This is a guest post by Kim Bagby, Steve and Mimi’s daughter-in-law. At Mimi’s invitation, she and her husband, Joe, are sharing a “2 Roads Diverged” view of their recently completed trip:
Baton Rouge, LA
Knowing our next stop brings a home in which we can stay makes us lackadaisical in our planning for the weekend. Unprepared in Baton Rouge, we do laundry and eat a lot of Jimmy John’s and Bonefish Grill. They are easy, gluten free, and nearby. We are lazy. What a travesty in the state of Louisiana.
Over our days here, we select Steve’s memorial photos. I could spend my life looking through people’s pictures, always nosing rudely through coffee table books and albums on shelves. I find a sad enjoyment sorting through the images of Steve. More than one family member has expressed that if you were to be a couple, Steve and Mimi are the couple to be. But in this massive pile, there are few photos of the two together. I mention this, and Mimi tells me they often traveled alone and each needed to play photographer. She produces a photo from her junior prom.
A handful of images stand out – the prom photo, where they are babies in another era. They slow dance in black and white. Mimi’s hair is precisely curled. She’s wearing gloves. There’s the ever-present, and ever-amazing, shot of Steve with his young sons – youngest Tom on Steve’s shoulders, Steve looking the happiest one could imagine a father with his boys. Mike and Joe are both looking different directions, but both looking happy. How did the photographer (I imagine Mimi?) manage to compose this shot? What skill and/or luck struck in that second – three little ones ready, yet unposed for the camera. There’s a photo of Steve outside of a restaurant called the Love Muffin Cafe. I can’t decipher the look on his face; I picture Mimi telling him to pose and him patiently playing along. Maybe it was his idea and he finds himself amusing, although he’s not laughing. Love Muffin. Despite his lack of perceivable smile, I find the image particularly funny. I intend to ask the story but forget. Among several other photos, I request that Love Muffin make the cut (and it does, thanks Mike and Susie). I produce a shot of Steve and Mimi slow dancing at Joe’s and my wedding. I pull a photo of Steve and his sons at Mike’s wedding off the fridge and place it on the pile.
The smaller of Steve’s memorials, kindly hosted by LSU, is planned for a Monday afternoon. Mimi rehearses what she will say in her kitchen. A little background on myself: I’m stone-cold. I have a little hard, black heart, thirty-five solid years in the making. Ask my mother, she’ll tell you – my nickname from infancy has been “Mean Baby.” Mimi rehearses for me. She quotes The Little Prince:
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so, it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night…”
Mimi tells the story of how, over the years, she and Steve would read The Little Prince to each other. She was reading this to him for the final time, uncertain if he could hear, very near the end. At those lines, he squeezed her hand. Mimi does not include the rest of the passage, which goes:
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend…I shall not leave you.”
Thirty-five years of “stone cold” mean nothing. Steve’s own widow keeps a straight face. She continues speaking, I am a mess. I don’t think I’m helping this rehearsal very much. I wipe away my tears. (I’m not crying. You’re crying!) I know far in advance I’ll be looking at the floor when she takes the podium.
Joe’s older brother, Mike, arrives. There’s a hazy afternoon of financial discussions, and discussions about the second memorial to take place in Minneapolis. Somewhere along the line, I finalize the flowers. We board the dogs. I get my hair blown out and my toes done. I may currently reside in a car, but I’m self-aware enough to understand when I need to look like a non-car-dwelling adult.
It’s strange to be on the LSU campus. I think about my years in school and how any student could easily identify those that didn’t belong, mostly because they looked so very ancient (for example, maybe they were twenty-eight or so?). I haven’t been near a college campus in ages. What a strange feeling to know exactly what I look like in the eyes of the students that pass me.
Steve’s students are well spoken and look like they are about twelve years old. We listen to their stories. The extent of Steve’s impact on other lives never fails to amaze. Mike speaks well, Mimi takes the podium. She gets through it, I stare at the floor as promised. There is a little cocktail hour to follow. I do not partake, I have to drive to New Orleans tonight. As I pack up Steve’s photos and awards, I recall my plight as a poor, hungry college student. Despite the somber occasion, I would have been all over that cheese plate and wine. These kids clearly have more manners than I did at their age.
Joe and I have one last meal with Mimi and Mike. Via text message, it becomes obvious our friends in New Orleans are tearing it up. We’re going to a bachelor/bachelorette party before our long drive to Minneapolis. This had been the plan since long before Steve died, and my idea. A quiet California wine weekend evolved into a knock-down-drag-out in New Orleans, all at my suggestion. Sitting in Mimi’s kitchen, the heaviness of bookending a New Orleans bachelorette party with my father-in-law’s funerals sets in. I sit at the dinner table regretting our commitment, and alternately feeling guilty for the regret.
The bride has never been to New Orleans. Never been to New Orleans?? Upon hearing this, a lifetime ago, I suggested the party move halfway across the country. It certainly would have been easier for Joe and me – we thought we would be living in Baton Rouge right now. We thought Steve would be living in Baton Rouge right now.
