck for his family, he had this creative side pulling at him, and this dream to run off to Nashville and be a songwriter and my gypsy artist soul connects with that desire and understands it so very much. Last week as I wandered around his house, helping to sort through things, I cleaned the dust off that guitar and prepared to bring it home. It was the only thing I took with me on the plane. Everything else is being shipped to me. And I felt good about that. I thought about it a lot on the plane ride back to California. Until I got here.
And then everything hit me. All these emotions. All the loss. After almost five decades of dealing with the losses that came with this difficult relationship, a final act of his sent me over the edge. He left all four of us out of his will. I had a curt heads up that this would be the case, but after such a difficult week, after losing my own beautiful beach house to my husband and having to move into this tiny 400 sq ft condo last year, and losing my marriage and starting completely over yet again at 47, and being so financially strained, there was something about this final slap in the face, and also being made to feel that I was not allowed to mourn his loss, that hit me hard. I guess I couldn’t be mourning because I laughed and joked with my siblings, because I wasn’t a puddle of tears before, because I didn’t have lots of contact with my father, because, because, because….whatever the perceptions are…I didn’t love him, I didn’t have the right to grieve, I didn’t feel the loss in the same way and I didn’t seem worthy of a kind word. And I questioned that. And I almost packed up that guitar and sent it back because I was so angry at him I didn’t even want to look at it. I cried a lot. A LOT. And then I finally slept more than four hours at a time for a couple of nights and regained a little composure. I talked with my mom and my siblings. I yelled a little. I yelled at my dad. I felt a little like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump yelling at God in that lake. How can a father be so hard on his kids their entire lives, and then leave them with nothing? How can he think we weren’t worthy of something? Anything. It’s not about the money…it’s about being remembered and valued. And it’s about not explaining this final act to me before he died. Not telling us himself. Not giving us some reason.
But, I know he didn’t leave us with nothing. But, what exactly has he left me with?
I kept the guitar. I’m staring at it now. I will piece together my feelings for this man as life rolls on. I don’t want pity or an “I’m sorry” or anything from anyone. I know everyone deals with pain, and I don’t think mine is more or less than another’s. I just wanted to express both sides. I meant everything I said in the eulogy below, as I stood beside his open casket and shared these stories with an unsuspecting group of friends who only knew him in retirement in rural East Texas and had no idea what this man had done with his life. Every word is true. I claim my right to miss him and to grieve. Because I do. And nobody gets the right to give me parameters on that. My brother Jon also spoke and talked about how nobody walks with us our entire lives. We enter and exit at different times and therefore we each have our own version of who a person was to us individually. He was MY father. And for almost fifty years I walked a very personal walk with him that nobody else did. Each of my siblings walked their own walk with him filled with pain and happiness as well. I am just glad that I have them to share in this with me, because only they truly understand.
So, 2018 began with me moving out of my 20-year marriage and leaving my beach house and trying to make 400 sq ft work for me and my two young boys and trying to survive with a new business as an artist. It was filled with beautiful highs and deep, deep lows, lots of tears, new adventures and a toughening up of my soul, and it ended with the death of this man that is my father on December 29. And, 2019 began with his burial. Fitting in so many ways. I want to lay him to rest. I want to lay so many things to rest. I want to lay my sadness and anger to rest, though that will take more time. He saw angels before he passed, and he wasn’t a religious man. He was ready to go and excited to see his father who passed away before I was born. I hope he has found peace. I did, and still do love him very much. I very much grieve his loss in so many deep and painful ways, and hope to remember all of it, not just the good and not just the bad. Because that is life–a complicated, beautiful contrast of highs and lows. Rest in peace, dad. I hope there is a lot of bass fishing in heaven.
Eulogy for Jerry Lee Baker, Sr.
Written by Susan Baker Scharpf
Delivered on January 5, 2019 in Pittsburg, TX
I think one of the greatest fears as we see our lives moving quickly by us, is to feel like it will not have mattered much when all is said and done. That someday, we will lie in a funeral home and a few people will gather and there may be some pleasant memories exchanged, but that in the end, it may not have mattered much whether we existed or not. It has been really difficult for me to try to figure out how to put into a few words what my father’s life was all about, and what it meant to me…what is his legacy? And I know that the sweet answer would be to say that it’s us…his four kids. But, in this case, I know that is such a pitifully small part of the story, though perhaps his favorite. Perhaps… 😉
But, somewhere in this world there is a man who got himself in trouble in Tijuana at 16 years old and wound up in a Mexican jail. Legally, as the administrative officer for the U.S. embassy, my dad was not allowed to pay any bribes to get anyone out of jail. But he did, out of his own pocket, and he drove that young boy to the border and bought him a greyhound bus ticket home, also out of his own pocket. And that boy got a second chance.
And, somewhere there is a man who had been injured in a car wreck and in Mexico, you could not be released until all “debts” had been paid. Dad worked with the doctor and smuggled this man out of the hospital and into an ambulance, took him to the border where an American ambulance was waiting, and used his authority as a U.S. diplomat get him across the border and to a hospital.
