A Eulogy For My Father,
MAY 4, 1996
FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH, PITTSBURGH
by Alan Venable
Did you ever read the old children's book, The Five Chinese Brothers? It was written in 1938
by Claire Bishop, a missionary and relentless crusader, like some in this Church, like my father Emerson himself
for most of his adult years.
This marvelous book is out of favor these days, because it can be supposed to reflect
the view that all Asians look alike - for it begins by saying there were once five identical Chinese brothers.
But I think the story is fair to talk about. Political incorrectness never bothered Emerson, and more than one
Chinese, Indian, African, Japanese - whatever - found welcome in his house. In any case he was an iconoclast and
proudly beat a different drum.
He liked to alarm people. Take for example his college fraternity days around 1930
at Cornell. He was a little guy then as well, of course, and one night at a fraternity dance for the amusement
of his fraternity brothers and their dates, he put on a dress and makeup and took to dancing with one of his fellow
Phi Kappa Taus. I doubt that he was even drunk, though it ended, he told me, when his brawny partner flung him
around and gashed his head against a post.
In the thirties he was the socialist who read Mein Kampf, not only on the principle
of know-thine-enemy, but also because he believed it contained important political savvy.
And in everyday life throughout his later years he continued to beat a counterpoint
rhythm. If you said that the air was cold for the first days of spring he'd say, no, but it was warm for the end
of winter. If you said that something in your life amazed you, he would be sure to remind you that most things
that inspired amazement were ordinary and explicable. If you said that an event had turned out pretty much as you'd
expected, he'd devote some time to helping you see how unpredictable history is.
He was an independent, tough, combative, scrappy, man who excused a lot of his own
rudeness by the fact that he was physically small and therefor entitled to assert himself. He was also smart, energetic,
industrious, creative, responsible, spirited, generous, mystical, and altruistic.
There were originally four of us, by the way, four sons - Wally the eldest, Gil, myself
and Tom; but as our parents adopted our first cousin Bob some years ago, today there are five, five middle-aged
The Five Chinese Brothers, as I was saying, is the story of five outwardly identical
sons, each of whom has one uniqueness. It begins with brother number one whose gift is that he can suck up the
entire sea and hold it in his mouth. While he's doing that, he can walk about the seabed scavenging fish from the
ocean floor. Of course, he can't hold the sea in his mouth forever. One day, against his own better judgment, he
lets a boy go with him to the beach. He sucks up the sea and the boy walks out; when the boy refuses to return
to high ground the brother must finally spit out the waters, and the boy is drowned.
For this, brother number one is convicted of murder and condemned to death by beheading
the following day. On the eve of his death, he gets permission to go home to tell his aged mother good-bye. The
following morning, instead of brother number one returning to be beheaded, brother number two comes in his place.
Brother two's uniqueness is a neck of steel. The result is that the beheading fails, and that brother is told he
must come back the next day for another form of execution, say by cremation in an oven. As it happens, brother
number three's gift is that he's immune to heat.
You can see how the story goes on from there, until the law gives up on this impossible
It is the story of a family: mother and sons on one side, father on the other. The
mother is the source of her sons' individuality, as well as of their unity. The father is their judge and potentially
their executioner, who misses their differences.
I see similarities between that Chinese family and my own, and I can accept the story's
premise of five identical boys because as a child, and even after, I was used to hearing people tell me that I
looked just like my brothers. The family had a reputation and people always had trouble telling the Venable boys
Our father, Emerson, had that trouble as well, more so of course toward the end. But
even when we were children I think his basic view of us - and his philosophy about how to raise us, was one based
mainly on the idea that, apart from himself, boys were basically generic. Within our family, at least, one size
should pretty well fit all: one grade school, one musical instrument to learn (the violin), one Boy Scout program
(a ten-year stint), one church (this one), one high school (his own), one college (his own), one professional track
(his own). We were, after all, all boys, and all his sons. He had a plan for raising sons and clear ideas about
what they needed to believe and know. He knew right from wrong himself, and wise from foolish.
One of the things he liked about the Boy Scouts - besides the fact that Scoutmasters
got to dress up in uniforms, wear pith helmets if they chose, or the occasional warpaint, and make up lots of badges
- was that the scout slogans so neatly encoded certain rules of order. They were rules of the tribe, really, recorded
by Kipling, the literary patron saint of men of our father's generation. Ageless wisdom of the jungle. The laws
had a sweet simplicity about them and were also clear about who was in charge.
The cub scout follows Akila
The cub scout helps the pack go
The pack helps the cub scout grow
The cub scout gives good will.
