My father, Edward A. Burleigh and me (Gloucester NJ)
I don’t remember a lot about my father. Memories of sixty years or more are very suspect. However I remember his last day…
He and my mother were going to a Valentines Day event in 1960 that night. I was seven years old. My second grade class was asked to make personalized Valentine Day cards for their parents. I gave my mother her card early in the day. I vaguely recall that I was mad at my father. I don’t remember why. I did not give him his card. He may have wondered why. But as my parents were preparing to leave for the event, I had a change of mind and handed him the card. My father was not the sentimental type for cards and most expressions of affections. He opened the envelope, read the card, smiled at me and said “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” However I did not see my father again. That night, he suffered a heart attack and died.
There is no consolation for a seven-year-old boy when he loses his father so suddenly. However, I was so glad that I gave him the card. I did not want my last contact with him to be of rancor. I wanted him to know that I loved and respected him. He gave me a wink and smile as he left the house. That’s my final memory of my father.
My father was not a big man. He might’ve been 5’6 in height and weighed less than 150 lbs. However he was a very tough man. I had heard stories from his brothers, other family members and people who knew him that he was good with his fists. My father noticed one day that I came running back into my backyard to avoid some bully out front. My father told me that I can fight the boy or that I would get hit with a belt by him. Not an easy decision for me but I went out and fought the bully (to the bully’s surprise). To the best of my recollection, the fight ended in a draw.
He was a devoted family man, not just to my mother, myself and my younger sister but also to his brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. He came from a large family, five brothers and four sisters. An example of his devotion to family was told to me by one of my aunts. My aunt was going through a bad and abusive marriage. She had three small children, no job and no alternatives to leaving. One night my aunt’s drunk and abusive husband beat her in front of her kids. That got my father involved. He confronted and “resolved” the issue with my aunt’s husband and found a place to move her and the three kids.
My father did not have a high school degree. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and fought in the Atlantic theater during World War II. I have pictures of him in his youth. He always had a smile on his face and an arm around a buddy or girlfriend. I had heard he was a very good dancer. I guess those genes did not get passed to me.
I vaguely recall that he worked a number of different jobs and that his last one was working shift work at the New York shipyard in Camden. Not surprisingly, I do remember watching Friday night boxing fights with him. He enjoyed fishing with his brothers. This may have been the only recreation he enjoyed. I don’t recall him having any interest in football, baseball or basketball.
I think he smoked to excess, drank too much and did not take care of himself very well and I think this led to his early death at the age of 35. I wondered how happy he was. He always talked of going to California. He had a brother, Elmer, who lived there and my father seemed to have a bit of wanderlust.
I often wonder how different my life would have been if he had stayed alive. My father was very personable and outgoing. I was quiet and shy, just like my mother. My young sister, Sandra, at age 3, was starting to show her bubbly personality and verve. Sandra may have inherited his personality gene. My father did share one similarity—-we both lost our fathers early in our lives. His father also died early in his life. His mother ran a boarding house and did laundry to support nine children.
I would hope that my father would have been proud of how I lived my life. Like him, I took care of my mother and sisters and protected them the best I could. He may have appreciated how I handled his death and showed the toughness he had as life threw challenges at me. I hope so. I’m Ed Burleigh’s son, I would not have wanted to disappoint him.