My father passed away last week. His funeral was on Sunday. To say goodbye, I wrote this:
From My Father or Three Moments of Formation
Wallace. Walker. Peters. How does one begin to fill the yawning void left by that name? Is it possible? Neither you nor I can step into that now empty space and live the life allotted to the man, Wallace Walker Peters. Yet, deep, deep down—in the gristle of our bones, in the animation of our soul—we know he is not gone, not really. But he is not present, for if he were, then we would not be here. It is this paradox that I cannot reconcile—Wallace Walker Peters’ present effervescence yet absent embodiment. And it is this paradox that causes me to quake in anger, shake in confusion, and revolt against the sun: He is not coming back, his eyes will not open; but he is here and I feel him. Why? Why is this?
Because I am my father’s son, I think in books and mourn in texts. One week ago today, I received a phone call from my brother. “Dad’s gone,” Zachary Lyle Peters said. And amongst the cacophony of texts, words, sounds, and images, one quote rose above the chaff: “From the fame and character my father obtained, modesty and a manly character.” Penned by the emperor-philosopher, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, I have always been intrigued by these words, the words of an emperor thanking those who had both shaped and formed him. In other words, they are a subtle reminder that none of us are singular, autonomous beings. But that rather, we are who we are because of those whom have come before us. And I could not help but think of my father and, of course, another text, a line written by Umberto Eco: “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
It is impossible to celebrate the whole of a man. But it is possible to recall those “little scraps of wisdom” that Wallace Walker Peters bequeathed to his community. I think of three: three images, three lessons, three moments of formation that I will forever carry with me: the Walking Dead, the Shondo Burger, and the Anger of the gods.
Moment of Formation One or “They’re Coming for You, Barbra”
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones…And he said unto me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, thou knowest.’ Again he said unto me, ‘Prophesy upon these bones’…So I prophesied…and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone…the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above…and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
“Did you know,” my father would often ask, “that Zombies are in the Bible?” “No,” I would respond, playing my part, “are they?” “Yes, yes,” he would respond with rising excitement. “Ezekiel. The Valley of the Dry Bones. It’s talking about zombies, man!” Why my father loved zombies, no human being will ever know, but love zombies he did. In his death, I consulted the text, searching for hidden mysteries, a secret path to my father. Now I see what I once did not see. Zombies, for my father, symbolized the perversion of a once great hope, a hope in which he dare not rest. For if my father wanted anything, then he wanted to live a life surrounded by his wife, his sons and daughters, and his grandchildren. But we were separated and there was never enough time. So, perhaps, the oft prophesied zombie apocalypse was not really about zombies, but about a future hope—a hope beyond this mortal life—in which we—we all, we Peters—would be reunited ‘an exceeding great army.’ But my father had a melancholic streak and, above all, he was a realist. Rather than hope, he mourned. In zombies, he saw humanity for what it really was. I am convinced, however, that hope resided in my father, which is why, of all places, he turned to Ezekiel, a passage not about zombies, but about both the hope to be found in life and the power of that which is outside of us. I cannot, of course, eulogize my father without thinking of my own son, Magnus Rowan Peters and the hope that I have for him. My hopes, however, are not hidden in some esoteric-zombie text, but rather in the numerous postings of my digitized blog. For Magnus, I wrote:
All of these doubts and worries have led to three indelible truths: I am a dad. I have a son. I am imperfect. And with that last: How long do I have before he realizes it? Probably not long, but, hopefully, when he’s old enough, he’ll understand my imperfections and in his understanding, he’ll extend to the Father, Benjamin John Peters, the grace of the son, Magnus Rowan Peters.
Sometimes all we see are the imperfections. We forget the hope lurking behind the walking dead. I see that now and I extend to the father, the grace of the son.
