Harry was my husband’s friend and family and he became mine.
A Catholic kid who was raised and remained in Dubuque when he wasn’t off fighting a war in Korea and returning with stories of crossing the Panama Canal, Harry was a working man, a plasterer who built his father’s business into his own while all the world needed plastering, and watched with stunned wonder as the business withered in the hands of his sons under the competitive threat of drywall.
His body went in tandem as Parkinson’s worked its way through his nervous system. This last Thanksgiving I sat with Harry as he sobbed in silent rage. The conversation had ebbed around the table where we so often sit with our coffee and catch up after long distances; folks got up and got busy with preparations for the meal. Harry’s demeanor slipped from lonesome into left; his whole frame melted and the tears came. I took his hand and kept him company.
Later we had dinner.
Once I sat with Harry and a video camera and asked him about his father, a Frenchman who brought his trade with him to America. It’s not surprising that he settled in Dubuque, a town settled by Frenchmen before him and Catholics of his kind. He brought a European method of plastering that was kin to methods used in the great cathedrals, Harry told me. He told me the story of working on a Frank Lloyd Wright building, a bank? And was it he or his father who experienced the imperiousness of the great man?
I can’t remember, and in an act of unforgivable carelessness I later pulled the tape from a pile of others and recorded over it with a usability session, not realizing what I had done until I was reviewing the tape and saw the last little scrap of Harry telling the last little scrap of his story.
Harry was his nickname, although no one can tell me how he came by it. He called me Watusi because, he told me, I looked like one: too skinny when we first met, my hair piled high on my head and secured with a chopstick. I never saw the resemblance, but I liked the nickname so I didn’t protest.
Harry died yesterday on May Day. Workers’ Day. We’re heading out to Dubuque to bury him. I downloaded some Neil Diamond tunes for the road, so we can remember Harry when he was last on his feet. It was his anniversary party and he was dancing at Happy’s Tavern (as well as he could; the Parkinson's had already begun) with his wife of 50 years to Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.