The Eulogy for Harry Al Booth

23
Feb

The Eulogy for Harry Alan “Al” Booth

Al weighed in over ten pounds when he was born on February 24th, 1949 — the baby of a family of six children.  He arrived four years after Marcy, who was born four years after Howard, Marlene, Herb and Mary Lou.  The family didn’t have much materially speaking, but they had a lot of love, and a lot of fun.

At first the family lived on a broken down farm in Roseland with a smattering of animals.    His brother Howie remembers having to escort little Al to the outhouse out back so he could do his business.

Joey also remembers the nascent creativity of little Al demonstrated in his delight at the age of two of every morning taking the coal out of the coal pail and spreading it throughout the kitchen, causing his mother major frustration until she fixed little Al’s wagon by placing a scary rubber Halloween mask inside the coal pail for him to discover when he went digging, giving little Al a fright and bringing to an end his coal-spreading ways forever.

When Al was five the family moved to the house at 114 Eagle Rock which became the happy setting for the rest of Al’s childhood.  Al shared a bedroom with his big brothers  Howie and Herbie.  The house next door belonged to their mother’s brother’s family, which meant there were five cousins at hand — including a girl named Migsy who was the same age as Al – so there was never a lack for somebody with whom to play, with a big back yard where imaginary Indians lived and adventures were waiting to be had.  Howie remembers how he and his little brother would climb up on top of an old car out back that would transform in their imaginations to a stage coach racing across the prairie, where they’d snap Howie’s bull whip to make their imaginary horses gallop faster to elude the imaginary hostile Indian who were in hot pursuit.

When Al was in eighth grade his appendix burst, almost taking his life, and leading to an extended and painful time of recuperation at home.   Al exhibited his characteristic humor in the face of hardship; when his older siblings told him not to cry over the pain his burst appendix was causing him, Al responded by declaring, “It’s my body and I’ll cry if I want to!”

As Al grew into his teen years and beyond, his brothers and sisters moved out of the house to get married and start having children.  Al took on the role of “Uncle Al — the kiddies’ Pal”, a role he would play throughout the rest of his life with a whole host of different little kids fortunate enough to come in contact with him.

Al was the fun, young, cool Uncle who never seem to tire of playing with his nieces and nephews — the fall back guy for babysitting.  Happy memories abound of Uncle Al giving endless rides on the tractor, and countless games of spud, and fishing expeditions where Uncle Al introduced the younguns to the joys of fishing.

The nieces and nephews loved exploring Uncle Al’s messy room back at the family homestead on Eagle Rock Road, or hitching a ride with him in his cool weird car.

Al had a hand in pulling together the tradition of 4th of July family picnics, which included command performances by the nieces and nephews where they’d strut their stuff at the family reunion talent show.

Al followed his big brother Howie and Herbie in joining the Chatham Colonial Riflemen where they would parade around and fire old flint lock rifles.  At the Roseland Historical Society , also known as the “Roseland Hysterical Society” the brothers would dress up in period costumes and make their famous “Three Brother’s Stew.”   In a 1983 publication of a special family reunion cookbook, Al described precisely how you go about making this fine tasting stew:

“Beg, borrow, or steal as much venison or other game meat as possible!  Drink a little wine.  Lay everything out on the table and have all cooks point, sniff, touch, and giggle! Talk about mother and father.  Talk about the old days on top of the hill and the baseball games in the cornfield.  Remember the lilacs around the outhouse and the Indians in the big rock.  Laugh about reading water meters and cutting Mrs. Mumford’s grass.  Wonder why they don’t have Harvest festivals or Sunday School picnics anymore.   Think about Louie down at the shore and Muffy in Vermont.  Start peeling vegetables and getting silly.  Have all cooks sample stew (one spoon allowed) then add whatever it needs.  When everyone is too tired and too drunk to continue any more turn off the stew.  It was done 3 hours ago anyway.  Call up local pizzeria and chip in for dinner.”

It was at one of the annual Hysterical Society’s picnics at which the brothers were cooking their famous venison stew that Al’s ten year old nephew BI managed to catch his pant legs on fire.   His mother tossed a Dixie cup of water on his face to no avail, as the fire proceeded to spread up his pant legs.  It was Al with a couple of years as a volunteer fireman under his belt who had the presence of mind to calmly instruct BI to stop, drop and roll where upon Uncle Al extinguished what remained of the flames by covering him with a blanket.

