16: Remember When

16: Remember When

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Remember When

“You know, Mom, a person’s true character always comes out on the golf course. Since you never played golf, you really didn’t know Dad—Pat Gardner, the golfer—now did you?” This was one of the toughest things I’d ever said to my mother. It was a calculated risk I had to take.

My eighty-five-year-old mother glared at me, slowly shaking her head, her stern look signaling me to stop. She wanted no part of this. We—my mother Goldie, sisters Evelyn and Marge, brother Don, and my daughter Jill—were sitting in the Schmitt Funeral Home in WaKeeney, Kansas, putting the final touches on my Dad’s funeral, scheduled for the next day. Dad, who had suddenly died of a heart attack, was lying in an open casket about fifteen feet from us.

Because two other funerals were scheduled that weekend, the atmosphere was morbid to say the least. So I decided to lighten things up a bit.

I began telling a story about my dad’s crazy antics on our golf course. He had taken up golf late in his life and never quite got the hang of it, playing to a 30-something handicap. “One day, Mom, when we were teenagers,” I said, “Dad actually hit a drive in the fairway—it was the first one I’d ever seen. Huh, Don?” Don nodded, grinning, knowing what was coming.

“When we got to where his ball was supposed to be, we couldn’t find it, which got Dad all riled up.

‘Okay, where is it? I hit it right here!’ he barked. Then he stopped dead in his tracks. He had spied his ball about two feet down a ten-inch-wide gopher hole, sitting on a dirt ledge. ‘Shut up, you two, and don’t move,’ he scolded.

“Heck, Mom, we weren’t talking or moving. Right, Don?”

“That’s right, Mom,” said Don, mischievousness dancing in his eyes. Mom narrowed her eyes, still glaring at me.

“Then, Dad got down on his knees and carefully reached for the ball with his 5-iron. Hope soared within him as he hooked the ball with the club face. Holding his breath, he gently lifted the ball upward, hand over hand, delicately holding the club by his thumbs and fingertips. Sweat beads appeared on his forehead. His hands were really shaking now, and he winced each time the ball nearly slipped off the club. It was painstaking work.

“‘Keep quiet, you two,’ he whispered. ‘I’ve just about got it.’ After what seemed like an eternity, he finally pinned the ball near the top of the hole and ever so tenderly reached down with his left hand to retrieve it. Just as his fingers approached the ball, two more balls fell out of his upper shirt pocket and slammed into the first ball, causing all three balls to disappear down the gopher hole, lost forever. Dad flew into a rage. He jumped up, kicked the hole a few times, then beat the hole half to death with his club. Don and I were dying laughing on the ground.”

As Mom gave me that dreaded old schoolmarm look that she had perfected in one-room schoolhouses out on the prairie where she had taught for forty years, the family exploded into laughter. My plan was working, the gloom lifting.

Dad had demonstrated a great sense of humor all his life and loved a good belly laugh. I was banking on Mom understanding this, and I was looking for some help from the rest of the family. Just then, Don chimed in.

“Remember the time, Bud, when we were sitting on the bench behind the raised tee box on the third hole, and Dad was getting ready to hit his driver? Now, Mom, I’m not trying to degrade Dad in any way. You know he was a great baseball player, who played a mean first base and hit cleanup for the WaKeeney town team and even played against the great Satchel Paige once. Remember?”

Mom, warming up a bit, nodded at Don.

“Well,” continued Don, “standing over his ball that day, he told us he really felt like clobbering a drive. Bud and I glanced at each other but kept quiet as Dad addressed the ball. Then he swung with all his might. He stared down the fairway, yelling at us. ‘Did you guys see it? Where in the devil did it go?’

“The truth is, Mom, he had swung so hard he overshot the ball and just nicked it with the heel of his club, causing it to trickle between his feet and slowly meander off the tee box and down the hill behind him. Don and I couldn’t hold back. We laughed so hard we fell off the bench into an anthill.

“Seeing our predicament, Dad bellowed, ‘Serves you right, you galoots! Now where’s my ball?’ When he saw it still trickling down the hill, he realized how silly this all was and cracked up, too.”

The whole family roared at that one, which brought a brief smile to Mom’s face. She quickly regained her serious composure, but we were on a roll and couldn’t stop now.

“Another time, Mom,” I recalled, “Dad, Don and I played in an out-of-town golf tournament. When Dad’s foursome was called to the first tee, Dad pulled the head cover off his wood driver and threw the club to the ground in disgust.

“‘What’s the matter, Pat?’ asked one of his playing partners.

“‘Would you look at that?’ snapped Dad. ‘See all those white marks on the top of my driver. Darn it, my kids have been using my clubs again.’

“His buddies all sympathized as he addressed the ball. Dad made a ferocious swing at the ball—which he had teed up way too high—and whipped the club head right under the ball, sending it straight up into the air. Then things got real serious as everybody scattered when the ball came crashing down in the middle of the tee box, leaving no doubt who had been putting the white marks on that driver.”

The twinkle in Mom’s eye told me I was doing the right thing. She had finally realized I was just trying my level best to help us cope with the loss of Dad. We then told a few more golf jokes about Dad, which seemed to lift the spirit of our family at this mournful time. A few minutes later, Don asked Jill and me to accompany him over to Dad’s casket. Dad was dressed in his best gray suit with a matching tie. “Bud, take a close look at Dad’s tie,” urged Don. I couldn’t believe it. It matched all right, but the words on it caught my eye. It had “Happy Anniversary,” scrawled repeatedly on a diagonal its entire length.

“And watch this,” said Don, as he reached for the tie. He pressed a small button on the back of the tie and out jumped a classic song. I couldn’t believe it.

“Who chose this tie?” I asked when the last note had faded away.

“Mom did,” said Don. “I gave Dad that tie as a joke years ago for one of their anniversaries. I guess Mom was too numb over Dad’s passing to know what she had done.”

Knowing my dad had a great sense of humor, I believe he would have gotten a big chuckle out of watching this scene unfold. Just then, I heard Mom laughing at something my sisters had said. It was music to my ears.

The next day during Dad’s funeral, I was extremely nervous. I had agreed to do Dad’s eulogy on behalf of the family. I had done only one other eulogy for a dear friend, which I had mishandled badly. I had lost control and cried throughout my entire presentation. So, I wasn’t sure I could pull this one off; after all, it was my Dad’s final hour. The family was counting on me. The funeral home was crowded with about seventy-five family members and friends. I was so shook up, I asked my daughter, Jill, to accompany me to the lectern—and to finish reading my prepared statement if I began to cry and lose control. She agreed.

Then it was time. The minister nodded, and Jill and I moved to the pulpit. I thanked everyone for being with us to honor Dad’s life and then began to read my statement. About a third of the way through, my voice cracked and tears began streaming down my face. I paused, then started reading again. I choked up again as tears spilled onto my papers. I was about ready to have Jill continue for me when she slipped something into my left hand. I felt an old familiar friend—a golf ball. At that instant, an overwhelming wave of relief washed over me, followed by a serene peace. Just then I understood the depth of Jill’s unconditional love for me. I was thankful she had made the long trip from California to Kansas to be with me. That ball—a symbol of joy and love—and Jill’s reassuring smile gave me the courage to finish one of my greatest challenges.

~Bud Gardner
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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