Ode to Pete / Atlas’ Grandpappy

Y’all, This Guy : Pete. Peter Hawkins Stoddard, Ph.D – if you want to get precise with it. He was for many years, a professor of Social Work, Sociology and Mental Health at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. This is us, last year at this time, eating seafood : obviously. Pete and I spent just about every Thanksgiving together since I made five. I am now forty-three. My mother and he divorced when I was nineteen. I have many things to say about the possibilities and pitfalls, the redemptive qualities and rude realities of blended families within a not-as-of-yet-fully-de-constructed Patriarchy. But I will save those thoughts for later. Along with my (childless) opinions about grown ass adults neglecting to acknowledge the full impact of their un-reconciled ish upon their offspring. And the rampant tendency amongst (primarily) White families to neglect their elders, once they begin aging and (quite often) physically deteriorating.

Me and Pete : Eating Seafood

Pete would approve : both of my social analysis and decision to remain quiet for the moment, preferring to hold this time and space free from personal opinion and moralizing – and dedicate it instead to both honor and memorializing. Pete was, generally speaking, very supportive of me and my decisions. And he was also, in my experience, almost always open for discussion. About just about anything. But you had to learn to hold your own with him, intellectually. His was not a mind which was necessarily into changing, neither quickly nor easily. Emotionally, I get the sense that he was far more receptive to being with feelings than I ever acknowledged or allowed him to be. For my own inability or unwillingness to let him in, I am sorry. 

I will never forget the day Pete apologized to me. We were sitting on a bench in the French Quarter, right off Jackson Square, facing the upper Pontalba building. That year, Pete could still walk well enough to come and visit me for Thanksgiving. I think we ate the actual turkey at Brennan’s – with a friend and colleague of mine from the House of Blues, who was for whatever reason not able to spend that day with her family. That was a particularly busy and depressive Rock ’n Roll era for me, so I guess I did not feel much like cooking. Pete was always down with hanging with my friends. I think he found them interesting. He picked up the tab for all of us, very generously.

So anyway, we were sitting there alone, just the two of us, facing Micaela Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba’s bedchamber, when Pete surprised me with an apology. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could have been a better father for you when you were young.” I felt every muscle in my body seize. He was correct. He could have been. 

In fact, his unceremonious exit from the house where we lived, together with my mother and their son (who was eight years old at the time), was precipitated by the first of many articulate explosions my family has borne witness to, since I went away to college and began my critical analysis of the disastrously damaging effects of the intersecting systems of oppression within a post-colonial global Patriarchy.

He told me to get out, for raising my voice and telling him about himself, when I noticed the argument he was having with my mother left my baby brother crying. I said Nah. So he decided to leave. Like I said before, at that time I was nineteen.

Sitting on that bench, tho – in the shadow of Jackson’s hat cocked toward the Baroness’ masterpiece, I said roughly, clumsily “Um. Uh. I’m sure you did the best you could,” and did my best to change the subject quickly. I was uncomfortable in my body.

That apology, tho – left a lasting impression upon me. I have heard many times since, from friends and counselors and most ardently from family, that I must not rely nor wait upon another’s willingness to acknowledge the harm done, to free myself from suffering. I have been told that I must simply learn to “let it go”, regardless of what another MFker will or will not do. I believe this concept to be True.

But this story is not about me. This is a story, and a memorializing of Pete. Apologies are empty and useless, can often even be offensive when unaccompanied by changed behavior, self-reflection and earnest introspection. Apologies can be used as manipulative tools to guilt-trip those who have been on the receiving end of abuse. But not so with Pete. 

That apology came as an expression of humility, from a man of great moral character, whose desire for justice outweighed his personal failings. He was a man with both grit and tenacity. At the age of thirty, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. He did not drive a car. He suffered with seizures regularly. He walked everywhere. He took the bus when I was young. Later in life, he developed a meaningful relationship with his cabbies. He lived through a battle with colon cancer, tumors found growing on his spine and a whole host of physical maladies. He worked hard to develop his core muscles, once a doctor FINALLY gave him a scrip for physical therapy. Even after he could barely stand, his body bent in a permanent right angle by botched surgeries, he insisted on walking. It often took him a very long time to get where he was going. He absolutely loved traveling.

One Thanksgiving : In Miami

I am grateful for the opportunity our relationship gave me to practice patience, forgiveness and understanding. I am grateful for the values he helped instill in me, namely : altruism, education and selfless service. I am grateful for his stories of a childhood spent in Europe. His father was in the military. I am grateful for the devotion he showed toward his mother. I am grateful for her, too. But that is a different story. I am grateful for his commitment to family.

I am grateful for the time spent decorating Pete’s Christmas tree, the poring over of old albums full of black and white photos of folks who I never met and who share no lineage with me. I am grateful that Pete included me in his emotional preparations for a final homecoming. I am grateful he heard the blessed news that his son would soon become a father himself, before Pete’s heart stopped beating. I am grateful for it all, y’all. And I am sad. I miss the man himself. 

Me and Pete : In Tennessee

I regret that I did not, could not or would not – tend to him more diligently while he was living. We talked about that a few times toward the end of his life. He knew I had a desire to “take care of him” better than I was doing. He seemed non-plussed by the whole thing. He would always rebuttal my caretaking fantasies with a statement of how he never wanted his children to stay in Clarksville, TN. It is a fine enough place. I would even venture now to call it “quaint”. But Pete knew its underbelly. He had resigned himself to the cold hard fact that while he might have dreamed of retiring in San Francisco, the city where he had met my mother all those many years ago, his body preferred an easy chair in middle Tennessee, a community he had invested in and so gave back to him with trips to the grocery, rides to church and the occasional checking -in. And I would almost always leave again, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.