Part Two of the Essay Professor Without Portfolio.
The discovery of capabilities fundamental to a promising life in academe also punctuated—with a semicolon rather than a period—the search beginning in my 15th year for the future that was to replace the one lost in my father’s death. His passing shattered a prospect constructed more by circumstance than imagination. It was to carry me away from the farm after high school to university and return me with knowledge of agriculture superior to my father’s. That would transform our relationship from disappointed father and failed son to competent son and proud father, from master-servant combine to full equity partnership—and to a solid place in a world of my own.
In loving honor of this prospect, rather than embrace of it, mother granted me a year to see if I could manage the farm while keeping up my studies. I couldn’t. Too many school days were spent chasing the beef cows that we had purchased to replace the dairy herd. They were to help finance my sister’s and my schooling, but the cost of containing, feeding, and doctoring the Herefords made them a liability rather than an asset. They simply strode through fences that had by their very appearance restrained the docile Holsteins.
Within a year of Dad’s death, Mom sold the farm, thus administering the coup de grace to my family-farming prospect. We moved into the second floor of the principal mortuary in the half-dozen towns within 20 or so miles of the farm. The house had been the natal residence of a leading family in Amsterdam, already at 1,500 a town half its traditional size, retracting along with the Bituminous coal mining and iron ore smelting that had given it birth. It was offered to us because a new regulation stipulated that cadavers awaiting interment could not be left unattended. Restoring the mortuary as a residence met the letter of the law and produced an hospitable offer to the Widow Frame just when the three of us needed it most.
The new home gave me and sister Polly, two years my junior, immediate distinction. We embellished it with tales of bumping into cadaver-laden gurneys when returning home after late dates or fetching new business in the mortuary’s big Cadillac hearses from the morgue in Steubenville, 30 miles away. When we went off to college with no more than a handful of classmates from our shrinking classes of 50-60 each, we carried an inventory of stories from our life in the mortuary—playing hide-and-seek in the casket showroom, for example, or being denied the use of our bathroom during “viewings” by the steady stream of rustics that had never known anything other than a two or three “holer” out back and a galvanized bath tub in the kitchen.
(Even now, I enjoy telling of soliciting the help of a local bully to help me retrieve from the hospital morgue the body of a very large neighbor. As we lifted the sagging body from the “slab”, the bully at his shoulders and I at his feet, the air compressed in the lungs by the maneuver made the corpse moan. The bully dropped (threw down?) his burden well short of the gurney and fled the morgue, bug-eyed and white-faced. He “thumbed” his way back to Amsterdam, refusing to come into the hearse or even to apply for his pay. Thereafter, he exempted me entirely from his bullying—and the funeral home from his list of acceptable employment.)
Mom lived in the Funeral Home for 40 years, became a pillar of her new church in her new community, taught for three years at The American School, Tangier, Morocco, and spent the last 10 years of her 98-year life in a nearby retirement center arranging the weekly programs of its education fora.
And I went off in search of a place in the world which I could call my own—a place, as I increasingly imagined it. in which morality and ethics, faith and reason, my private and the public interest were compatible if not fully reconciled. Obviously, the cataclysm of my father’s death destroyed the graphic prospect of a commercially viable and communal family farm, and forced me to cast the search for its replacement in abstract and generic terms. Until the McIlwain Experience, I had in mind a dozen such replacement prospects, each of which required post-graduate education—in theology, music, journalism, among others. With one exception, I turned away from each of them after a brief dabble.