A rose is a rose is a rose; a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.A combination of Gertrude Stein and William Shakespeare
I prepared for Wendy’s funeral. I had scheduled it in time to catch flight home, back to the people I loved and who were still alive, and where I had a bed I felt I desperately needed and would have dreamed of, had I been sleeping well that week.
Three days before, I had unlocked Wendy’s phone and contacted her three closest friends and Mike, my former stepfather, and told them where I was holding her ceremony. Mike was fifteen years her senior, and had had graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering as valedictorian of LSU some time in the 1970’s, and had quickly become a senior manager at Exxon Platistics;, he hadn’t enjoyed working behind a desk or being indoors all day, and he never wanted kids and therefore never fretted about taking entrepreneurial risks, and he had become a custom home designer and builder when we lived together in the 80’s and then went bankrupt when interest rates exceeded 16% – to this day a record in America, and many investors went bankrupt back then.
Mike’s Catholic family was so large that several parish phone books are filled half way with his family name, Richard, not pronounced like King Richard or Richard Pryor, but pronounced in the Cajun accent, Ree-Chard. The phone books of southern Louisiana include dozens of Michael Richards, or Mikes or M’s and even a few MJ’s, especially in the towns and parishes along the River Road communities between Saint Francisiville and New Orleans. Wendy had joked that the Richards had a family tree with branches like a giant stately oak, and that she and I were a family stick, a straight line of single parent after single parent rather than the dozens and dozens of cousins Mike had grown up with.
When Mike met Wendy, he told her that he didn’t want to have children because alcoholism ran in his family, and he had seen so much of it that he didn’t want to risk passing his genes. His father had died of alcohol related illnesses and left him and his many siblings to care for their mother. When he arrived to help repair small things in Wendy’s home, I saw that he was still wearing his father’s gold watch, the one his father wore until his dying moments. Mike had seen him suffer from a combination of lung cancer and liver failure, and then he saw his uneducated mother struggle to feed and clothe his many brothers and sisters. He worked hard and earned a scholarship to LSU and then, because he was both wise and compassionate, he rapidly advanced in management at Exxon; but, because he didn’t want or have children, he sought out risks that would make work more rewarding. All of that was, in my mind, captured by the fact that he still wore his father’s gold watch 40 years later. But I didn’t say anything about it, and Mike either didn’t notice Uncle Bob’s watch on my wrist or didn’t give it as much thought as I had.
He was a good man, and always had been. We hadn’t spoken in decades.
Mike was always nice to me. We met when he came home with Wendy one day, when I was around eight years old and living with my dad for three months every summer and on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter holidays. He was good at fixing things around the house that I broke, and Wendy always seemed happy when he was around. I was happy about all of that, especially since Uncle Kieth had had his own daughter by then and stopped coming around to take me hunting or fishing or to the sets of Hollywood movies being filmed in Baton Rouge. Mike stepped in as a father figure, and my mind’s eye still sees him as a stepfather, regardless of technicalities of him never marrying my mother.
Mike helped me with school and projects and cub scouts, and he also took me to fun movies he liked, like Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Karate Kid, and he chatted about local news with his friends. Everyone seemed to like Mike, and his friends and family were always kind to me, though I still didn’t talk about anything I saw or heard, out of habit. He began buying homes around Baton Rouge and renting them out, or building them and selling them at a profit, and he asked Wendy and me to move in with him. From then on, every time I returned from my dad’s cabin in Arkansas, I lived in a new home that Mike was flipping. While I was gone, Wendy had the time of her life, driving around in Mike’s bright red Corvette sports car and going to dinners she had never imagined affording, and spending weeks at a time in Mike’s beachfront condo in Pensacola, The Redneck Riviera, that had also seemed unimaginable to Wendy as a single mother. They had the time of their lives whenever I was away, yet Mike always seemed to be fully present with me when I returned.
In one of my favorite memories with him, soon after I Wendy had paid for me to join the neighborhood cub scouts, I stood alone in the Baker community, holding my failed box car that had gotten stuck on the down ramp half way down. I had been embarassed, and grabbed it and ran away. Mike found me, and squated down to look me in the eye, and he asked if he could help me.
I showed him my failed box car. I cried and said I didn’t know why it wouldn’t work. I had glued extra weights on the bottom, because I thought gravity would pull it down the ramp faster.
Mike looked at my work and smiled, and kindly said that it was a good first try, but that we could make it better together. I asked him how, and he pointed to the three steel washers I had glued to the bottom of my box car, and he showed me how they would hit the ramp in the curved part of the race, and that I didn’t know that because he hadn’t thought to practice with me before the big event. He said he was sorry, and that he’d help me now, and that we’d start by removing the washers and testing the car on a ramp, when no one was looking, and we’d learn more then.
