Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Judge Ned Fenlon, in memory of a great man and a good life

I said to my son Jules, "A close friend of your Gramps has died." He didn't bat an eye.

"Wait", I said, "Gramps was born in 1904." He began to catch on.

Judge Ned Fenlon, a Michigan legend, was almost 107 when he died on September 22, after a remarkable life of public service.

His obituary is here; but what I remember, aside from his professional achievements, is his bonhomie, the kindness of his beautiful brunette wife Jane and the particular, perhaps time-bound hospitality of their home.

In the '50s and '60s, on our block of Mitchell St., food and liquor were served in abundance by the Fenlons and similar neighbours. No one drank wine. If abstinent, you drank Coke (men) or Diet-Rite (women).  

Steaks draped over the edges of the dinner plate, accompanied by mashed potatoes, and for dessert, a homemade cherry pie floated down on the table. Despite meals that many today would avoid (or at least feel guilty eating), few of these Midweaterners died young; in a group of two dozen, at least four cracked 100.

At first I thought the secret might be physical labour, but though Dad and his cronies worked hard, they were usually at desks. Professional men of the time reviewed their files with an unfiltered Camel in hand more often than not.

The wives were at home. The gals dieted– cottage cheese was a staple– but men were largely exempt.

This crowd golfed, sailed the Great Lakes, shot skeet and afterwards, sat down with "a little something" and talked. If someone called, there was no way to leave a message, let alone pick it up while you were fishing. People called back.

They were vivid, forthright people who dressed for plane trips, church and dinner parties, sometimes flashily– check out Ned's slacks!

The women got chemical-loaded perms, wore perfume and furs, cooked with cream, butter and lard. Both sexes grudgingly accepted seatbelts; eventually, most gave up smoking.

If presented with the word "tofu", they would have guessed it was a Pacific island.
A gym was a place where prizefighters trained; a "cleanse" would suggest only a colonoscopy. A nut was created to be roasted, salted and served with a Manhattan.

I miss their unaplogetic claim to a good time, to which they felt entitled after the war. Their sacrifice was great, the lives lost keenly missed in our small community. Toasts were made in memory ("To Charlie, to Ike, bottoms up!"). Widows were looked after, parties held, new babies made. I was one.

He was the last man standing of my parent's circle. With his death, I've lost a filament holding me to that world, but I am still held in their embrace.





24 comments:

Jane M said...

It was a different world for that post-war generation and you've summed it up wonderfully. Even though my parents are gone, there are still some lifelong friends of theirs around me. It's a connection to my childhood, feeling awe and wondering about being an adult. As long as they are in my life, it's easy to return to those times in my mind. I hope you have many happy memories of those years.

Rebecca said...

Beautiful summary of a great life...Invigorates me to live out the rest of MY years well--AND to give thought and attention to the eternal part of me that will go on after MY "fourscore and twenty)!

I like the word "bohomie"! Haven't heard it for a long, long time.

Mary said...

Duchesse, what a lovely post. It made me think lovingly to the threads that still exist tying me back to my parents generations. My dad was well known in his particular field and when I hear the occasional "I remember when ...", I am comforted to know he and his work are still valued.

LPC said...

Here's to his memory. Let's hope the things they did so well stay part of our society.

materfamilias said...

Your memories of those years are considerably different from my family's, but your evocation of an era is lovely. Imagine living to 107!

Demi-pointe said...

It is a pleasure to hear of someone who enjoyed his life. Perhaps that is why he lived to 107...because he enjoyed his life. Subsequent generations will live longer life times but will we/they have as much to live for and to enjoy. When a colleague tells me he cannot have an orange because of the diet he is on I wonder, really, an orange. Must we take joy and subtract so much from it. Even down to an orange.

Jill Ann said...

What a great story. As a native Michigander (now in exile in Texas) I found the obituary especially interesting.

As a fifty-something woman now taking care of my 84 year old mother, who is frail and suffering from increasing dementia, I've been thinking a lot lately about aging; wondering what my old age will be like, and how I can be more like my lively, vital aunt and uncle, and not end up like my poor mom.

Auntie and Uncle (he's 84, she's 78) have some health problems, but are mostly in good shape; they do love to party, enjoy a cocktail (or several), and both still work. She does volunteer work at a hospital and he does paid work occasionally at his son-in-law's business. They go to all their grandkids' and great-grandkids' games and recitals.

Like Judge Fenlon, they are staying connected and active, and enjoy life. They are all good examples for us to follow...I wonder if I have the brains and discipline to follow it.

Belle de Ville said...

What a beautifully written post. It is wonderful to remember and respect this generation who saw so much and worked so hard.

