November 12, 2006

In Memoriam: Edwin Bell (1924-2006)

There are few people in life that are as kind and giving as my Papa. Everyone meets a person or persons in their life that leave a profound mark on them, and this is one of those people. You are not likely to meet anyone who is more willing to lend a helping hand, give a kind word, offer support, or do whatever you need, even if all you need is for someone to be there.

In 1943, after graduating high school, he joined the US Navy and served proudly for three years during World War II, spending time in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan, among other stations. I remember when I was much younger he traced the route he followed between those islands on a globe I had received from my parents. He told me of how he traveled by ship from island to island, where he helped to clear airstrips and spent much time in the mess hall as one of the cooks while with the Navy Seabees.

One of his passions was cooking; he loved to do it and, boy, did he ever cook a lot of food during those Navy years. I always found it funny that one of the that inspired him to step into the kitchen was a meal he received while on guard duty in the black of night. He told me of how his fellow sailors would bring the guards sandwiches to tide them over during their patrol. The problem was that the sandwiches were made with chicken wings, complete with the bones! This was more than enough motivation for him to not want to be on guard duty and to get closer to the food.

It was during these years that he began to correspond with Mary, my Nana and his future wife. Nana relates the story of how she would be with a friend of hers whose little nephew would be playing with her young nephew. The little boy was Ralph, Edwin's youngest brother. She would go up to him and ask if he had an older brother, to which he would respond "My brother Ed is in the Navy." One day, Ralph gave her a piece of paper and said "My Mom says you should write to Ed, he doesn't receive much mail." So began the the flow of letters between the two.

In early 1946, I believe it was January 24, Mary received a call from someone saying his name was Ed. "Ed who?" she said. "Ed the sailor," he replied. He was home on leave and very much wanted to meet her. It was snowing and he had no car, so he walked through the snow to her house, a number of miles, just to meet her. They stayed up late into the night talking and playing records.

They would not meet again until April of that same year. He was home for good after being honorably discharged for his service. It was right around Easter, and the two met to walk through town in their Easter best, as was the tradition of the time. The only stipulation was that he wear his dress uniform, which just so happened to be his good clothes. So, after Easter Mass, they walked through town, Ed walking with the confident gait of a sailor, which caused Mary's father, my great-grandfather to remark, "He's a good little shit." Two years later they were married.

Following his exit from the Navy, Ed attended the Eastman Business School in New York City. After graduating, he turned to IBM looking for a job in their accounting department. After a number of attempts he still was not able to get a job with them. So, he altered his tactics — he instead sought to get a job in the cafeteria, figured he would put those years in the mess hall to use. This actually resulted in him getting a call. The IBM interviewer was a little confused over why someone with his education was looking for a cooking position. "Well, you never called me back for accounting!" After this, he actually did get a job in accounting. Thirty-six years later he retired from their purchasing department.

I never knew much about what he did for his career, nor did I pry into his time in the military. He would occasionally share stories of his life during wartime, but I was always more interested in the here and now. Still, there is no denying that his upbringing, his Navy service, his marriage to Nana, and his fatherhood of three children all had a hand in making him the person that he was.

I do not think I have ever met anyone who was quite as kind and gentle as he was. You could look into his face, he would smile, and you would be put at ease. It did not matter what was going on in the world around you, nothing else mattered. He would smile and everything would be lifted off of your shoulders, the sky would brighten, and the world be just a little bit better.

There is one memory that I have of him that I doubt I will ever forget. When I was just a small rugrat, my parents and I paid a visit. Papa picked me up with the greatest of ease, and put me in a tree in their front yard, an action which caused me to burst into tears crying from fright. This is probably the root of my fear of heights. Of course, everybody else thought it was hilarious, and I believe there's even a photograph immortalizing the event.

That reminds me of something else about him. He kept himself in amazing physical condition. He was an accomplished gymnast and had biceps that were as hard as rocks. I'm not sure how he did it, I never caught a glimpse of any weights in the house. Whatever he did, he was always in great shape. Not just those years either, but every year. You would always be greeted with a strong handshake, letting you know the strength that he held onto.

Besides being a great husband, father, and grandfather, he was a man of faith. A convert to Catholicism, he held his religion close to his heart, believing in it with all his strength. Not only was he a believer, but he lived his life that way. No, he was not out preaching or trying to convert people, but he lived a good life, being a great example of the inherent goodness that we all possess. I do not know how to describe it, but he had an aura about him, goodness just radiated from him. I tell you, it was quite infectious.

Just like Papa, my father was also a convert to the Catholic faith. When he was studying and preparing for his reception into the faith in 1977, it was an easy choice for him to choose his godfather and his sponsor. Yes, that's right, Edwin Bell. Some eleven years later, when it was time for me to receive the sacrament of confirmation, the choice of sponsor was just as easy. Edwin Bell was chosen as my sponsor, an honor that he gladly accepted. I remember approaching the Bishop to be confirmed, Papa's hand on my shoulder. You have no idea what it is like to have someone with that strong a faith, someone that kind and caring there to offer you their strength. Maybe you do, and if you do, you know how powerful and moving that can be.

In recent years, we offered to help out more and more. As much as no one wanted to admit it, he was getting older, but despite his age, he was still as active as ever, never allowing himself to be completely shut out of the process. He was always right in the middle of it, quick to show how he did things, making sure that we are doing it correctly.

What else can I say? I am having difficulties putting finger to keyboard in a coherent manner. Just how do you sum up the life of a man who has had such a positive impact on everyone he has ever had cotnact with? A man who has been married for 58 years, always surrounded by a loving family, three children, seven grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and countless others, related and not. A man who not once ever complained. If something needed to be done, he did it, no questions, never wanting to be a burden. He was a man who lifted the burden from everyone else. Every Thanksgiving, he could be counted on to make the gravy, every baseball season you would be sure to find him in front of the Yankees games, ever spring he would be in the garden preparing for a new season, always ready to lighten the mood. It was impossible not to smile when you were with him. He was a constant ray of sunshine on the cloudiest of days.

That brings me closer to end of this rambling string of words. In the end it is impossible to sum up just what made him so good. There is too much that could be said — he has touched the lives of so many people in a way that he will never be forgotten.

At 82 years old, he was taken away from us too soon. This past August he fell ill and was admitted to the hospital on August 28, 2006. A week later we learned that he had prostate cancer. Treatment started and he returned home just over a week later. After a number of doctor visits and tests, it became apparent that the condition was terminal. After two months of treatment, he went into a rapid decline. On November 10, 2006 he passed away surrounded by his family.

Edwin Bell lived a great life, was a positive influence on everybody. Not once did I ever hear him complain, even after learning of his diagnosis. He accepted everything with grace and quiet diginity. He did not suffer, and he was in no pain. He is now in a better place, a place where I will be able to be with him again.


Anonymous said...

Christopher---that was a beautiful tribute. We all could write a book about Dad (Papa) and all of it would be in a positive light. I never met a person that was so close to perfect. Thank you for writing something so special about my father.
Aunt Mary Ellen

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