Two years ago this week, I was elated to launch my first novel into the world. THE EDGE OF NOWHERE, released January 19, 2016 by Penner Publishing, was a fictional retelling of my father’s family as they suffered through The Great Depression and the 1930s Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. The main character, Victoria Hastings Harrison Greene, was loosely based upon my own grandmother as she struggled to raise twelve children alone as a widow during arguably the most difficult era in our nation’s history. Similar to the novel’s main character, my own grandmother raised fourteen children; and many of the trials and difficulties Victoria endured represented my own grandmother’s challenges.
In many ways, THE EDGE OF NOWHERE was a tribute to my father, and was a retelling of his stories of hard times during his childhood. The same stories he loved to share with anyone who listened, which may be one of many reasons why he spent more than twenty years as a high school history teacher. Nobody was a more captive audience for his anecdotes than the students of El Reno High School in El Reno, Oklahoma.
Today it was with a heavy heart that I share the news that my father, Edward Joseph Hedrick, passed away on Saturday. In the end, the stories he loved so much to tell were forgotten; and, when not forgotten, often became entangled and confused between fact and wishful thinking. You see, in his final years my father suffered from dementia. He had spent his life as an educator, a storyteller, and held three masters degrees; but, at the time of his passing, it is doubtful he could still read. The irony of this is not lost on me.
I remember the pride in my father’s voice when I told him I’d signed a book deal. Typical for him, he told every person he knew (and quite a few he didn’t know). And, when the book was released, he carried a copy of it in the pocket of the windbreaker he wore almost constantly. He was so proud. But by the time my book was released, dementia had already begun to sink its ugly teeth into his brain.
Though I lived 1200 miles or more away from my parents, it was the norm for me to talk to them by phone at least every other day. I still smile when I remember conversations with my father related to my book. They went something like this:
“Cath–your book is wonderful! I can’t believe you got so many of the details right! How did you know?” he’d say.
“Well, Daddy…you only told those stories a million and one times when I was growing up. I’m glad you like it. How much have you read?”
My dad would fumble with his book for a few moments, then respond something like, “72 pages.”
The next time I’d talk to him, the conversation would begin pretty much the same way, but when I’d ask, “How much have you read?” he’d answer, “I’m on page 48,” or “I’m on page 64.”
My dad never got to read THE EDGE OF NOWHERE from cover to cover because his dementia wouldn’t allow it. So every time he set the book down, he’d have to go back and start all over at the beginning with his next read. He must’ve read the first hundred pages at least twenty times, and each time it was new to him. In the end, I often read passages to him over the phone that I knew he’d enjoy. He especially loved the chapter when Victoria (representing his mother) gave the school administrator a “set down” for suspending her children after a fight. That was one of his favorite stories to tell and I tried to do it justice by telling it as close to his own retelling as I could.
My dad was truly “larger than life.” It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. Among the many things I will always remember about him when other memories fade are:
(1) The size of his hands. They were ginormous! And the strength behind them was remarkable. He could crack open walnuts in his fist. And yet, those same hands were gentle when he held my hair back away from my face as my stomach emptied into the toilet with the flu bug, or when he held one of his grandchildren as infants.
(2) His “scary” eyes. My dad’s eyes were so blue that, when you startled him awake, his eyes were scary in that second before they fully focused. I’ve often wondered if mine appear the same when startled awake, since we share the same eye color.
(3) His love for his family. Nothing was more important to my dad than family. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for his family, and he had this knack for making his children and grandchildren feel like each one was his favorite. But that love of family didn’t end with immediate family. As the 8th of 14 children, he was dedicated to every member of our extended family, and taught all of us the importance of our family and history. He was preceded in death by his father, William Jefferson Hedrick; his mother, Edna Hall Hedrick Golden; his oldest daughter, Juliana (Hedrick) Brodeur; nine siblings, one granddaughter, and one great-granddaughter. He is survived by his wife, Marion W. Hedrick, four children, four siblings, 17 grandchildren, and 28 1/2 great-grandchildren (congratulations to my niece, Kristina, on the impending birth of her fifth child, whom I just learned about as I was writing today’s blog. Daddy would’ve been thrilled!).
(4) His constant storytelling. Gosh my dad loved to tell stories, and sometimes I wondered how much of those stories were embellished. One of his favorite sayings was, “Why screw up a good story with the facts?” This is ironic, when you consider his passion was history; but my dad could always spin a good yarn.
