Adapted from the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral October 7, 2013:
I would like to talk about how my Dad established several variations of his name over the course of his life. He was born Charles Francis Laundra and was known to his family as Charlie… the middle (fourth) child of five boys and three girls in a rambunctious, hard-working household—destined to feel forever deprived of getting enough attention and so craving it all the more, he found himself often in trouble for misbehaving (today we would call it “acting out”). He has always been “Uncle Charlie” to my cousins on the Laundra side. In 1951 at age 17 he joined the Air Force and somewhere between basic training, the Atlantic and Scotland he came back as Chuck Laundra, and so he is, of course, “Uncle Chuck” to my cousins on the Kraft side. Now his choice of “Chuck” —(think about it: Chuck Yeager, Chuck Connors, Chuck Norris)—seemed to be a name not only for breaking away from his family nickname but a way to invent a framework for the role he was going to be required to play, for maybe the whole rest of his life, so that he could live in his community, get hired to a profession, have a family life which he SO WANTED, and all those things that the culture outlined for the American man pursuing the American dream. Of course the opposite of a social structure is anarchy. None of us here would wish to return to the dark ages where you were simply beheaded if the village didn’t approve of your actions. But the American dream was culturally, in 1955, shall we say, narrowly defined.
I think the evolution of “Chuck Laundra” is a great illustration of the arc of cultural history into which my father was born: It was a time during which he and many others had to go to unfathomable lengths in order to safely navigate a social structure that simply shut down the essence of who he was, forcing him to live, on a daily basis, a half-life—hiding his authentic self, his true-ness, his free and God-given soul … so that society could remain comfortable.
And the price we paid as a society for that nonsensical way of thinking was that so many of the players were robbed, not just the ones whose orientation was so plainly misunderstood: Was not my mother robbed of the potential to have a truer married life? And what about the potential same-sex partners who never could realize their dreams of intimacy, commitment and lifelong connection to another human being? Is not the greater community robbed when teenagers take their own lives, at an alarming rate now, because they cannot bear the heaps of hatred, misplaced shame and hostility coming at them and are too young to see beyond their present circumstances? Partly because Chas was my dad, I grew up observing all the ways we annihilate one another with hatred, ignorance, superstition and shame, or perpetuate institutional prejudices with our silence. And so for me, I came to a profound understanding of how my father moved through the world, having to deny the very essence of what makes us who we are… again, so that the rest of us could remain comfortable. Wow. That is the sad, constricted world in which my father navigated, trying to be good, to be what others expected of him, trying like the rest of humanity to do good, to get some joy and gratification, trying to be happy within these ridiculous “moral” constraints.
Many years later, when it was safer to do so, my Dad finally arrived at a new life, and a new name depicting his most authentic self: Chas. I think we all associate this name with his coming out and with his gay identity. Ironically, “Chas” is what his father occasionally called him when he was growing up, and that’s why he liked the name.
I remember a certain evening back in 2001 or 2, after my parents’ divorce when Dad had relocated to Manchester, MI and had undergone chemo and radiation treatment for cancer. It was a period in his life that was very dark—a difficult and lonely stretch when he was the most shattered I think I had ever seen him. I was in the Ann Arbor Civic Chorus that year and he had come to our holiday performance… it turned out I had a very froggy laryngitis voice and couldn’t perform with the choir, but I was well enough, so we ended up in the audience together. After the main part of the concert, the audience was invited to sing along for community caroling. I knew how lonely, ill and wretched my dad had been feeling—very depressed and poor in spirit—Yet when it was time to sing carols, with no hesitation whatsoever he lifted his face, took a deep breath and crowed out his song with such hope in his spirit, just as I had heard him sing every Christmas of our lives around the piano.
It was African American theologian, author & civil rights activist Howard Thurman who said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
It strikes me, then, that this was one of the greatest things about my father: it was like he was nearly always able to put his despair in a shoebox momentarily, so that he wouldn’t miss out on the chance to celebrate something: the family traditions; the human expressions of drama and joy, the affirming of life in its whole kaleidoscope of color and noise and sweat and lights and action! It was profoundly moving to me when we were crowded around his hospital bed a few nights ago, even after we had said, “It’s okay Dad, you don’t have to talk,” he screwed up what lung power he had left and matched us cadence for cadence as we all prayed the Our Father.
Charles Francis Laundra joined in. That really was a core part of who he was.
Dad had a fascination with the beginning, birthing, and raising of all life, and in as many forms as he could experience. His countless forays into animal husbandry are legend, starting with the adoption of stray dogs and keeping homing pigeons as a boy, to the hatching of chickens, the breeding of poodles and rabbits, raising canaries… all of which gave him great personal reward and pride, and drove his family & neighbors crazy.
He is also famous for his innumerable hobbies. Whenever I hear the nursery rhyme about “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” I think of Dad because he really would try just about anything. He even tried hunting once, I think with some teaching buddies—so out of character for him—He was such a lover of (and master of) all the home arts: gardening, baking, weaving & knitting, quilting, basket making, light carpentry learned from his years of building sets. Late in life he started learning origami and loved it. I want to state for the record, that cleaning up and organizing his hobbies was not a priority for Dad, and it fell to our beleaguered mother to keep his hobby fallout from besieging our household.
I could go on and on, but others are here who are wanting to speak, so I will close my talk with a short but heartfelt list of things my father taught me or that I learned from having known him:
- How to ride a bicycle, and how to use a dictionary.
- If you are six years old and not interested in a half-hour dictionary lecture on what a word means, you can use the bicycle … as a means to get away from the dinner table …
- If you cut a piece of toast into six rectangular sections, they are the perfect size for delighted children to dunk into their sunny side-up eggs on Sunday mornings.
- Don’t put off your big projects. I know some of you are laughing because you know I haven’t really learned this one, and what little I know I learned from watching Dad suffer the consequences of his own procrastination. But he did try to teach us this lesson, and with me it almost always involved an all-nighter at the typewriter with Dad, in the dining room, accompanied by index cards and a lot of library books.
- I learned that Chevrolets, even really old ones with a small U-Haul on the back, CAN, in fact, make it through four states in a blizzard, as long as you’re exceptionally careful and you keep singing songs in the car. And that travel is a wonderful adventure which everyone should get to do.
- Stories, theatre, art, dance, music and literature are the food of the mind and soul, and you can never consume too much of these.
- You can’t make someone love you.
- “The family, the family, the family.” (I’m kinda’ borrowing here from Bo Schembechler’s famous mantra, “the team, the team, the team…”) My dad treasured his family more than anything, and he taught us also about “the family of man,” and that it’s best not to have too many boundaries on who’s a part of the family and who’s not. He didn’t believe in exclusion, and that has been a powerful influence on us.
- It is a moral crime to hurl our ignorance, hatred or intolerance upon people who are different, merely because of their difference. It is always, always wrong to shut down the spiritual essence of any human soul.
- Our world is getting smaller every minute. I am so grateful to have inherited, from my father and my mother, a worldview that encompasses the full spectrum of humanity and diversity. Focusing on the things we share in common promotes harmony and justice in our world, and especially in these increasingly uncertain times, we have to keep reaching out, including, expanding, until everyone belongs and everyone wins.
Thank you for being here with us to celebrate our Dad’s life. He loved you all so much.