Ralph Dean Long (1922-1994), My Stepfather, 52 Ancestors #36

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It was 20 years ago this weekend that he slipped away…this man I loved so much.  Well, slipped away isn’t exactly the right word for it.  He removed his own life support because the family was not united in their decision of what should be done.  So, he somehow rallied the strength and did it himself.  He was one of the bravest men I ever knew…in a very quiet, unassuming, homey type of way.  His final act of bravery only surprised me in that he was able to somehow find the physical strength to do it.

When I think of him, which is often, I think of him in his blue denim overalls.  He was a farmer, a Hoosier with a bit of a lisp and a definite Hoosier drawl, and a breathy, raspy laugh that was interjected between his words many times, like he got his own joke part way through and he just had to laugh before he could continue.  His sentences were full of laughter pauses and punctuations.  But when he was serious, he was dead serious and a man of very, very few words.  God help anyone who hurt someone, human or animal, that he loved.

Dean, as he was called, was born on December 26th, 1922 in Howard County, Indiana to Harley Clinton Long (1878-1949) and Lottie Bell Lee (1881-1962), the youngest of 12 or 13 children.  I never knew his parents.  I did, however, know several of his siblings.

Two of his siblings, Arnold and Wilma, never married.  They lived on the old family farmstead their entire lives.  Another sister, Verma, married but never had children.  She was the eternal sourpuss, and it was the family joke that her husband died to get away from her.  Wilma, on the other hand was the loving sweet aunt and Arnold, well, I’d describe him as a lecherous old man.  My Dad told him once that if he put his hands on me, or my mother, again, he’s kill him – and I do believe he meant it.  More importantly, Arnold believed it.

Dean was married initially to Martha Mae Alexander and they had two children, my step-brother, Gary, and a daughter, Linda who died as an infant.  Linda was born with what appeared from pictures to be Down’s syndrome.  When my daughter was born, Dean gave me Linda’s baby blanket.  I was extremely moved but I could never use it. It’s still safely tucked away.

Dean was grief-stricken when his daughter died at 18 months of age, the day after his birthday and two days after Christmas in 1959, but his heart-ache was only beginning.  His wife had a disease that was, at that time, impossible to diagnose. It was progressive, debilitating and fatal.  I don’t remember the name of the disease, but he carried a newspaper article in his billfold about it, and there were only a handful of known cases at the time.  It took her a decade to die, all while fighting an unknown foe to live and raise her son.

The aunts were Dean’s salvation during this time, because they stepped in and helped take care of Gary while Dean tended to his wife through her many hospitalizations.  This was before the days of handicapped accessibility, but he modified the house with all kinds of aids for her.  Many of which remained long after he and my mother were married simply because they were useful.

After Martha’s death, in 1968, Gary, by then a teenager, began manifesting symptoms of mental illness and was institutionalized episodically for many years.  We always wondered if Gary’s illness was in some way caused in utero by the beginnings of his mother’s horrible illness.

Through all of this, Dean continued to farm, because that was what he did – and if you’re a farmer, you have to farm whether you feel like it or not. He also developed chronic ulcers, had 7 or 8 surgeries to stop the bleeding over the years.  The family was “called in” more than once because he wasn’t expected to survive.  His abdomen looked like a railroad track.

But he did survive, because he had to – he had a family to take care of who needed him desperately.

By the time I met Dean, about 1969, he had joined Parents Without Partners and he was the “fix it” guy for all of the ladies in the group.  He would visit those who needed something fixed, in exchange for dinner or coffee and a doughnut maybe.  Everyone loved Dean.

For a man with so much grief and loss in his life, he was always warm, smiling, friendly and funny.  Nobody didn’t like Dean.  Well, except my Mom.

You see, Dean “took a shine” to her.  Yep, our stuff got fixed first, and he came “calling” complete with flowers wearing his only suit.  My Mom wasn’t interested in a farmer, because she grew up on a chicken farm, hated every minute, and swore she would never go back.  I recall vividly the day that Dean dropped in unexpectedly, carrying flowers and a box of Dunkin Doughnuts, in his ill-fitting too-big light blue suit.  He walked up the driveway hill, smiling and hopeful with a spring in his step carrying the box and flowers carefully, like the crown jewels.  He rang the doorbell.  Mom didn’t want company.  She had worked all day and was tired, plus, she wasn’t interested in a farmer.  I was happy to see Dean and headed to answer the door

Mother stopped me and told me not to answer the door.  He knocked and knocked, long after any hope of an answer disappeared.  Then he turned and walked slowly down the driveway hill, to his car, his shoulders slumped, head down and the flowers hanging forlornly from his hand.  He looked back at the house one more time and there was no smile.  He got in his car and drove away.  I cried and cried, not for myself, but for the oh-so-evident sadness, disappointment and terrible loneliness of that man in the ill-fitting blue suit.  Mother felt terrible and I told her she should.

Apparently something changed, because the door never went unanswered again and Dean became a regular part of our lives.

Then one day he asked me if he could marry my mother.  He and mother went to visit Gary and asked his blessing too.  We began planning a country wedding in a small white church.  Life was glorious for everyone.