(5) His passion for kids. My dad taught high school and college for more than 20 years, and he loved every minute of it. When he wasn’t teaching, he dedicated his free time to mentoring youth through DeMolay International and The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls. Though much of his memory had deteriorated by the time of his passing, he never forgot “his kids.” His eyes would simply light up when one of their names was mentioned, even in the end. He touched so many lives, and I know his legacy lives on not only in my heart, but the hearts of all of “his kids.”
(6) His complete devotion as a grandfather. After his children, his grandkids were his life. I can’t count the number of times he came to visit with my mom for one month in the summer and drove my daughter the 50 miles round-trip to gymnastics practices at 6:30 in the morning. Or the scores of “grasshopper hunts” he did with my son. As a teen, I remember him always having one of my brother’s four younger children with him wherever he went. They lived next door until I went to college, and they’d show up in time for breakfast in the morning and follow him like a shadow throughout the day. If I had a quarter for every time he stopped at McDonalds to get those kids an ice cream cone, I’d be a rich woman.
I remember coming home at 22 to have minor surgery. I’d awakened in the middle the night, uncomfortable in my bed, and had gone downstairs to sleep in my mom’s recliner. In the morning, I awakened to find my dad sound asleep in the recliner next to mine because he was afraid he wouldn’t hear me if I needed something.
And probably my favorite memory is one that will raise a few eyebrows…it was the first time I remember him ever apologizing to me (because, of course, he was always right and never had to apologize). I’d been accused of something I hadn’t done, and he was so sure he’d seen me do it. I remember being 16 or 17 and standing nose-to-nose with him in the kitchen as I pled my innocence in the strongest (and loudest) possible terms. NOBODY yelled at my dad, but I was furious and wasn’t going to back down. I won’t reveal all the details of that encounter as it doesn’t paint either of us in the best light, but in the end I remember being so angry I walked away quietly, but with my chin high in the air. I mounted the steps to my room and, just outside my bedroom door, I completely lost my composure and screamed down the stairs, “I hate you, you son of a bitch!” I slammed my bedroom door and quickly locked it and moved the dresser in front of it because I knew I was a dead girl walking. About three hours later — and after both of us had a chance to calm down — he knocked on my door and apologized. That moment was key for me because it was when I learned two things: first, the strongest people are those who can admit when they’re wrong and apologize; and second, when an argument is over, it’s over. Holding grudges doesn’t fix the situation; it only leads to pain. When the argument is over — and especially if a sincere apology is offered — accept the apology and move on.
(6) His wit. I’m not sure if that’s the right word I want to use, but my dad had a “saying” for everything and, maybe more than anything, those quirky comments will live on in my mind and heart forever.
“It’s handier than a pocket on a shirt.”
“That’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
“It’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
“Edgier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
“Sick and tired of waking up sick and tired.”
“My get up and go just got up and went.”
“What do you mean ‘who’? Your feet don’t fit no limb!”
“He’s not playing with a full deck.”
“She’s just about a half a bubble off plumb.”
“Stand right there and hold down the tiles.”
Two of my dad’s most beloved accomplishments are his military service and his time as a 32-degree Mason, AF&AM. As a career military man (before his second career as an educator), he retired from he U.S. Army as an E8 after serving in both Korea and Vietnam. He was a recipient of the Order of St. Barbara, a Bronze Star, and The Purple Heart. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with a combined Masonic and Military Funeral. It seems strange to say, but I’m confident my dad would love his own funeral.
There’s no doubt my dad will be missed by not only his family, but by those whose lives he touched. And today, he will be especially missed by my mom as today they would’ve celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. While it certainly won’t be a “happy” anniversary for my mom, I’m hoping that the memories of my dad and the retelling of his beloved stories will give her strength today and in the days to come. After all, the best tribute we can give to him — and the one that will help him live on forever — are the stories of his life. Through those stories, we honor him, and his “way with words” will live on through each of us as we remember him in the days to come.
As a former student, Tammy L, stated on a facebook post in his memory, ” I had him for study hall. He used to “help” me with my verbal Spanish. The look on the Spanish teacher’s face the first time I gave a report was priceless! Apparently, Mr. H knew street Spanish! Guess he had a way with words no matter what language.”
That he did…