He told us how to be, and we obeyed.
Tying back to that judge figure in the Chinese brothers story, as a small man Emerson
was extremely feisty and loved to take on larger opponents whom he could beat by wit or will, and considered himself,
I think, a natural judge. Somewhere along the line he developed the commitment never to lose an argument, no matter
how specious or devious he would have to be to win it. Or if it could not be won, the best thing to do was to quickly
change the subject, and change his own mind later in private. He admired cunning and was skilled at provoking anger
in an opponent, while keeping his own cool.
Anyway, he felt he was basically a better judge than others. His faculties of memory
and reason were prodigious, far superior to those of most people around him. He was smarter than Mama, though perhaps
less wise, and clearly smarter than his sons. He could see he was smarter than most of the other people he knew,
too, including those eggheads at church who worked for universities (he himself held a somewhat dim view of people
who fit into large organizations) and got famous awards for mental feats. And he felt he had a stronger moral calling
and a clearer moral sense.
And above all he knew himself to be a custodian of knowledge. This identity has serious
virtues. We need people who take it on themselves to master serious scientific stuff and to shepherd it forward
through the dithering ignorance of American popular life.
As to why he was so hungry all his life for the respect and attention of others, I
think the reasons are evident from what he himself told us about his early life. The main source of his need and
insecurity with other people was the sudden sickness and death of his mother, Jessie, when he was three, in 1915.
His startled, widowered father, Mayo, was plunged into grief and having little idea at first what to do even with
the two older boys, ages seven and ten, had even less idea how to look after Emerson, the baby. So Emerson was
sent off to family in Ohio until Mayo persuaded Jessie's sister Florence, a teacher and therefore unmarried (this
was 1915), to give up her travels and teaching and come to raise the boys. When this was accomplished Emerson was
returned to Pittsburgh, but Aunt Florence was never quite the mother that Emerson had lost. Jessie hadn't been
just the usual woman of her times, he implied to us as we grew up. While his father was a stern Republican, a just,
industrious, sober, scientific man, Jessie had been an artistic, spirited, progressive, Oberlin graduate, a social
worker in the first settlement house in Cleveland. A woman of strong and positive feelings, sensible yet compassionate
and optimistic about human nature.
After her death Emerson came to see himself as the kid the family had forgotten. Small,
restless, oversmart, of poor eyesight, and probably in some ways out of control, he felt the gap between himself
and his older, bigger brothers, who got more of his father's melancholy attention. He went to school of course,
was possibly a somewhat difficult student, struggled to live up to his father's conscientious but starchy Victorian
standards of conduct and intelligence, had problems because no one realized that he couldn't see the blackboard,
got held back in kindergarten. I suspect he got teased a fair amount, as for example the time in chem when someone
spilled a drop of acid on the top of his head. It was a childhood out of which I think he developed toughness,
courage, rivalry, and a keen sense of injustice and determination to be heard.
THERE IS NO EVENT SO COMMONPLACE BUT THAT GOD IS PRESENT WITHIN IT, ALWAYS HIDDENLY, ALWAYS LEAVING ROOM
TO RECOGNIZE OR NOT TO RECOGNIZE, BUT ALL THE MORE FASCINATINGLY BECAUSE OF THAT, ALL THE MORE COMPELLINGLY AND
IF I WERE CALLED UPON TO STATE IN A FEW WORDS THE ESSENCE OF EVERYTHING I WAS TRYING TO SAY BOTH AS A NOVELIST
AND AS A PREACHER, IT WOULD BE SOMETHING LIKE THIS:
His salvation some years later, of course, was his wife Regis, our mother. Where did
Mama get the infinite patience and forbearance to accept and love him as he was? Where did she get the strength
to tolerate his difficulty and to supply that missing half - the quiet listener to life, to him, to the family
and to the community in which they lived? Well, there are many things he brought to her of which she - the daughter
of an alcoholic county coroner, kind but unhappy - was in need.
She was as much his mother as ours. He was as much her son as we were. She let him
play. She helped him build his castles. She admired him as they tromped around the woods, he in his jodhpurs, fancy
hunting knife, with his gun for shooting squirrels. She let him go out on Halloween night in a bulky brown sweater
and a rubber gorilla mask, topped by a tin helmet he'd made in the basement, patrolling back and forth along the
front fence with a spear and his hundred-fifty-pound great dane on a stout chain. She let him spend more time on
Boy Scouts than on making a living some years. She let him do the things he liked to do, while she pretty much
took care of business. She modeled and encouraged in us, her sons, respect, compassion, forbearance and deference
toward him, as toward everyone.