He pulled out his folding pocket knife and opened the blade and held the car in his left hand with the washers up. But I had glued them real good, like my dad had taught me, and Mike had to force his knife. He slipped, and cut his hand and had to stop helping me to wrap his white handkerchief around it to stop the bleeding. He then pried off the washers and we walked back into the now empty room, and he put our box car on top of the ramp using his bandgaged hand, and he let it loose and it finished the whole ramp. It wouldn’t have been the fastest, but it would have at least made it down, and I saw time for the first time. Next time, I saw, I’d try it out when no one is looking.
“That’s called a prototype,” Mike Ree-chard said. “It’s your best effort in the shortest amount of time. Try it out, see what you learn, and then improve on what you’ve already done. You can’t fail, you can only stop improving your prototype.”
Mike invited Wendy and me to move into one of his homes with him. He had quit Exxon to be his own boss and not work behind a desk all day, and he was buying homes and fixing them up and renting them out, and had invested in building a new home in the fancy neighborhood near Westdale Middle School, and, perhaps because of him, I had gotten into a new, experimental “magnet’ school called Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions, and here I am now.
Mike and my mom had split up around thirty years before and I hadn’t seen him in almost twenty years, and we chatted as he helped repaired a few small things in Wendy’s home and touched up the paint here and there, from where dogs had chewed or peed or something. Mostly, we were staying busy and occupying ourselves while the volunteers took over. I learned that he had been happily married since I left Louisiana. I asked him what was different now than when he was with Wendy, and he replied from a place of love so obviously truthful that I couldn’t help but feel happy for him even though I felt sad. He said, without hesitating, and with a joyful sparkle in aging and wrinkled eyes still wet with tears for Wendy: the love for his wife’s little girl that he had adopted long ago. Caught in the moment, he pulled out his phone, shook it to get reception and laughed and said he had forgotten how bad the reception was. He scrolled through stored photos and showed me photos of his daughter’s recent wedding. His screen saver had been him dancing with her. He never called her his stepdaughter, he either said her name or called her his daughter. I felt happy for him, but I also felt a growing sadness that confused me at first, then I realized that a part in me must still be the little boy who had hoped for more from Mike. I didn’t tell him that, just as I didn’t tell him that shaking your phone doesn’t improve the reception.
“I thought about you the other day,” he said, randomly. “We went to see The Irishman. Your grandfather had a small part in it, but they changed his name to Eddie. Wasn’t he president of the Teamsters ?”
I said he had been president of Local #5 for 30 years. Mike had always been a nice guy, and I suddenly realized that perhaps the old saying is true, ignorance is bliss, and Mike may have been ignorant of everything going on with my Partin family. If he missed that Edward Grady Partin Senior was president of Local #5 and a character in a famous 1983 film and splattered on the news for twenty years, I doubted he knew that in 1985 Edward Grady Partin Junior and I had been drug out of our cabin by 20 armed deputies in the War on Drugs; from Mike’s perspective, he probably thought I was being rebellious or acting like most teenage kids he had heard about, stealing things and cursing and getting kicked out of Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions; and, to him, that “phase” began when I returned to his and Wendy’s house in 1986 and ended a few years later when I met Coach and began wrestling at Belaire High. We hand’t really talked much since I returned form the army and attended LSU for engineering. He probably didn’t know that I, like him, had become salidictorian; I graduated 7th in engineering, close to his first, and still somewhat respectable for a school with around 38,000 students back then. I probably owed a lot more to Mike than I could put into words, especially at my mom’s funeral, when I was tired and sad and my mind was unfocused.
“I may have lost you a lot of business,” I admitted, changing the topic. “I used tell people who called for Mr. Homes that they had the wrong number.”
He had to think about it, and then he got it and we laughed together for a few precious moments. Mike had gone bankrupt when I was 16, the year I asked a judge to emancipate me from both sides of my family. I joined the army at 16, when Mike was preoccupied with his bankruptcy, but he wasn’t aware of that. I was co-captain of the wrestling team then, and Mike hadn’t known that, either. At that time, he had been focused on his home design business, and had originally advertised his home design business in the Yellow Pages as “Michael J. Richard, Custom Home Builder, (540) 555-6926.” But, as interest rates rose to over 16%, a historical high to this day, he was unable to sell his homes and was loosing money each day during my final year at Belaire High. He couldn’t refinance his rental properties, and he couldn’t keep affording to loose money on them, and vvery penny had counted. He had condensed his add in the Yellow Pages, under the “contractors” category, to simply, “MR Homes 540-555-6926,” and he changed his business cards to match that ad. No one had told me, and every time I answered the phone or switched over on call waiting and someone asked for Mr. Homes, I told them they had the wrong number. A few had called back several times in a row, and I had confidently and firmly told them that no Mr. Homes lived or worked at (504) 555-6926, and I assume they stopped calling and tossed away his business cards.