Frugal Scholar said...

Duchesse--I was moved by the whole post. But when I reached the last bit, well, I was overcome. A lovely tribute. I feel that way with the death of all my German-speaking/accented relatives, none of whom my children ever knew.

Duchesse said...

Jane: They were really very kind people, who took time with children.
Rebecca: Thank you; Judge Fenlon always had a twinkle in his eye, and was a dashing man.
Mary: Since people stayed with their companies or practices, often for life, I think many of them took pride in a lifetime of tangible achievement.
LPC: Of course in the '60s I thought they were kind of stodgy, but now I admire that core of values.
materfamilias: Thanks; there were things less appealing about that era, certainly, but their world was placid once the war was over.
Demi-pointe: That's it exactly. Dad would say (quoting Thornton Wilder), "Enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate."
Belle: They knew what they had sacrificed, and why- and did not question its worth.

Duchesse said...

Jill-Ann: We never know what kind of old age we'll have, if we get there. Both of my parents had long lives with sharp minds. We are learning more about dementia all the time, very sad to see a loved one afflicted with it.

Frugal: Thank you, I was surprised to find how deeply his death affected me, and reflecting on why, I wrote the post. As long as he was alive, those people were.

Artful Lawyer said...

Love this post - I grew up in Michigan boating and watching my grandparents (even more than my parents) in the 1970s and 80s (when I was a kid and they were senior citizens) drinking, smoking, eating beef and butter, having parties and having a great time. And so many lived long - life for the professional class in 2010 isn't nearly as fun (all worry and not enough Scotch).

Duchesse said...

Artful Lawyer: We hare some roots. One time after she turned 90, my mother told me that they took the train from No. Michigan to New Orleans with friends, shortly after my Dad got out of the army. "Three days in the bar car", she said, "We felt we deserved it." I was amazed as I saw her as quite proper.

Duchesse said...

Artful: Oh- and also they could support a family on one income. That makes a big difference.

Marguerite said...

Beautifully written Duchesse. My parents were of that generation as well. I think the major difference in their lives as compared to ours is stress. I blame technology and multitasking! Let's all relax with a cocktail and a steak and just let that phone ring. LOL

Duchesse said...

Marguerite: I find the current culture of denial and 'health consciousness' rather overdone. Unlike their steaks.

s. said...

How I miss that generation!s

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! Quite a tribute to that wonderful generation and a way of life lives with gusto. My father in law passed away recently at the age of 90. At the wake, we had Manhattans, things with cream sauce and decadent deserts in his honor.

Duchesse said...

s: I'm doing my best to keep it going by enjoying the occasional martini or eclair.

Anonymous: What a marvelous memorial. Gusto is the word. My Dad was quite puzzled about why people voluntarily gave up dessert, and he thought white wine spritzers were the weirdest thing one could drink.

Maggie said...

Duchesse, a beautiful and insightful post that resonates loud and clear to all Baby Boomers out there. I was reminded of much the same feelings and musings recently when the grandson of my dad's closest friend ran for mayor of a local city. Reconnecting with the family ( a big, loud, fun loving, Irish clan) after many years recalled those same memories for me. Although our parents are gone now, they all lived well into the golden ages. As younger folks, they lived guilt free when it came to having fun. They knew how to enjoy life's pleasures both large and small. I'm getting tired of hearing someone at a dinner party announce that they'll have to, "hit the gym tommorrow to work off all the calories etc."
Artful Lawyer said it best...life in 2010 is not nearly as much fun as it used to be. Can we take a lesson from all of this?

Duchesse said...

Maggie: Some decades ago I caught myself saying that "hit the gym" thing, then realized what a killjoy I was, bringing guilt to a table. Each of us takes her own lessons from how they lived, and for me it is about leisurely meals at a table, not carrying a BlackBerry and taking regular time off.

diverchic said...

A beautiful and poignant description of that time and culture. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

These were simpler times, no 60 hour work weeks with long commutes and then being on-call 24-7. The women in particular lived a simple life; most did not work outside the home. I see a great difference in the work hours and extreme job pressure from when I started working in 1978 until today. Personally I do not think boomers will live longer than their parents; I know plenty fo 50+ women that have died of various cancers never having had any time to enjoy their life while their 85+ mothers are still alive and kicking.

Duchesse said...

Anonymous @ 9:15: Yes, the hours and pressure. If employers require overtime and create pressure (threat of layoff, under-resourcing), some of us will sacrifice years of life to our employers. Some companies give compensatory time off but I question the health benefits of an extra few off a run of 12-14 hour days.