But it was, I think, a bad coincidence that, having grown up in a family of three sons,
he went on to became the father of another family all of sons. Perhaps he saw in that the threat, as we grew timidly
older, of a repetition of his childhood with all its insecurities and feelings of rejection.
With Mama's help, as long as we were truly children, family life went well. As we grew
older and began to realize our own individualities, began slowly to move outside his scope, to see and report that
there were convincing views of life out there that challenged or disregarded his own, which might be ours, our
relations with him clouded. As teenagers, we increasingly learned to avoid him, identified ourselves with our mother,
and shuffled ourselves around the house like the five Chinese brothers.
Our forms of resistance to his didacticism were limited, as I've implied, by our mother's
clear standards of civility. I cringe to imagine what Emerson might have been like without them! I believe that
he himself felt two ways about manners. On one hand he regarded them as necessary to the orderly functioning of
the world and he certainly had clear rules about how children should behave. On the other hand, being a sort of
permanent wise-ass kid himself, he always prided himself on being able to get away with misdemeanors.
LISTEN TO YOUR LIFE, SEE IT FOR THE FATHOMLESS MYSTERY THAT IT IS. IN THE BOREDOM AND PAIN
OF IT NO LESS THAN IN THE EXCITEMENT AND GLADNESS; TOUCH, TASTE, SMELL YOUR WAY TO THE HOLY AND HIDDEN HEART OF
IT BECAUSE IN THE LAST ANALYSIS ALL MOMENTS ARE KEY MOMENTS, AND LIFE ITSELF IS GRACE.
FROM NOW AND THEN
BY FREDERICK BUECHNER
HARPER AND ROW
1983, P 92
I should stop trying to speak now on my brothers' behalf. I don't know enough about
how they felt. We were never encouraged much to talk. I only know that for me these growing up years with him were
very hard. They involved problems that were difficult for me to name then, harder still to articulate, impossible
to contest or ever ultimately resolve. My brothers and I had somewhat different temperaments, our individual strengths
and weaknesses, different methods of escape. Like the Chinese brothers, we each went back and forth between mother
and father, found what solutions we could, and eventually gave up and moved on.
I don't know. He lived conscientiously and hard. Who can blame anyone for weaknesses
beyond that person's own self-understanding? He tried hard to do good and did a lot of it, for us, for me, and
for many others. As a young inventor he developed useful patents for several companies, including mining safety
devices and the gas mask that was used by U.S. armed forces in World War II. As an independent scientific expert,
he gave forensic evidence in scores of cases involving accident liability, usually on the side of the injured person,
against the corporation. He was a founder of the organization that brought smoke control to Pittsburgh. He revitalized
a Cub Scout troop and ran it for six or eight years, recruiting boys and fathers of all backgrounds and available
races, then did the same on the Boy Scout level. Eventually he was given Scouting's highest award for volunteer
leadership service. He re-energized a national chemist's professional organization and helped to redirect its policies
away from the corporate interests and toward the service and protection of ordinary working chemists. He volunteered
with the Red Cross and other community organizations. He gave flowers to the Hare Krishnas.
I do not slight or overlook his accomplishments, which were tremendous, or compare
myself favorably with him in most respects: I, son number three, who have shown so much less courage in life, have
demonstrated so much less intelligence, have mustered so much less initiative, have accomplished so much less,
have helped so many fewer people.
He was a man who longed for some sense of community, who studied and admired utopian
visions, who looked for himself in his Welsh ancestors and the Indians whom he claimed as his spiritual forefathers
in the New World. But he also admired men who cut themselves loose from doomed causes rather than fight to the
end. As with all of us, there were difficult aspects of himself he couldn't very clearly see. Mama understood some
of those problems, I think, and tried to do what she could to keep up ties. Unadmittedly bereft without her, near
the end of his life he puzzled over why his sons had gone away, why his little consulting firm of Hedenburg and
Venable Consulting Chemists (Hedenburg long since deceased) had never become the firm of Hedenburg and Venable,
Venable, Venable, Venable and Venable. In fact, I believe he felt abandoned, even betrayed - in the distance and
silence between us.
I'm sorry his life may have ended with these feelings. I don't believe that I or any
of my brothers feel we betrayed or abandoned him finally, but neither did we know how to reach him.
Alan Venable is an irreligious freelance writer and editor who has enjoyed the St. Gregory's Writers' Retreat
for many years. He lives in San Francisco and has written children's books, plays and novels.