God bless Mike Deming, who died at age 62 from a blood clot in the lungs following a bad fall. A very nice man from the Oklahoma City Police Department called us this morning and told us. We were in a hotel room in Philly after a gig – the exact same way the news came about Ethan’s mom’s death.
My father was born Millard Grove Deming in Caracas, Venezuela. The exotic birthplace was due to his father’s employment as a geologist for an oil company.
My dad’s dad was a brilliant alcoholic, who once accidentally ran my father over with a car, breaking his arm. My dad’s mom is a tenacious farmer’s daughter, who struggled to raise her three sons alone – my father the eldest – and was the first in her family to get a college education. She was a boys’ P.E. teacher during WW2, all the male teachers having gone off to war.
My dad had a clear, logical way of seeing the world. He also had the most beautiful handwriting I have ever seen. He worked as a City Planner for Oklahoma City and almost never missed a day of work. He was quiet, had a sarcastic sense of humor, and loved good food. He was a big, handsome man with small eyes that looked a little squinty, just like mine. We shared a love for the study of religion, and some of our best conversations were about the Bible.
My parents met when my mother was working behind the counter of The Now and Then Shop, the store that her father opened after he lost his job in the garment industry in Cleveland. At the time, it hadn’t yet become a head shop. My dad was more of a hippie back then – he was a CO during the Vietnam War – and I think it shows something about his open-mindedness that he married a Jew. But it was not a successful marriage beyond producing me and my brother Dan. My parents divorced when I was two years old and my mother was pregnant with my brother. My mother moved from Texas, where I was born, back north to be near her family in suburban Philadelphia.
I only saw my dad every three years or so growing up, and that was hard. It made it difficult to have easy interactions. Every time I saw Dad, I felt like I had to prove myself. I was a precocious, unruly kid who became an angry, intellectual teenager. I always felt like my feminism and outspokenness was not to his taste. When I shaved my head in college, I think he took it as a personal affront.
Early on, he remarried a wonderful woman named Donna, who eased the awkwardness by being effusive and kind. Donna comes from a cattle ranching family, and when I visited we would sometimes go together to the stockyards and watch the cattle being hawked by the fast-talking auctioneers. I’m sad for Donna having to go it alone now. She made my father’s life very happy.
At some point I realized that my dad also felt like he always had to prove himself to me. This was a deep moment for me. I’d always seen things from my mother’s point of view. But at some point I realized how tough it must have been for him to doggedly maintain even the limited amount of contact he had with us. She had left him and taken us halfway across the country, but he still called, he still sent gifts on holidays, he always remembered birthdays.
The turning point came when I graduated from college. I confronted my father with the fact that I always felt judged by him – he had made a lot of sarcastic remarks about Brown and my degree that weekend – and I was shocked by how much he took this in. He apologized, and he told me that it hurt so much to see me, because it reminded him of how he hadn’t been around. He said he thought he responded with jokes to ease the pain.
My father always surprised me by being able to move forward emotionally in our relationship. I think this came from his spiritual practice. I wish I had had the courage to move it forward more. I have the feeling that, as far as I was willing to push it, Dad would have done his best to meet me there.
The last time he and Donna came to visit, we had a big dinner party and Dave King came over with his family. It was Easter, so we had an egg hunt, and in the midst of retrieving various eggs, Dave’s adorable toddler Otis knocked over our enormous, steel-framed standing mirror. It crashed to the floor in a truly spectacular explosion. My dad – while the rest of us were still frozen in shock – stood up to his full six feet, took two huge steps across the living room, and lifted Otis up out of the shattered glass, unscathed. Otis realized what had happened and began to cry. Dad passed him right off to Laura King, then sat back down silently. That’s what he was like. His cardinal virtue was selfless effort, just making things happen without demanding credit. He made me happen, and he made my brother happen. That is a debt I will never repay.