Part Three: Lamar White, Sr.
When I was a kid, I loved learning about the Kennedy family. I first read Profiles in Courage when I was in the fourth grade, and by the sixth grade, I considered myself as somewhat of an expert on JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Part of my fascination, I think, was because my mother’s family is from Dallas. Before I was born, my mother had worked in the hospital where President Kennedy died.
One sunny afternoon, while visiting our family in Dallas, my parents took us downtown to see John Neely Bryan’s cabin. John Neely Bryan is my great-great-great-great-great uncle and the founder of Dallas, Texas. The cabin is actually a replica, but it stands as a monument to him. After visiting the cabin, I asked if we could see the Texas School Book Depository Building, which is only a couple of blocks away. We walked toward the building and into Dealey Plaza, and we all witnessed something surreal.
Traffic had been cordoned off; the museum at the Texas School Book Depository Building was closed. A production crew had taken over. They were filming the assassination scene for a television mini-series about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And for nearly an hour, I stood with my family, mesmerized, as we watched take after take of a stretched, convertible limousine bending around the curve, shots ringing out, and an actress in pink attempting to climb onto the back of the car. I was eleven, scrawny and short, and my father hoisted me over his shoulders so I could witness the whole spectacle.
I may have also had a special affinity for the Kennedys because I am a part of a large and ambitious family that had confronted extraordinary tragedy with measured and stoic dignity. My grandmother Joanne lost her baby, Wally, after a drowning accident. He died nearly a decade before I was born, but his memory never became distant. As a kid living with my grandparents, I sometimes dreamt about the uncle I never met. It’d stir me from sleep; he was a vivid character in my imagination.
My grandmother’s mother, Mama Myrtle, lost three of her first four children; she then had eight more kids. When she was interviewed by American Magazine in 1951, as a part of a feature on the Lyles family, Mama Myrtle spoke about how, after losing three of her children, she felt like she had already experienced the deepest grief imaginable. Instead of living in that grief, she believed life, for her and for her family, could only get better. When you’re at rock bottom, I suppose the only direction is up.
My father, Lamar White, Sr., died ten years ago. He was 41 years old, in the prime of his career– a magnanimous, vivacious, and brilliant man. But he was also profoundly troubled. To those who knew him well, it was an open secret: My father struggled daily with addiction. I’m not betraying anyone’s confidence by saying this; it was something my father readily revealed.
I was eighteen when my father died. I was living in Houston at the time, and I was rushed back to Alexandria, in the middle of the night, by two friends of my grandparents- the former preacher at our church and his wife- arriving at the doorstep of my family’s home around three in the morning.
Before then, I never knew the physical pangs of deep grief; I didn’t know heartache was more than a metaphor.
Like his mother, my father was often the center of his family’s gravity. His death was disorienting; it disturbed what seemed to be the natural order of things. It was an extremely difficult time for all of us; his sudden death became an open wound. We all fumbled with our grief; it became territorial and confusing.
They say tragedy can either pull a family together or it can rip them apart. For me, during those first few years, my father’s death resulted in both. I share responsibility, of course. I was hotheaded and hurt, which can be a toxic combination. We all experienced grief differently: Losing your son or daughter is different than losing your father or mother; losing your brother or sister is different than losing your husband or wife.
There’s no way I could write about my relationship with my grandmother without acknowledging the difficulty of my father’s death. She lost another one of her beloved sons, and as a teenager, I lost my father. We sometimes clashed. There was very little evidence of the type of “measured and stoic dignity” I had idealized as a kid; blame could be placed everywhere.
Then, somehow (and thankfully), a few years later, my grandmother and I became close again. I think, in many ways, we saw one another as kindred spirits. When her mobility began to deteriorate, she often said to me that I’d experienced mobility problems for much longer than she had. She meant it as a compliment, as if to say: I’m not nearly as experienced in this as you are. It was gracious empathy. Most assuredly, it was undeserved and untrue.
We loved talking politics; it turned out that we shared a common language (even though she seemed to enjoy goading me about national Democrats). And we both loved thinking and talking about local issues. She possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Central Louisiana. I could give her a name, and routinely, she could tell me the person’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and any appearance they may have had in the local news. To her, I suppose, it was just fun recounting those stories to her grandson; to me, it was valuable information. She taught me more about the history and the people of Central Louisiana than anyone or anything else; it was hard not to share her passion for this community.
Our grief, for a time, was an open wound, but eventually, it was mended. It may sound hokey and trite, but it’s true. And I will always be extraordinarily grateful for that.
A week before she passed away, my grandmother, from her hospital bed, whispered to me that I “look just like” my father. It was the last complete sentence she ever said to me, and it’s probably what she would want me to remember– that I am my father’s son, something she knew that, to me, was the highest compliment possible.
(Don’t worry: This is the sappiest and most sentimental post of the series).