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The biggest challenge was introducing our cat to his dog.

I loved life on the farm and I became Dad’s shadow.  One of my biggest joys was to help Dad with the chores – driving the tractor, birthing hogs, whatever.  A few things I didn’t like and Dad was just grateful for any help he had.  Gary wasn’t there much and when he was, didn’t much care for farm work.  My mother fit right in, and was grateful Dad didn’t raise chickens.

I had been without a father since my own father’s death in 1963, so I was extremely grateful to have a father.  Dean became Dad someplace along the line and if you didn’t know I wasn’t his biological daughter, you would never have known.  I always joked with him.  Anything “bad” I told him was his fault and I inherited from him.

One day, he walked in from the barn, walked over to me sitting at the kitchen table, thunked me on the head with his thumb, which was his special gesture of affection, looked at me and said, “Hey, when I married your mother, I got my daughter back.”  His eyes welled up with tears, and then he just walked out of the room like he had told me nothing more important than that the soybeans were sprouting.  He was just that way, a man of very few words but deep commitment and undying love.

Now let’s just say I wasn’t the most well-behaved teenager in the world and I gave my mother multiple episodes of heartburn – and that’s probably putting it very mildly and quite understated.  She, however, got very even with me by wishing that awful mother curse upon me – “May your children be 10 times worse than you are.”  She removed said curse and apologized profusely many years later, but it was too late and the damage was already done.

But Dad, well, he was always the encouraging one.  He told me I could do anything I wanted to do, and that I could be anything I wanted to be…and growing up poor, on a farm, had nothing to do with it.  He looked at me one day, walking past the metal swing outside as we were snapping beans and said, “Bobbi, if anyone changes the world, it will be you,” and just continued walking.

I was dumbstruck, and remember looking at his back walking away after he dropped that bombshell on me.  I wondered what he meant.  But those rare words from Dad sunk in and hit home, and I’ve never forgotten them.

I remember vividly, oh so vividly, when Jim and I were at the National Geographic Society for a DNA Conference in 2005.  As we walked down the huge marble Explorer’s Hall – I looked at Jim and said, “Wouldn’t Dad he surprised?”  Jim said, “Not at all.”  I kind of laughed, because it’s a very long way from the hog farm in Indiana to the Explorer’s Hall in Washington DC.  Dad would have been proud.  However, little that I did ever surprised Dad.  He was the eternal optimist in spite of the horrible challenges he had weathered.

For some reason, possibly because he had lost his only daughter and I had lost my much-beloved father, we formed a special bond.  In fact, a bond so special it transcended his lifetime.  A year or so after his passing, I was sleeping, alone in my house.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night, someone woke me up.  I woke up with a start, sat straight upright, confused and terrified, because I was, supposedly, alone in the house.  I had just a few seconds to think about it, because a fireball suddenly exploded into the bedroom door from the hallway.  The house was on fire, and had I not been awake, I would have perished, trapped in that bedroom.  Yes, it was Dad who woke me up.

So, when I took this picture in my garden this weekend, I wondered where those rays came from.  I certainly didn’t see them when I was taking the photo. Then, I realized that it was indeed 20 years to the day since Dad’s passing.  Leave it up to Dad to say hello like this.  He was such a beautiful soul.

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Mom has joined him now, as has Gary.

Losing Dad happened far too soon, and in large part due to his own choices regarding smoking.  That saddened me and to some extent, angered me, because neither Mom nor I, nor my kids, were ready for him to go.  Mom grieved his death horribly.  It’s also testimony however to how powerful nicotine addiction is – you’ll do it in the face of sure and certain death.  The fact that Dad wanted to, and couldn’t, overcome it saddens me even more.

While losing Dad was terrible, I have so many wonderful memories of him.  And he was such a kind, gentle and funny man.  His quiet demeanor belied his love of humor and a good prank, and I think he was always pondering one in the back of his mind

One of the favorite family stories was when, as a teenager, he stuffed the school heat ducts full of chicken feathers.  When the heat came on in the fall, not only did some of them manage to catch on fire and stink to high heavens, but the rest of them blew out all of the ducts into the classrooms. Of course, he “knew nothing about that,” (chuckle, chuckle) and neither did his brothers, but for some reason, that was a family favorite story for the duration of the lives of the brothers and sisters.  The sisters mostly rolled their eyes.

dad4Another time, Dad dressed up as a pregnant woman for some event – probably a fundraiser for something – likely on a dare.  I had to help him with his dress and bra and teach him how to walk pregnant, in high heels.

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I don’t think he ever got the hang of that.  Mom strapped a pillow on him before he went to the event.  Good thing he didn’t get stopped in this truck.  The local cops would have been talking about that forever.

His baldness was also a topic of conversation and of eternal, unending jokes.  He was not sensitive about it, so it was never off limits.  One time, we bought him a hairbrush for bald men, with no bristles.  I have absolutely no idea when this photo was taken, but he was clearly wearing a wig.

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He loved to Rendezvous and he was a mountain man.

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Those Rendezvous men were all the epitome of pranksters.  One time, when I went to visit, he was fictitiously being “tried” for molesting a ground hog.