And somewhere, there is a family and descendants of a family who many years ago were serving as missionaries in Mozambique where they were captured and used as political pawns. And the Mozambiquen president told the United States that they would NOT step foot on their soil and try to negotiate their release and that it would be on their terms. But in a small office in the embassy, my dad was making plans with a military rescue and recovery team to go in and bring that family home. And when they were safely in the air, dad got the call and he then called the president of Mozambique to tell him what they had done. And that family went home to live their lives.
And somewhere in Africa, there is a group of men who were given a little more dignity and respect. Dad was looking out of the window of his office at the embassy at all of these locals scattered all over the lawn. He asked an employee what they were doing and he responded that they were using tin can lids to cut the grass. Dad asked why they didn’t have a lawnmower and the employee responded that the Africans wouldn’t know who to use it and weren’t intelligent enough to be taught. He said something like “this is the embassy of the United States of America, and this is not how we treat out employees.” He immediately went to his desk and ordered lawnmowers, which they quickly mastered. He said the grounds of the embassy were immaculate because the African employees took such pride in their work and felt valued and respected and wanted to repay that confidence.
And while Americans were enjoying the disco era and all the things the late seventies had to offer, three satellite planes were grounded during a coup in Suriname. Satellite planes that should have been circling South and Central America scanning for any threats to our national security, in particular nuclear war. And while our family was under national Surinamese orders to not leave our house, my father was gone for three straight days with no word. During that time he negotiated with the leader of the coup, to have those planes released. And during that same time, Americans in the country heard a rumor that those planes were going to evacuate us all to safety, and he had to let them all know that wasn’t the case, and to stay calm and we would work things out. Those planes were released without incident, and nobody understood the vulnerable spot we as Americans had been in until he stepped in.
In each of the incidents I mentioned, we were there when he came home for dinner and tried to put away the events of the day and be a father and a husband. Every time his own life had been threatened or he put himself in harm’s way to do his job, like the day he worked in an evacuated embassy in Ecuador trying to get communication to Washington while machine gun fire came through the window, and the day he stood on the street corner at the end of a coup in Bolivia and faced a tank coming up the street that luckily turned out to hold American soldiers, he came home to dinner to young children who didn’t know enough to be afraid and certainly had no clue about what he had experienced that day. It is no wonder that though he seemed to move mountains in his work and received many awards for his outstanding service, there was sometimes a struggle to connect with his family. There was a distance that I think can often come where there are so many details about your life that you cannot, or don’t want to share.
Each of us kids has a different relationship with our father, and a different way in which we connected to him. Our relationships differ not only because we differ in ages, but also because we each were older and more aware in completely different countries and sometimes continents. On top of that, our individual personalities led us connect with him in different ways. For me, it was music. I have such strong vivid memories of him playing his guitar and making large real-to-real audio mixes of songs that he loved and recorded off the radio and albums. He wrote many many country songs, a passion and hobby that I believe brought him back to his roots and a simpler life that shaped him as a child. My dad had an incredibly funny sense of humor and that came out in his songs as well. Songs like “She Wants to be a Cowgirl, but She’s Just a Cow” and sooo many others. When he asked me a couple of years ago if there was anything specific I wanted when he passed, I knew immediately what it was. I said the only thing that I really wanted was his guitar. It was emotional to clean the dust off of it this week and prepare to take it home with me.
My father was born in Cardwell, Missouri in 1945, the 7thof eight children. His parents moved to Wynne, Arkansas soon after and worked hard to provide what they could for their large family, but it was a humble uncertain existence. Fishing was a big part of his family and he grew up fishing and exploring all the rivers and lakes surrounding Wynne. When dad was 17 he joined the Air Force and became a communications officer. He wanted to get out and see the world and thought this was the best way to do it. He was sent off to boot camp in San Antonio and then off to Alaska. After four years in the Air Force, he got out and eventually got a job with the State Department. During this time he also met and married my mother, had a son and was then assigned his first overseas post…this man who had grown up in rural Arkansas was given his very post…to Tehran, Iran. The next thirty years of his life would take him from there to The Hague, Holland; La Paz, Bolivia; Bern, Switzerland; Guayaquil, Ecuador; Paramaribo, Suriname; Tijuana, Mexico; Lilongwe, Malawi; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and during a three year assignment as a rover, he worked at the embassies in every country in Africa except two.
My father picked cotton in Arkansas
He camped at the base of Mt. Kilamanjaro
He skied in the Alps
He’s been to the altiplano in the Andes mountains of Bolivia
He’s been in the deserts of the middle east
He’s been in the deep jungles of South America
He’s been in the rainforests of Suriname
He’s fished for piranha
He’s been on a boat on Lake Titicaca
And so many other adventures
I loved my father. And these are the memories that I will treasure for always.