By pure conincidence, my dad's birthday and Mother's day are nearly back to back .... and sometimes, depending on the year, they fall on the same day. Robert Daniel Heitert was born on May 9, 1922, in St. Louis, Missouri ...the youngest child of R. G. Heitert and Helen Wethmar Heitert.
"Big Pop" died in 2001after a lengthy struggle with congestive heart failure...just four days after his birthday. He was a bit of a hell raiser as a young man ...at least that's what I've been told. He laughed from deep down in his belly ...the sound would easily fill a room ... often at raucous jokes one of his nine kids would tell and would make his wife Rosemary grimace.
Dad loved opera. I remember being in the basement on Saturday afternoons, ironing my Catholic-school uniform blouses while he stood at his work bench reloading shotgun shells. Firestone sponsored a live radio broadcast from the Metropolitan opera. Sometimes he "sang" the male tenor's arias ...without the words. Most often he'd hum.
He went though stages with his interests. For a while, he photographed everything he saw and taught himself how to develop the negatives. Remnants of his fascination with wood carving still exist in various corners of mom's house. Then personal computers arrived, and dad discovered he loved to write ... though he had more rejection slips than anything else for his fictional efforts, he did publish a special-niche training manual. Most amazing, his life-long interest in the law and his love of law enforcement led to his graduation from the St. Louis Police Academy when dad was 50+ years old.
His absence has left an aching void in our family. I still expect to see him sitting in front of his computer or the television when I arrive at the family home for an out-of-town stay. Three years ago, one of my younger sisters contacted everyone ... siblings, nieces and nephews and their children ... telling us she had planned a unique way to celebrate dad's birthday - without being maudlin - and Mother's Day. We would have an Irish hoolie at the cemetery ... at Big Pop's grave site.
The fact that the word "hooligan" evolved from the Irish "hoolie" should give some indication about the nature of the event. Yes ...there are spirits in abundance ... just not the ones hanging about in the cemetery. Instead, you'll find bottles of my dad's favorite wine ...Zinfandel ..., anything Budweiser, a cold silver flask of Jameson's, and - for the faint of heart - water and soda.
Best of all, there's family. Can you imagine loud ripples of laughter, conversation, children running and playing, posing for photographs, and music? Mom, our nearly-ninety year old matriarch, sits at the center of all this commotion, shielded by a huge golf umbrella. At the appropriate time, we toast dad, sing a boisterous "Happy Birthday," and cut into the birthday cake. One of my brothers pours a bottle of wine on dad's grave, reminding me of an ancient Roman ablution.
Mom receives brightly colored gift bags and an assortment of holiday cards ... some from the chubby hands of toddling great grandchildren. This year, we released beautiful Mother's Day balloons and cheered as they floated past the green barrier of the cemetery's enormous trees and up toward the clouds.
Midway through our celebration, I spied a beautiful, dark-haired young woman standing on the fringe of our noisy circle and thought she perhaps she was the friend of a family member, someone who just happened to see our throng of revelers. Bridget, my sister, spoke to her. Her mother's headstone lay beside our father's. One of ten children, she had come alone to pay her respects. Bridget welcomed her to the party and handed her a glass of wine. Joining in the toast and the singing, she probably never guessed that she would become part of a hoolie held by strangers.
As she pulled away from the cemetery curb, she called out, "You made my day." I couldn't help but think that's what hoolies are all about ... celebrating life, both past and present. So I raise my glass to all of you and proclaim "Here's to life."