Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Edmund Longen: A Life Well Lived and a Father Well Loved

My father, Edmund Longen would have been 100 years old in October.  Though he’s been gone since 1997, I still think about him every day and remember the many lessons he taught me, both in words and actions.  He lived a good and honest life and he provided the moral compass that I strive to follow and that my sister Monica and I tried to impart to our own children. 

In 1991, Monica wrote my parents’ biographies based on interviews with them, my aunts and uncles and others.  I’m so glad that she took the time to compile their stories because not only is it an invaluable record of their histories but it is a way for our children to know and appreciate their grandparents.  And some day our grandchildren will learn about their great-grandparents, raised in a time so different from their own.  Monica recently prepared an addendum covering Mom’s and Dad’s lives from 1991 until their deaths.  And so I borrowed from the two biographies and added many of my own memories to tell my father’s story.    

Dad was, without a doubt, the kindest and gentlest person I have ever known.  He was the very model of patience and honesty.  Monica’s husband, George always said, “Your dad would never think of breaking a rule, taking a shortcut or telling a lie.”  Monica puts it this way, “There’s probably only one man who had more patience than my dad and he hasn’t been around for 2,000 years.”

As my brother-in-law stated, my father was unfailingly honest.  As a Federal worker, he would never have thought of using any office supplies or equipment for his own benefit.  In 1962, Xerox machines were a new and expensive technology and while co-workers apparently copied the occasional personal document, Dad always considered it stealing. So when Monica (age 10) and I (age 7) began squabbling over a magazine photo of our television idol, Andrew Prine (one of the stars of the short-lived TV series,Wide Country), Dad offered a variety of peaceful solutions.  All of his ideas failed miserably as Monica and I yelled and cried over who deserved possession of our heartthrob's photo.  Dad obviously reached his breaking point because he took the photo to the office and made a copy.  It must have been so difficult for him to violate his principles even if it did make his two daughters happy.  

Andrew Prine
No story illustrates my father’s honesty better than his disagreement with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) a few months before he died.  Dad prepared his own taxes each year, carefully checking everything over before filing.  In early summer 1997, he received a letter and a $225 check from the IRS saying that he had overpaid the previous year’s taxes.  Dad painstakingly went through his return again and was certain that he had paid the correct amount.  He sent a letter with the check enclosed to the IRS saying that he believed their calculations were wrong.  (I’m sure the IRS folks are still talking about the only taxpayer EVER to return a refund check!).   The IRS again wrote and said that Dad had overpaid and enclosed another check.  By that time, Dad was so sick with pancreatic cancer that he gave up and said, “I guess they don’t need the money.”   

I cannot remember a single time that my Dad yelled at us, even when he had every right to.  He definitely never cursed.  Instead, he gave us “the look” that registered anger, frustration and yes, disappointment.  Honestly, I think I would have preferred that he had yelled.  Even when Monica and I tried his patience as teenagers, he remained every calm and uttered an understated (but memorable) rebuke.  Two instances have stayed with us and our children know the stories well. 

My mother was an excellent cook and we sat down to a full meal every night—salad, entrée, vegetables and dessert. So one evening, Monica (about 15 years old) poured Thousand Island dressing on her salad, set the cap on the bottle and began eating.  Dad picked up the bottle and gave it a good shake.  Dressing flew all over him.  Honestly, it’s been more than 50 years and Monica and I still laugh when we think about Dad with Thousand Island dressing dripping down his face.  He sat for what seemed like an eternity in stony silence and then turned to Monica and said, “You big ape.”  (An expression he copied from the three-year old boy that I babysat for often).

My mother’s culinary skills also were reflected in her “Mamo cookies,” as Monica’s and my kids referred to them.  She made dozens of delicious cookies every Christmas.  She would store them carefully in cookie tins in the basement freezer and we usually enjoyed those tasty treats for months after the holidays.  As kids, Monica or I would go to the freezer every night after dinner to get a sampling of cookies for our dessert.  Once when it was Monica’s turn, we sat at the table patiently while she went downstairs.  Suddenly we heard Monica scream. We realized our initial concern that she had been attacked by an intruder was unfounded when she came up the basement stairs laughing uncontrollably. She told us that she had dropped the tin of cookies.  In a quiet but stern voice, my father announced, “As a result, we have no cookies.”  Poor Dad.  I think he wanted us to be respectful of my mother’s hard work, but we were teenagers so of course, we found Dad’s remark hysterically funny.

