My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.Harley D. Semple, my grandfather Dee-Dee, was a very special man.--Jim Valvano
Not only did he and my grandmother Mo raise me, but they did so at a time in their lives when they should have been retired and free of child rearing. Taking me in must have been a huge sacrifice, but I never got the sense that I was a bother.
Still, I was always a bit at odds with Mo because, even as a child, I had a suspicion that she was the one who made the final decision to leave Robin, my baby sister, with my stepfather’s family. In our family, Dee-Dee never made those kinds of decisions, but, in my heart, I know he would have been more than okay with having Robin around. Indeed, Mo, in her last years, admitted that leaving my sister behind had been one of her greatest regrets.
My relationship with Mo and Dee-Dee was complicated; as I grew into my teen years, I saw them as two old fogeys who were out of touch with the 20th century. In my later years, I have come to realize that they had actually been fairly hip and quite knowledgeable about the world and world events. And I miss both of them tremendously.
As a child, I adored Dee-Dee; he was perfect--and my go-to guy when tensions became heated between Mo and me, as they often did.
He was terrific storyteller, telling stories so vivid and believable that I could almost see Old Sport, a curly-tailed mongrel who was, in a sense, Jennifer’s canine guardian angel. I found the following “story” letter from Dee-Dee, written to me in winter 1958:
ThursdayDee-Dee died on March 16, 1974. His death remains one of the most traumatic events of my life, a vital link severed forever.Dear Angel Kisser:
I haven’t seen you for a long time. Maybe you and Mo can come home soon. I looked all over the neighborhood for Old Sport and can’t find hide nor hair of him. Maybe he doesn’t live here anymore. The other day, I saw a spalpeeny dog around Otoe St. with a round ball on his nose and a curly tail. He was jacking around and following a little girl. He was acting like Old Sport but his feet were dirty and his hair wasn’t combed and he hadn’t washed his teeth so I knew it wasn’t old Sport. I asked the little girl to tell me his name. She said it was Old Ortspay and that he was always following her. She said he followed her to school and wanted to sit in a seat just like Old Sport and pretend to read and the teacher hit him on the bare rudy and run him out. She said she didn’t want an old dirty dog like that in her school. Then he went all over the neighborhood and tried to get in the houses and nobody would let him in. He was cold and wet and hungry but he was such a spalpeen nobody cared. Then he saw a little dirty girl who lives in a dirty house and her name is Efferjay and he followed her home. What do you think? Her mamma let the dirty old thing in out of the cold and fed him some Pard out of a dirty dish and gave the old jerk a dirty pillow with the name “Ortspay” on it to sleep on. And do you know what? The old spalpeen liked it. I was glad the dirty old thing found a place to live. But I’m kind of mad at him for pretending he was “Old Sport.”
Colleen has a dog named Speenart. He is big as a mule but you will like him. And when you come home you can visit them. Saw Timmy the other day--he had a cowboy hat on. It is warmer here now. It has been awful cold. Not much snow. The streets are all dry. See you soon.Love
Just before Dee-Dee’s funeral, I wrote the following dream narrative, based part in reality and conjecture:
St. Patrick’s Day, 1974, the night before his funeral, Dee-Dee comes to me in what appears to be a dream, but I know it isn’t. Dreams feel different, somehow, more surreal and symbolic, and Dee-Dee’s visit is, well, concrete:He was absolutely right; I AM happy again, albeit with a small hole in my heart, even 37 years later.I’m walking up a large hill near St. Boniface, my old grade school. Somehow, I know this is where we have agreed to meet, it feels right to be in this place at this time. It’s a bright sunny day--looks like October, my favorite month, blue sky, scarlet and yellow leaves, not an icy day in March.
I’m walking uphill when I feel him behind me. I turn around. He dashes up the hill like a young man and catches up to me.
“Not bad, this spiritual life,” he says, not even a little out of breath. He still looks the same--balding, gray hair, lined skin--but he has a spring in his step that I don’t remember. “I just couldn’t leave without saying some things to you,” he says.
“I was hoping to get to Sioux City before you, well, you know--”
“--Died. It’s okay to say it. I was ready, though I was hoping to hang around long enough to catch a few words with you. You know, you REALLY should work on that fear of flying.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
“The plane would crash, and I’d have to join you here forever.”
“Damn right! How’s Jeff and Eric?”
“Just fine. Eric’s getting so big--almost four now--and Jeff, well, he got laid off again, but we’re going to be okay--”
“It’s not going to last, this thing with Jeff--”
I can feel the tears in my eyes. “I know.”