Afterwards, following a quick trip to the emergency room and back, with BI sitting their bandaged, Uncle Al answered an old lady’s inquiry as to what it was they were cooking  that smelled so good, with the unforgettable, “Leg of BI.”

Later Al followed the example of his brothers and sisters and got married himself, which led him into the defining role of his life, that of father to Tracy and Tim.   He was a hands-on Dad if ever there was one, always there for his kids.   Tim enjoyed the Saturday routine of going with his Dad to Pathmark to buy the weekly groceries.

It seemed as if Al was always driving Tracy and Tim here, there and everywhere. Tim remembers a time when there was this nerdy kid in his elementary school class who had no friends but who had invited everybody in their class to his birthday party after school on a Friday afternoon.   Tim came home worried about two things: the thought that nobody would actually show up to the kid’s party and how sad that would be; and the thought of having to put his dad out for yet another ride.

He remembers however that his Dad had not minded at all — in fact, that he’d been pleased to take him.   Thinking back, the memory seemed to express to Tim something basic about his Dad and the compassion he always carried for the underdogs of this world.

Tim remembers his father’s endless patience — how when he was in eighth grade his Dad stood in line with him for three whole hours without ever complaining so Tim could get the required physical to play football.

Al was the Dad that all Tim’s friends liked to be around — the Dad who take them fishing and do other fun stuff with them.

Al always had deep spiritual side to him, but one thing he’d been missing in his life was an experience of Church in the best sense of the word where that side of him could find expression.  It was Tracy who led her father into the fold.  She began attending our church as a young teenager with a friend, singing in our choir and getting involved in youth group.   The first time Al came to church was on Father’s Day, invited there by Tracy.  He came to hear some words Tracy had written that she was going to read in the worship service — words of gratitude for the gift of her gentle, sweet Dad.

I asked Al’s stepdaughter Jess what her first memory was of Al, and this was it:  being a child of maybe nine and sitting in church with her mom Gail and listening to Tracy describe her Dad in such loving tones, and thinking how wonderful it would be to have a Dad like that. Little did Jess know that one day Al would become her beloved step dad.

From then on, Al started coming to church regularly.   He was hooked.

Al and I became friends.   We recognized in each other a certain shared disposition and outlook on the world that allowed us to be at ease with one another. We would sit together in Al’s back yard for long stretches of time and talk about all kinds of things.  He’d share his “thought arrows” with me.    He became something of a confidant for me.  I’d let my hair down with Al; I entrusted him with my secrets.   We did a lot of laughing together.

When Tim reached high school, Al became the leader of our youth group, and between the two of them, our youth group experienced its golden age.   All kinds of kids showed up who otherwise would probably never have set foot in church, drawn there by the shared charisma of Tim and Al.  Following his Dad’s example, Tim and his wife Jess now work with the youth of their church in Pennsylvania.

Al became our chief cook at our dinners.   A challenge that would make a lesser man shrivel into a pool of anxious tears — producing a dinner for hundreds with an assorted group of oddball and not necessarily competent volunteer helpers —  well, this was just fun for Al, giving him an adrenalin-rush.  As the years passed, and Al’s health declined, he could still get himself up for those dinners, putting in 15 hour days and still get up for church the next day.   He found the energy because he just loved doing it so.  “How are you, Al?” we’d say.  “Tired and cranky,” was his stock answer.  But he didn’t act cranky at all, and he masked his fatigue well.

His dinners were delicious, and they were fun for everybody involved, all because the man leading us was so much fun to be with.  They provided opportunity for him to reproduce the happy times he knew so well from life with his brothers and sisters, his nephews and nieces.

He loved coming up with his “hair brain” new ideas — a dinner like the one folks would have had 185 years ago when our church was first established, and this for the Methodist Clergy Christmas party no less.  It was smash hit.

There were the murder mysteries where everybody came in costume; (there are pictures around of Al dressed in drag to portray Sadie Hawkins.)

With his compassion for the underdog, Al and his kitchen buddy, Tom Albert would cook and transport our bi-monthly dinners for the families finding refuge at the homeless shelter.

He pitched for our coed church softball game whose mission was to provide an opportunity for other teams to feel good about themselves — at which we were very successful.  When his health deteriorated and he could no longer play the field, he would still call balls and strikes with dramatic flair and brutal honesty.

He starred in my plays and Christmas pageants, embodying the spirit of Santa Claus for a generation of children from our church.

