Wish I could still give my Dad a hug and kiss, exclaiming with a wide smile, “Happy Father’s Day”! But, my name sake, James Merle Manser, Sr., has been in Heaven with my Mama for 13 years now. They both died of lung cancer within 3 months of each other. Confidently, Dad had planned to die first. As with any Manser Project, my father had a detailed task list and timeline to guide the project on schedule. Except, in this his final project, he hadn’t factored in what to do if his wife passed away before him. Dad hadn’t thought about how to move forward in life without Madelyn Louise, his bride of 55 years.
Listening to their favorite music on the screened-in back porch was a recurring evening ritual. The tapestry of music over decades was woven into their love story. Dad was a deft romantic, often coming up with clever names to describe their forever-love. We’d not always know how or when the name was formed. Like Side By Side, the name just surfaced in their playful and affectionate conversation. That’s how we’d learn about it.
Several days after my Mother’s funeral, Dad and I were on that back porch; his favorite resting spot at their retirement home in Fruitland Park, Florida. Sipping on ice tea to squash the humidity, we gazed at the expansive backyard he had built. Typically, conversation would center on prioritizing work projects. But, cutting the grass, pulling garden weeds, harvesting tomatoes, and pruning rose bushes was not remotely on his mind. While trying to lift my Dad’s spirits with possible new life adventures, he politely listened, but his thoughts were elsewhere. I have often wondered, “What was he thinking?”
As the oldest of four children, I was blessed with the first fruits of love and attention, and opportunity. Consequently, I was also the guinea pig for parental skills learned on the job. Dad’s discipline was heavy-handed when my brothers and I were young. My sister, the Princess, always seemed to get a free pass on any wrong doing.
Somehow, we accepted that family practice. As often happens, Dad was passing down the same stoic and stern discipline of his parents.
The provincial family experience eluded my parents, living through the sacrifices born through the Great Depression and World War II. Neither Mom nor Dad had role models for how to parent or cultivate a healthy home life.
Fortunately, they had support and encouragement from caring relatives and friends.
Throughout the elementary school years in Bermuda, life was idyllic. The beach was almost a daily trip for family fun
Even the house was a playground. No matter where we lived, Dad made sure we had a swing-set in the backyard.
Constantly laboring on home improvement projects after his day job, he was the quintessential Best Dad, by family popular vote year after year.
He was also the cinematic historian, creating volumes of scrapbook pictures and countless reels of 8mm movie footage to capture the joys of island life, perpetual sunny skies, unblemished beaches of coral-pinkish sand, and our favorite family spot, Jobe’s Cove.
While Mom was fine playing a quiet nurturing role in the shadows, Dad took charge to shape his family’s castle. Through decades of family and professional success, he rightfully earned the respect and love of our extended family as the Manser’s Patriarch.
My father’s self-discipline, focus, high energy, and integrity kept life on a successful path. Everyone admired my father, and he was affectionately known by family and friends as Whitey, Chief Big Water, John Henry, Fireman Jim and Merle. While Dad tirelessly worked to support the family and relished home maintenance chores, his favorite past-time was gardening. I always remember a garden in our yard growing up. During the later years of his 40 year fire protection career, and throughout retirement, gardener Jim had plantings of his beloved tomatoes and peppers, alongside string beans, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupes, strawberries, and sweet corn. It was common during the harvest season to hear Dad proudly acknowledge, “Louise’s canned bread & butter-pickles and stew tomatoes in the cupboards, and the sweet corn in the freezer are thanks to God’s grace and Merle’s toil”. Stories of gardener Jim accompanied every guest for dinner and he shared his bounty with neighbors and friends. While humble about it, his passion for God was most animated when speaking about their partnership bringing produce to the table.
My Dad always put his wife and children first. We were a middle class American family, watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, prayed, and sat down together for dinner most evenings. Once in a while, I’d peek into Dad’s closet to see his new or hip apparel. No investments ever made in fancy threads. Devotion to the family’s needs was reflected in his heart, time, talents, and bank account.
Essentially from a broken home with minimal resources, this youngster far surpassed everybody’s expectations. Especially his own. Only after a chaotic childhood, climbing through the survival’s school of hard knocks, did little Jim find a stabilizing fatherly figure in his life. By hanging around the local fire station of his hometown, my Dad was unofficially adopted by Fire Chief Donald Key and his wife Vivian. Classmates nicknamed my Dad, Whitey in those days (and years later my parents would name my younger brother after him). Like an incubator, the Keys provided Whitey many years of family support and guidance to develop his passion for firefighting and confidence to prepare him for that profession.
Shortly after graduating from high school, he married the daughter of a Methodist minister, my Momma, Madelyn. From that point, Dad spread his wings with Mom’s fervent prayers, and they soared to the infamous baby stork in the clouds, coming to rest eventually with four children in a span of 11 years.
Louise and Merle were the original Love Birds; with Hollywood looks of the classic romance genre of Bogie & Bacall.
Mom and Dad created a home environment of unconditional and sacrificial love, safe spaces to grow and learn, grace to fail and learn to get up, and brute determination at every turn. My brothers, sister, and I always knew their love was steadfast and true. Throughout those eighteen years of family life, we had etched in our hearts and minds that There’s No Place Like Home.
While raised in the Methodist church, Dad’s acceptance of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior came in retirement. His spiritual faith grew stronger as his physical body weakened. He didn’t talk much about his faith with me. It seemed he kept his spiritual connections privately to himself. In my last visit with him about three months before he died, I kissed him on the head as he lay sleeping peacefully in the same bed where my mother passed months earlier. I felt a peace in the room, with a gentle force of goodness nearby.
As I approach my 66th birthday next month, I reflect on Father’s Day, and in seeking Dad's spiritual presence, a message came to me:
“Spiritual edification is guided by heavenly angels arching to connect with our soul, pulsating God’s goodness through grace, charity and purpose”.