Moment of Formation Two or “Shondo, Shondo Burger”
“Ulysses,” Alfred Lord Tennyson
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
I have no idea what “shondo burger” means. In fact, I am certain, it means nothing. It is a meaningless collection of words and sound symbols. It is anti-meaning. My father, however, in life’s oddest moments would holler it: “Shondo, shondo burger.” This outpouring of creative energy—symbolized in meaningless phrases—was a hallmark of my father’s life. Whether he was playing the blues, crafting ironworks in the barn, or quietly singing the actions that he was currently undertaking—“I’m putting cereal in my bowl, oh, cereal in my bowl”—he was always creating. Too late did I realize this, but from my father do we—his children and grandchildren both—create. We are a family that loves to shape and form. For me it’s writing, but for others it’s baking or art or music or drama or relationships. As I reflect, I return to Eco’s quote: “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” I often find my daughter, four-years old, singing to herself: “I’m putting cereal in my bowl, oh, cereal in my bowl.” And I think: Oh yeah, there he is. There’s dad. And I am comforted. We often view works of creativity as autonomous flashes of genius, but they are not. No work of creativity is created outside of community. That which I write, I write because of my father. This is true both literally and metaphorically, for the way in which I write my life is, also, from my father. In other words, I am and we are because of countless moments of collected, “Shondo, shondo burgers.”
Moment of Formation Three or The Anger of the Gods
“Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables
Do you hear the people sing,
Singing the song of angry men.
It is the music of a people,
Who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart,
Echoes the beating of the drums,
There is a life about to start,
When tomorrow comes.
“Boys,” my dad said one Saturday afternoon, “go outside. I’m going to teach you how to change a tire.” “Alright,” we said, believing in the omnipotence of our father. In our driveway, Wallace bent down and jacked the car up to an appropriate height. “Now,” he said, “I’m going to spin the lug nut this way.” He, of course, started singing: “Righty tighty; lefty loosey. Righty tighty; lefty loosey.” We watched in anticipation, knowing what was soon to come. “Hmm,” my father mumbled, “this isn’t…uh…budging. Well, let’s try this.” He stood and shifted his weight before wrenching again. Nothing. The lug nut would not budge. He looked at us, tire iron in hand, and said, “Well…son of a—” and started beating the gravel driveway with the tire iron. Expletives followed: “Rascally mother, son of a stinking, ugly haired dog…this incompetent tire.” We tried not to laugh, but could not help ourselves. Soon his tirade against the universe was over, and we were all laughing at the outburst. This was part of my father’s legacy: a fiery and flashing temper. I do it. My daughters do it. If you do not believe me, then watch as my daughter tries to put her shoes on in the morning—grunting quickly turns to frustrated screaming. A jammed lug nut, a slow Internet connection, or a broken mirror could all send my father into a temper tantrum, but big things, important things, would never. I, too, have received this wonderful gift. But I know two things about these moments of quick anger: one, it was never directed at people and, two, it betrayed a deep seeded passion for life. His anger, my anger, was a welling up of desire. He wanted to live well and with passion. This was best seen in his flitting from one thing to the next: first guitars, then blacksmithing, then zombies, then leatherworking, then archery, and then back to guitars. This restless and wondering passion was a distinct characteristic of my father—and whatever he put his hand to, there was perfection. He was not only a guitar player; he was the best damn guitar player I’ve ever heard. He was not only a blacksmith; he was an artisan. He was not only into zombies; he was a zombie aficionado. And this is a truth about both my father’s life and success: his quick anger was rooted in a zestful and labyrinthine passion. He did not, early on, tally his strengths and pursue those. He found those things that sparked his interest and made them his strengths. In this way, life did not master him, but rather he mastered life.
Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit or We Don’t Rent Pigs
I started by describing a paradox and posing a question: my father is not returning from the dead; yet he is here and I feel him—Why? Why is this? It is because that what we become depends on what “our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.” Those little scraps of unknown wisdom that Wallace Walker Peters left behind form us all. He taught us how to be hopeful, creative, and passionate. And when I view both his community and his family, I see hopeful, creative, and passionate people. In many ways, he taught us how to live and, as I stand here and look out, I do not see ‘people’ but rather, I see the image of my father. And this solves the paradox. I still feel him, I still experience him, because he has not left us, he is here, in you and me. In Caris, Asher, Zachary, Ginger, Regan, Rachel, Guillermo, Andrea, Sophia, Gracie, Danny, Andrew, in all of us; in Napavine, Centralia, Texas, Rendezvous, Ironworks, BBQ, Notre Dame football, Lonesome Dove, zombies, meaningless songs, and bursts of passionate anger, Wallace Walker Peters is present. We, together, uphold and continue his legacy. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit: We are changed by the lives around us. This is why, though gone, my father, Wallace Walker Peters, is present among us.
And so I end where I began, with the introductory remarks of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditation: “From the fame and character my father obtained, modesty and a manly character…He remained firm and constant…with a just self-government, and showed a perfect and invincible soul.”