I wish I had one-tenth of my father’s patience and fortitude.  Teaching Monica to drive was apparently an act of great courage.  She had a trouble judging distance so would often nearly skim the door handles of the parked cars as she drove down the road.  I’m sure Dad’s voice was a little louder than usual when he jumped away from the passenger door and said, “Judas Priest.”  In addition to being afraid of bodily harm, I'm quite certain he was trying to figure out how he would explain the destruction of an entire street of parked cars to the insurance company.  

His patience with my driving took a different form.  I loved cars and knew every make and model on the road.  So even before I got my learner’s permit, Dad would take me up to the nearby junior high school and sit on the passenger side quietly while I drove around and around (and around and around) the parking lot in our 1968 Rambler American.  I think we went every evening for weeks until I got my learner’s permit.  He never said no when I asked if we could go even though I’m sure there were a whole lot of things he would rather have done. 

This is exactly what our 1968 Rambler American looked like.
My dad was always my hero but once he actually saved a young boy’s life.  We were on our way home from George Washington Hospital after my dad was released following hernia surgery.  The boy had climbed on to a bridge in Rock Creek Park while chasing a pigeon and slipped on the railing. By the time we drove near, the boy was losing his grip and dangling far above the ground.  My father stopped traffic and he and a couple of men pulled the young boy to safety.   Some men might have told the story often but in his humbleness, he never spoke of the incident again.

My father was a devoted family man.  He was home every night by 6 pm sharp, then helped us with our homework after dinner and watched TV with us for a few hours before bedtime.  On summer evenings, he liked to take us to the neighborhood recreation center to play tennis.  He was also a graceful ice skater and took us often to the “duck pond” near the University of Maryland. 

Skating at the duck pond with neighbors

He refereed many disagreements with the three women in the house.  As the volume of an argument rose, Dad would hold up his hands and say in a serious tone, “Peace, Peace.”  Monica and I can’t remember how well it worked but we have used the same approach with our own children in settling arguments. (Come to think of it, it never really worked very well with them but at least we tried the Ed Longen way first).

Dad was always there when we needed him.  When we were married and had homes of our own, Dad was always at the ready to help with a project.  He definitely was our “slow and steady” repairman.  He was meticulous to a fault and took great pride in his work.  He couldn’t have done a “quick and dirty” job if his life depended on it and “loose ends” was not in his vocabulary.  We used to say that Dad was a “measure five times, cut once” kind of guy.  After he and his brother, Bert installed a newel post at Monica’s house, we laughed and said that if the city were annihilated by a nuclear bomb, that newel post would be the only thing still standing. 

While my dad was close to perfect, he was not demonstrative and never said, “I love you” and he did not do well with emotional issues.  I still laugh when I think about how he tried to console me when I broke up with a boyfriend.  The only thing he said was, “Men are like streetcars, there is always another one coming along.”  And my response was, “Dad, there hasn’t been a streetcar around since 1962.” 

But there was never any doubt that his family was everything to him.  His deep love and devotion to his family was obvious even in the treatment he chose after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Doctors told us that radical surgery to remove his pancreas, gall bladder and any tumors on his liver was his best chance for living beyond a few months.  It was a difficult operation and not an easy recovery.  He also had chemotherapy and radiation.  He lived 18 months.  A few days before he died, I told him I was sorry that he had to endure so much pain and misery.  He didn’t hesitate a second and said to me, “It was all worth it to spend more time with my family.” 

Children and grandchildren together one month
before my father's death 
Dad was meticulous in his personal grooming and he had the same expectations for us.  Hair uncombed or messy clothes meant we would hear one of his favorite expressions, “You look like the wreck of the Hesperus.”   To say Dad held that standard to the end is no exaggeration. 