I probably hadn’t lost him much business. The entire country had been in a recession then, and I don’t think the few people I told that Mr. Homes dind’t live there was nothing more than a drop in the bucket. He was worried every day, using his new and expensive gadget, the first of MacIntosh computers, to send AOL emails when I though a phone call would have been simpler, but he had said that he was sending patents back and forth between a lawyer, and the MacIntosh was much faster, eventually, after you took a while to log on. He had also been an inventor, but had lost a lot of money in that, too. Everyone had a lot going on back then, but it was water under the bridge.
“You know I wrote my own patents?” I told him in the form of a rhetorical question.
“And did the drawings; I still have your engineering pencils,” I said, lost in thought and speaking mindlessly. “Sarah Blakely had someone help her with her patent, but she did most of the work herself. About $5,000 turned into a few billion. And she didn’t need investors, so she still owns 100% of Spanx; live and learn. She got lucky. You set a good example, Mike, and then I got lucky. Life’s funny.”
We were both silent for a few moments, and he thought what I said was remarkable.
Mike had invested in a few ideas in the 1980’s, one was a medical device to make delivering babies safer, in theory, but he had invested in people who didn’t understand how ambulances make money or how insurance reimburses products and services, and they had lost all of their money on what most inventors I know today would have dismissed quickly. He then invested his retirement savings into patents and plastic injection molds for his own invention, “Hanger Helpers,” little extenders that clipped on your plastic hangers and added an inch or so to the width to eliminate tiny bumps called “angel wings” that formed on the back of shirts hung wet on hangers that didn’t quite reach the shoulder seams. He had acted too quickly, and by the time he spent $90,000 on injection molding tooling the patent office came back with competing patents, and his extensive inventory of Hanger Helpers was unable to be sold through Wal Mart or other venues that required strong patents to protect their liability, and when he tried selling on his own via television commericals, he soon learned that plastic hangers came in different sizes and that his one-sized Hanger Helpers didn’t fit all sizes of hangers. Mike was intelligent, but some things take experience and he had had no experience in entrepreneurship or user-centered design.
“And,” I continued as I realized something for the first time, “You were the one who told me about the provisional patents in 1996. I had almost forgotten about that. I wouldn’t have risked it without that bill. Thank you; it made the difference.”
He asked what I was doing for a living lately, and so much about Sarah’s history. I said I was faculty at USD for engineering and entrepreneurship – it a small lie, because I was adjunct faculty and considered staff, not tenured – and that you can’t teach an entrepreneurship mindset, but you can discuss case studies and simply ask, “Why not you?” again and again.
And I told him that I led a project based learning class called User Centered Design, and that User Centered Design was a part of entrepreneurship because you practiced iterating ideas until more users thought it was a good idea. Mike related: few people had his problem of Angel Wings, the tiny bumps on the back of some shirts that are hung on hangers while still wet, because most people used a clothes dryer and then hung dry shirts on hangers. User Centered Design was like teaching single males to invent Spanx.
I felt, but did not say, that perhaps if he had focused less on his problems and more on other people’s, he may have been more successful; I was tired, and parts of me were surfacing that seemed harsh, bitter, and regretful. Fortunately, I also felt a lot of love for Mike resurfacing. He had always been a kind man, and I really did believe that a lot of my success and happiness stemmed from him. I told him that.
He cried and so did I, and we embraced silently for a few moments, and I, still holding him, told him that he had been a good man, and that Wendy would have been happy to know he was there. I told him how much we both had loved his mother, Mrs. Richard we had called, and that if I knew how to love, it was because of his mom, and that Wendy had kept the rosary Mrs. Richard had given her only a few short years ago; Mrs. Richard had passed away at age 96, but I hadn’t heard until after the funeral, and I was sorry for his loss. We briefly sobbed in sync, then stood back and laughed it off and returned to chatting about Wendy, and he asked if I remembered her joking about our family being a stick. Of course I did, but I let him tell it, anyway.
I never mentioned that he had left Wendy for one of her neighbors with two older children and a baby girl, and that Wendy had begun drinking soon after. Some secrets are ok, and every word I told him was truthful.
He left and I began to feel overwhelmed. I changed focus, and began to walk around Wendy’s house and think about what would I share with Hope when I got home.