There’s a line in “Death at a Funeral,” an uproarious British comedy, that turns the movie on its head toward the end. It’s the first sentence of a son’s eulogy for his father: “My father was an exceptional man.”
I have come to the same realization about my own father, Paul McKeever, who died in 2000 at age 90.
My dad was exceptional, I think, largely because he did not try to be. He lived a very simple, pious life and was a very kind, generous man. He went to college for just one year, forced to withdraw when his father died post-surgery, but remained a lifelong student of the English language.
For my dad, language was a source of amusement — he would chuckle at sportscasters’ use of “intestinal fortitude” when they spoke of an athlete’s courage. He enjoyed creative euphemisms (“five-dollar words”) and delicate descriptions of bodily functions, especially “hydraulic easement” for taking a leak.
Still, it bothered my dad when he heard clunky redundancies such as “revert back.” And he would cringe at snooty titles like “Chief Executive Officer” or “Associate Vice President for Corporate Affairs.” (His lofty title at the Post Office for 35 years, I believe, was “clerk.”)
As a simple man of few wants, my dad was very hard to buy gifts for. Ah, but anything relating to language was a safe bet — crossword puzzle books, especially.
And if you love crosswords, you need a good dictionary. So on Sept. 11, 1997, my dad’s 87th birthday, I bought him a hardcover Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
I know he liked it, and the rest of his birthday, because of the inscription I later found inside. In his notoriously horrendous printing, he wrote that I had given him the Webster’s on 9/11/97, “A lovely day in my life!”
He died three years later, Sept. 30, 2000. (As an aside, I’m glad he didn’t live to his 91st birthday on 9/11. He would not have used euphemisms that day.) Some time after his death, I inherited the dictionary. I believe that’s when I first saw the inscription.
I have kept that book within reach ever since, and it is the first reference I go to when I need to be sure of a word’s spelling or a nuance that I might not be aware of.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it saved me from a blunder — in a draft, I had written “confidante” about an old friend who is male. The dictionary saved me by pointing out that the ‘e’ at the end was reserved for females.
I breathed a sigh of relief with that discovery. That’s when I looked at my dad’s inscription yet again, and decided to tell the story of his dictionary, his love of words and how, in no small way, that made him an exceptional man.