Eulogy for Robert B. Parker by his son, David

This piece was read aloud at Robert B. Parker's memorial service earlier this month.

Robert and David Parker.jpgI met my father in 1959 though I don't remember our first moments together. Over the years, I thought I'd come to know him quite well, but I never really understood--until these last weeks--that he was really three different men.

The man known as Ace was the first: a charming, loutish, self-aggrandizing, cuddly, hard-drinking, sweet-talking, self-styled hooligan who used to tell us he'd one day become famous. We didn't believe him. It so happened he was right, because his second incarnation turned out to be Robert B. Parker, the venerated author who had restored a disreputable but quintessentially American genre--the detective novel--to its preeminent place in American fiction. He gave it relevance, he gave it probity and he gave it heat. For this, Robert B. Parker was beloved by millions and belonged really to the world.

The third man was Bob, and he belonged to us. Bob had been lurking inside Ace all along but Ace had to loosen his grip a little in order for Bob to emerge. While Bob posed little threat to the gadfly author jousting with talk show hosts and speaking in epigrams he was there inside Robert B. Parker too.

Bob Parker, was my father. He hated to be referred to as "my dad". He was my father. "My dad" always struck him (and me) as half-assed, slangy, casual--not befitting the grandeur of the office. He was very serious about being a father and believed it to be a great and marvelous undertaking. Oh, I called him "Dad" when we were together but when I spoke of him it was always as "my father".

We all know of his passion for social justice, civil rights and noblesse oblige, and because these traits are enshrined in his work, it's easy to take them for granted. But we've only to remember how hard-won they were. In building his character, he had to reject the narrow-minded and bigoted conservatism of his parents and his parochial upbringing. A larger life beckoned him. He dared to eat the peach. He rode away from his mundane origins on a kind of daft confidence that allowed him to transform himself as needed but without losing his center. In contrast, I didn't have to reject his values to build my character. I wanted to be like him.

He was upstanding. He quit his fraternity in college as a point of honor because it wouldn't admit black people or Jews. He took me as a fourth grader to civil rights marches and anti-war protests, he embraced feminism (though not without some irony), and later, although he recoiled from the pieties of identity politics, he came ardently to believe in marriage equality. His ardor was not based in politics which he found a malignant domain. Nor did he support it because it afforded people equal rights (though it does). He favored it because marriage itself was central to the romantic adventure that gave meaning and texture to his life. He knew that no one could honorably be denied so basic a pursuit of happiness. Those who lacked the rectitude to agree received, and deserved, his contempt.

On a more quotidian level, my childhood with him was often fraught. I was a somewhat dainty little boy who hated sports and often disdained his vulgarity. I danced smartly round the living room to television variety shows but I wouldn't have picked up a baseball bat at gunpoint. Just when I feared my nelly antics would cause him to recoil or withdraw, he would magically turn another side of himself toward me. My earliest memories of him are of a book of Renaissance paintings he gave me when I was a toddler. We poured over this book together and he told me the stories contained in the elaborate paintings. He decoded their symbols for me and together we consumed these works with an almost gastronomic relish. I felt immediately that this world of art was ours, his and mine.

He took me to Baseball games at Fenway Park where I sat slumped in the sticky seat, counting the seconds until it was over but he also took me often to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where we would lose ourselves together in the hushed galleries filled with saints and knights. This sensitive aesthete so far from Ace was, I now think, the nascent Bob Parker whom I would come to know much better later. I like to think that he tried this person out with me and, though I was a child, I nurtured him.

He thought a civilized man ought to know at least a little bit about a lot of things, so when I was a teenager and decided that I wanted to dance, I asked him if we could go, for the first time, to a ballet performance. Now, we'd been taken often to the theater, but never to the ballet and I thought myself quite soigné for asking. My father, at that moment in a cut-off sweatshirt covered with muffin crumbs, bacon grease, Flintstones Jelly and beer stains replied without dropping a beat--"Yeah, I'd like to see something by Twyla Tharp, I understand she's quite innovative". I was shocked. How did he know about Twyla Tharp in the mid-seventies? Had he belched while saying it, it wouldn't have been more incongruous. Such was his ineffable breadth.

There were more challenges, our biggest came when I was 31, and I thought I probably shouldn't go through with my planned marriage to my longstanding girlfriend. It seemed increasingly plain to me that I needed to know the love of a man. I told my father this and he surprised me again, though not this time pleasantly. He was very disappointed and told me I needed to follow through with my commitment to marry and that it was a selfish, or maybe even cowardly thing to withdraw from the wedding. He said that if I needed to have affairs with men that I should handle that discreetly after I was married. That was that.

I knew he was wrong. Our relationship, once so close, shut down. He later, as he often did in such situations, sent me a long letter, admitting he was wrong. He said his disappointment came from his wish for me to duplicate and validate his choices--that he had, in essence, groomed me to live a life that reflected his. I pointed out that what he proposed I do was not remotely a life which reflected his, in ways which now seem comically obvious. I resolved to show him that my being gay was no impediment to building a life that testified to the things he and I cherished.

Let me count the ways:

Like his, my intimate relationships are abiding, loyal, deep and passionate. Like him, I think that what one does, one should do well. If we like eating we should eat well, we should cultivate our senses, we should dress well and learn what suits us, we should play at things that matter and not be idle or trivial. We should travel and know something of the world, we should learn another language. We should view all things, except romantic love, skeptically. We should puncture piety, challenge orthodoxy, we should be secular. We should be cultured without being effete, erudite without being pompous, smart without being glib. We should follow our own law consistently. People we love should know that we won't let them down. We should be funny.

One of my favorite parts of Dad was what I think of as his Lady Bracknell side. I write rather elaborate special thanks in my theater programs, the ones the audience reads during my shows, it's my way of doing what he did in the dedications for his books. His favorite of the ones I wrote to him was the following--" I thank Dad for his bottomless contempt". He loved that. He knew that no one's contempt ran deeper than his and that no one admired that more than me.

I want to wind down with a quote he used as the basis for the title of one of his Spenser novels. It's from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

"And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."

Goodbye Ace, Goodbye Robert B., Goodbye Bob, Goodbye Dad.

-- David Parker

February 7, 2010

By Ron Charles |  February 24, 2010; 12:11 PM ET Ron Charles
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Nice eulogy. He was a hell of a man who helped teach things about humor and manhood and life to a lot of us growing up.

First Evan Hunter (Ed McBain), then Donald Westlake, now Parker. There is so much less reason to go to the library nowadays.

Posted by: mr_bill_10 | February 27, 2010 4:13 PM

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