My father’s condition deteriorated rapidly in the last three weeks of his life.  He became so weak that my mother called one day and said that he wanted to go to the hospital. (I believe now that he was certain that he had very little time left and he did not want to die at home because he knew my mother would never be comfortable in the house after).

After we arrived in the hospital and were in the ER waiting for a room for him, Dad asked me to give him a comb.  Even though he was so weak that he could barely raise his arms, he combed his hair and then looked at me and said, “You could really stand to comb your hair too.”  He died two days later.  We stayed with him after he died and I combed his hair one last time for him. 

My dad adored my mother.  He was always concerned with her happiness and well-being.  He also knew that she could get very anxious very easily so he never wanted to upset her or give her cause for worry.  After his cancer surgery, he wanted to go to his favorite place, our beach house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.   Dad and Mom made the trip and had several enjoyable weeks there.  

My mom and dad in 1984 after spending two months at their
beach home in Kill Devil Hills, NC
One night before they were due to come home, my Dad called on the phone in his workshop (so my mother couldn’t hear the conversation).  We chatted a bit about the beach and my kids and then he quietly said, “I’m not sure that I can make the drive home.  I’m just too tired.”   I said, “Don’t worry, Dad.  We’ll come up with a solution.”  I hung up and turned to my husband and said, “We are going to the beach tomorrow.”   I never told my mother that he called.  Instead we said that the kids had time off from school and we decided to make a surprise trip to the beach.  We stayed a few days and then I drove Mom and Dad home. 

Our beach house on the Outer Banks, NC
That was Dad’s final trip to the beach but just before he died, he asked my mother when they could go back to the beach.  It made me feel better to know that his final thoughts were of the place that made him so very happy. 

Cancer was not the only health issue my father faced but he handled each crisis and problem with his characteristic stoicism, never complaining about anything he had to endure.  He developed diabetes in his early 50s.  He followed a sugar-free diet without fail, no matter how many delicious Christmas cookies or other sweets were on the table.  His heart issues meant he had to follow a very low-fat diet.

He had open heart surgery in 1978 and 1991.  The first surgery was done at the National Institute of Health because coronary bypass surgery was still in the experimental stage.  A single incident just before the second surgery so sums up my father’s polite and gentle nature.  As two nurses were wheeling him on a gurney into the elevator on his way to surgery, one nurse said, “Get the door, will you?”  Dad got up on one elbow and reached out with the other hand to hold the door open.  “Not you!” one of the nurses said, laughing. 

Dancing with Jillian at my parent's
50th wedding anniversary party
Dad’s second bypass surgery had gone well but he developed complications afterward.  It was the first time I thought about my life without him.  I was terrified.  When I went in to see him in intensive care, he motioned for a paper and pen.  With a very shaky hand he wrote, “Jilli?” asking about my 4-year old daughter, his first grandchild.  I told him she was in the waiting room.  I watched him struggle to write enough letters to make me understand.  His arms were filled with tubes and the tube in his throat made his head tilt back so that he could barely see the paper.  Yet he wrote, “I MISS HER.GIVE HUG AND KISS.”  He then wrote, “Tell Mom not to worry.  She was so bad last time.”  I left the room sobbing uncontrollably knowing that he was so close to dying and his first thoughts were of his family. 

My father’s politeness and respect for others did not falter even when he was dying of cancer.  The final night of his life, with a tube down his throat, he greeted the custodian who came in to empty the trash, saying “How are you, sir?”  and then thanked him when he left.  He could barely speak but he would not set aside the manners he had been taught so long ago as a boy in South Dakota.

I could go on for pages more about how truly blessed I am to have had such a wonderful father.  Instead I will end this blog post the same way my sister concluded my dad’s biography in 1991, “Ed Longen is a successful husband, father, grandfather, career man, son and soldier.  He is a calming, gentle influence and most definitely “the wind beneath our wings.” 

I plan on sharing the values and lessons that I learned from my father with my grandchildren so that he will live on for 100 more years. 

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