To add to things, I got him a “doll” on a couch one year to take along with him.  The doll was wearing something red and black and she reclined on her fainting couch.  She was, perhaps slightly suggestive, a little risqué perhaps, nothing more. That doll on her 3 foot couch was kidnapped immediately and was held for ransom, passed around from camp to camp and tent to tent and appeared here and there, for years.  One time her stockings appeared tied to Dad’s top tent pole like a flag.

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Dad’s Rendezvous nickname was “Hoot” and I don’t think it had to do entirely with an owl either, although clearly a double entendre.  He was, indeed, a hoot.

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Even this younger picture, as a teenager, with Verma, reflects his sense of humor.  They were in Indianapolis and whatever was going on , she was not amused.  She was never amused.  He was always amused.

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He always had stories to tell too, some true and some, well, in the flavor and honor of Rendezvousing.  I have no idea about the red eye in the skull, but I’m sure there was some wonderful story about that, perhaps tailored to the listener.  I do know that he had a very unique turtle shell with vulture feet and a vulture head with feathers for a tail and a variety of stories about how that happened, depending on the audience at hand.

In later years, Dad spent a lot of time with school kids showing them old timey ways to do things.  He would set up his “camp” at the schools in the yard someplace and the classes would come out one by one.

Dad was always making an outfit or something for his encampment out of castoffs.

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He turned just about anything and everything into something useful for his encampment.  I made a lot of his Rendezvous clothes for him.  He made things like buttons out of wood and bone.  Mom and I used to go and visit him when he went “camping.”  He loved that.  Sometimes I would go in period costume too and generally caused some kind of ruckus, which was, of course, the entire point.

One time I announced to everyone that he had gotten my mother pregnant.  At the time, most of them didn’t know I wasn’t his biological child, so it was a tongue in cheek accusation, meant, of course, to give them something to “talk about” over the weekend.  He might have been tried for that too, for all I know.  Couldn’t be worse than molesting a groundhog.  I think he was sentenced to hang for that one, but was rescued by some Indian.  There was always some twist or subplot spontaneously evolving and all in great fun and joviality.  How he always looked forward to the next encampment, which was, of course, the next chapter in a continually unfolding drama with no script.

After Dad passed away, I went to the encampment the next summer in Burlington, his “home” Rendezvous location where they had a memorial, in Rendezvous tradition, to say goodbye to him.  His camp was set up “empty” and on Saturday night, the men all gathered around his campfire.  They all told stories about him and the good times they all shared, like that time he nearly got hung for molesting that groundhog.  I said to them that he could not have been a better father had he been mine biologically.  They got really quiet, then one of them said, “We didn’t know that he wasn’t your father.  We knew that one of you kids was a step-child, but based on how close you were to your Dad, we thought you were the biological child.”  To him, I was his child, pure and simple.

I miss Dad. He could have had another 10 or maybe even 20 years with us.

After his passing, I brought some of his phlox home from the farm and planted it here, along with some of his ferns that grew so thickly along the north side of the farmhouse.

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The purple phlox grows tall here and thrives.  I moved it from my other house when I built this one, along with several ferns.

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Today, I went outside to find the phlox blooming with, and shedding onto, the white Rose of Sharon.  I think of Dad every time I see the phlox blooming and that makes me feel good, just like seeing the ferns unfold their beautiful spikes in rebirth does every spring.  But today, this beautiful combination of the white flower and the purple bloom spoke to me of the purity of love and eternity, and how those that are gone are really still here – forever.  The phlox may have shed its bloom, but it is obviously still quite beautiful.

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I will miss Dad forever, and I will grieve his passing forever, because I will love him forever.  But I will also honor his life by smiling and living with humor, honor and dignity.  I strive to cultivate the qualities in myself I so admired in him and found so inspirational and discovered were my bedrock, and hope to pass them on to my children, by example.  What better legacy could I leave him?

You may wonder why I included this story in my DNA blog.  Well, pure and simple, I inherited a wonderful legacy from Dad, my step-father, and my life was greatly enriched by his presence.  Sometimes, inheritance has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with DNA.  He was as much my Dad, and in some ways more so, than my biological father.  A hundred or two hundred years ago, everyone would have thought I was his daughter and today, we would somehow discover that now dissolved fact and it would be considered a NPE or an undocumented adoption.  It wasn’t a surprise to us, it was just life as we lived it day by day.  It was only a surprise to those who didn’t know, which, 100 years later, would have been everyone.  Think about the fact that in his lifetime, even many of his close friends didn’t realize.

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29 thoughts on “Ralph Dean Long (1922-1994), My Stepfather, 52 Ancestors #36

  1. I, too, was raised by a stepfather who died too soon. Your lovely story brought back memories and bitter-sweet tears. Biology is never the whole story!

  2. First of all, you are a wonderful teller of stories…a great gift which you have used so wisely and so well here, I cannot think of a finer way to pay tribute to this dear man than through your writings.

  3. What a beautiful tribute to a great Dad. I love the photo of him wearing the wig! Also the photo of him with Verma giving him that sideways look – too funny!

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