Al started the tradition of taking our Sunday School kids to Old Troy park to go fishing (you can read Al’s account of one of those expeditions in your bulletin.)  It was Al who came up with the idea of having a dinner and revival meeting on a summer evening outdoors on the front lawn of our church.  It was Al’s idea last Fall to hold church at Old Troy Park, where Al, totally bald from his chemotherapy, served holy communion to his church family.

Church provided a setting where Al’s delightful creativity could get expressed and find folks willing to get on board with his wacky and wonderful ideas.   A heartache of Al’s life was that his work life never really provided him with much gratification.  His jobs were just places he went to earn a paycheck.   But at church he could dream dreams and then lead the way in making them become reality.

Al said he never really liked a job until late in his life, on disability, he became little Kathryn’s nanny, spending three afternoons a week going one on one with a three year old.  Shy little Kathryn adored her Uncle Al.

Eighteen years ago Al suffered his first heart attack.  It came during a dark time in Al’s life when his first marriage was unraveling.   Later he would speak of the comfort he found leaving the hospital sitting in the cab of Howie’s truck along side his brother Herbie – the three boys — listening to Hank Williams’ Gospel songs – just like old times.

When the marriage ended, Al ended up living with her big sister Marcie’s house.  It was an old Booth tradition to take in strays.  It was there that Al first invited Gail for what amounted to their first date, when he had repeatedly talked about how wonderful Marcie’s cooking and hospitality was, and eventually Gail had asked him straight out:  “Well, are you inviting me to Marcie’s for dinner?”  Yes, he declared, he was.  And Marcie made Gail feel right at home — like she was part of the family, and after dinner, Marcie feigned fatigue and excused herself, leaving the two middle-aged teenagers to squeeze in next to each other on Marcie’s love seat to watch Saturday Night Live reruns.

Quickly Al and Gail fell madly in love with one another.  When Gail’s mother asked her what made Al so special, Gail told her he was sweet and kind and fun to be with, that he made her laugh, and that he really seemed to love her as well.  But the question stayed with her about what it was that made Al special.   The next day she called her mother back and said, “I know what it is that makes Al so special.  He’s the best Dad I’ve ever met!”

I think this may well have been true.  But the fact that Al was a real stud didn’t hurt either.

Sweetness and romance entered Al’s life.   For years to come Al and Gail would enjoy leisurely Sunday afternoon dates after church where they’d sit by the fireplace with food they had made together, listening to classical music and taking a nap, or not.

Al had never really felt worthy of taking vacations, but Gail assured him he was, and taught him how to relax and enjoy himself on trips they would take to cabins in the Adirondacks and the Poconos, Maine and Lancaster County.  Gail kept a journal of those tender, sweet times together.  Here is a typical entry:

“Al, the artist is working on a drawing, now adding some watercolors. He’s quite talented, in so many ways! God, I love that man so much. It’s nice to be away and appreciate what we share: this love of solitude in the woods, our dog Bogey and our very special love for each other.”

Al and Gail’s love spilled over into the lives of others as well in a very precious way.  Jessica spoke of how when Al moved into their home she learned to appreciate what a family was all about.  She remembers the care with which Al would make dinner each evening, and how much it meant to him to have the whole family sit together and relax at the end of the day; how much pleasure he received from listening to the people he loved tell the stories of their days.  The dinner table was holy ground for Al.

Al and Gail’s love always had room for others.   Bob Vance became their adopted son, with Bob’s wife Joanne and their three beautiful little girls becoming family as well.

Both Al’s extended family and his church family were blessed by Al and Gail’s love for one another as well.   In his new life with great joy Al became all the more accessible, his heart open.

The nieces and nephews speak of how Al was always the “go to” guy when you needed to talk to someone who was wise.  They marveled at what a good listener Al was — how free of judgments he was — and the insights he could provide.

Al left this world knowing he was loved.  His family gave him the kind of love every human soul needs to let go from the burdens of a world when the body has worn down.

The Apostle Paul wrote that it is love that never ends. (1Corinthians 13:8a) Everything else fades away.   So often we get confused about what life is about.  We get succored into believing the world when it tells us that life is about acquiring riches and status and prestige.   Al knew that in the end, life is all about love.   I remember sitting in a small group led by David Turner with Al about a year ago.  We were taking turns introducing ourselves.   Al said, “I’m 61 and I’m a nanny.  And there’s nothing I’d rather be doing right now.”   In the eyes of the world, being a nanny may not have seemed like much.  But those of us sitting in that room that night were pretty impressed:  we were blessed by a man that was at peace with himself — content to pass on a little love to whomever God happened to place in his path.

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