“I can’t tell you any more--as it is, I might be putting in some extra Purgatory time for shooting off my mouth. But you’ve got to be prepared.”
“I’ll make it last as long as possible.”
“Yes, I know you will.” Dee-Dee points toward the horizon. “Let’s go over there, by that wall. There’s some other things I need to talk to you about before I go.”
We are sitting on what appears to be a cloud.
“You know, when you die, things become clear, like someone lifting a black curtain from your eyes. You get smart real fast. I know things now.”
I don’t want to hear it. Even in death, Dee-Dee should not know the details of my life.
“I’m sorry if I didn’t understand you better.”
“It’s all in the past.”
“I should’ve been there more--”
“That bullshit with that creepy chiropractor--”
“Please...I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I always knew there was something funny about that doctor.”
“Even said something to your Mo about him, but--”
I put my hands over my ears. I want to go back to Sioux City, away from this place where there are no secrets. “STOP IT!” I break into tears.
He takes me in his arms and strokes my hair. “Okay, okay.”
“There’s just so much going on right now.”
“I understand. But don’t you know you’ll always be my little girl, and I can’t stand it when...?”
“I’m a woman now.”
“I just can’t stand it!” He buries his head in his hands and sobs, his body shaking. I put my arms around him.
“It’s okay. Really,” I say, my turn to comfort him.
We hold each other for a long time, knowing this will be the last time we’ll ever see and touch each other. I wish we would have done it more in life.
And then I realize that even this time together grows short.
As if he has read my mind, Dee-Dee pulls away from me and looks at his watch, a duplicate of the VFW watch I have inherited. “I think we still have some things to talk about.”
“Please. It’s important.”
“It’s just that your grandma and me, well, we never knew the kind of kid you were. We just thought you were ordinary, maybe even a little on the stupid side--”
“We were wrong. We didn’t know what was going on in your head.”
“No one did.”
“Things could’ve been different--”
“It’s a moot point. Besides, you were what you were, and I am what I am. I just got dropped among the wrong people, that’s all. It happens.”
“Don’t be. I still love you.”
“Oh, God, I love you, too.”
“Just tell me one thing....”
“How come we never took Robin home with us?”
I might as well have taken a whip to him.
Dee-Dee shrinks from me, turns away, and folds his arms. “You’ll have to ask your grandmother that.”
It’s then that I realize that I won’t be getting the answers I need, at least not from him.
“Let’s walk,” I say, touching his shoulder.
He turns around. His eyes are red.
As we walk, I notice that we are again walking the periphery of my old grade school. I try tugging at the chain link fence that surrounds the school property, but the links have no substance, like pulling at air.
“I remember walking you here that first day. Your little hand was shaking so much.”
“I was scared shitless.”
“I loved those times. You were so innocent--”
“I’m not going to pry, Jennifer. I just need to tell you some things.”
“I haven’t always lived a good life,” he says. “You should know this before anyone else says anything. I want you to hear it straight from me.”
My grandfather tells me about his alcoholism and how he stopped drinking back in 1935, how his bootlegging operation almost cost him his marriage to Mo, how he started the bookie business.
As he tells me these things, I begin to see another man, a younger version of Dee-Dee, a slim man with dark brown hair and a quick sense of humor evident in his blue eyes, the swain who must have swept Katherine Olive Quirk off her feet back in the early 1920s.
Harley D. and Olive Semple
(Dee-Dee and Mo), Wedding Photo
I no longer see the old man diminished by age and illness, but just a young man with a tiny bit of the devil in him.
“I’ve no regrets, Jennifer. I lived my life the way I needed to live it. I never felt I did anything wrong. I just did what I had to do.”
And, suddenly, I realize what this other-world visit is all about, why my grandfather really needed to see me one last time.
“You’re so much like me it scares me. But I was a man, and the rules were different for me.”
The anger rises up in me, not for my grandfather, really, but because I know what he says is true, that my road will be filled with obstacles, my life disapproved of by dowagers with wagging tongues.
“I’ll be just fine,” I say. “And I’ll live the way I see fit.”
“Oh, God. I hope so,” Dee-Dee says, hugging me close. “Just be careful.”
“I just don’t know if I can.”
“Well, then. That’s all I’ve got to say. Time to go.” He pulls away from me. “Bye, honey.”
I turn away from him. Ahead is a hole in the fence. Somehow, I know this is the way back.
I turn around. He’s so far away now that I can barely see him, but his voice resonates clearly in my head.
“You WILL be happy again.”
Happy Father’s Day, Dee-Dee!