We load up Steve’s old Honda Civic (no #hotelement parking in the French Quarter, thanks), leave Mimi, Mike, and the dogs, and venture towards The Big Easy. It’s after dark when we leave, and nearly 10pm when we arrive.
Given this platform, I would like to shift gears and announce to the world that I (along with my fellow vacation expert, friend, and the Maid-of-Honor-to-be, Laura) can pick an Airbnb like you don’t even KNOW. She and I had been looking for a place to stay (on the clock where we both work, naturally) and excitedly emailed each other this rental at the exact same moment. The building is brick and contemporary and beautiful. It’s giant, with a saltwater pool and hot tub. 4bed/4bath with a pool in the French Quarter? Do you understand how rare that is?? It’s vacation GOLD. Everyone is out when Joe and I arrive. We wander through the space. We peruse the kitchen, we lean out of the windows. We open and close the automated skylight cover in our bedroom, we figure out the fancy lighting, we locate the washer and dryer. You could say it’s a step up from living in a Honda. We unpack and respond to the steady dinging of texts from friends, luring us out into the streets.
New Orleans. What could I possibly say about New Orleans to do it even a shadow of justice? Quite possibly my most favorite city, a sister to Las Vegas as an adult playground, exuding the things I long for which Las Vegas sorely lacks. History, culture, architecture, music, SOUL. Amazing food not procured from an overpriced restaurant on the strip, but from the back of a dirty (and I mean dirty) convenience store. Waiters that call every single one of their customers “my babies,” waiters stone-faced that drop sass so quickly you barely catch it as they walk away. Bartenders heavy on the pour, heavy on the gimmicks. Hand grenades and hurricanes. Hustlers in the streets, with tubas and trombones or sometimes tricks about your shoes. Street poets that type up wedding vows one trip and bad poems about loss on another.
I’m somber, but I’m grateful to be in this city.
We don’t party like we used to party when someone’s about to get married, but we still drink too much. Eat too much. Sleep in and gossip about the drama back home. Consume cheap champagne. We ride rickety street cars with odorous tourists dressed like they came straight from the fields of Woodstock. We spend lazy afternoons on the balconies of old buildings. I catch myself slipping out of the moment. These friends are younger than us, and therefore some of the last to get married – most of our friends are older and on second and third children. If it was just yesterday that I was a student, and today I sit enjoying a breezy balcony with the last of my engaged friends, what does that mean for tomorrow? When do life’s little bumps become insurmountable mountains? How long before we’re mostly looking back and only occasionally looking forward? I’m so frequently told it’s but a few minutes away. I spend our days in New Orleans quietly pulled between grateful highs and wistful lows; trailed by haunting thoughts in a haunted city. Exceedingly fortunate to have good friends and be in good health. Unbelievably privileged to travel. I know these days won’t last forever; I’ve been told they won’t even last a few minutes. I try to appreciate the fullness of these moments, I know I can’t. Someday, twenty or forty years from now, I’ll look back. Then I’ll understand, then I’ll fully appreciate. My “funeral bookend” regret slips away. I can’t speak for Joe – to be honest I worry what he’s feeling under his ever-steady exterior. But as for me? My time here is invaluable. This is where I’m supposed to be. I spend three days contorted, juxtaposed. I celebrate the beginning of a couple’s new life, I reflect on one that has ended.
On our last night, we pack and set our alarms. We wake early, we slip out while everyone sleeps. We have one day for an eighteen hour drive – and that’s without stopping for gas, food, the dogs, or swapping cars in Baton Rouge. There’s a massive accident and the interstate is shut down about twenty minutes into our journey. Cars have been stuck there since last night. Joe, I think this is going to be a rough one.
It takes us double the normal time to get to Baton Rouge. We rush to meet Joe’s mom before her flight to Minneapolis departs. We reunite with our dogs. Mimi calls to say her flight has been cancelled, she returns. We delay our departure from Baton Rouge and I sleep like the dead while Joe helps her rebook.
We are, again, woefully behind schedule and this time we do have somewhere to be. As the miles pass, it becomes more and more obvious that we shouldn’t stop at all. Joe naps while I drive. I’ve done all of the driving so far, and I push as far as I can. Somewhere north of St. Louis I get cranky and my eyelids get heavy. I don’t want to sleep while Joe drives, he’s tired too. We swap, we agree he’ll pull over at the first sign of fatigue. Before I close my eyes, I see a flash. Exhausted, I’m surprised I have time to scream “stop….STOP!!” and grab at the dogs. Joe slams on the brakes and is smart enough not to swerve. He keeps our house upright. Having nearly been asleep, it is a good thing I had just given up driving. I’ve never been this close to hitting a deer, let alone three. And narrowly escape three deer, spanning the width of the interstate, at 2am in the middle-of-nowhere-Missouri in our car house is what we did. I’m now wide awake.
We stop at the next truck stop.
After a solid four hour nap, we’re on the road again. The sun is up and it’s an easy last few hours to Minneapolis. Minneapolis doesn’t have the soul of New Orleans (does anywhere?) but I love it here too. We see an old friend we knew when we were kids, we talk about his daughter. She’s already three. We eat, we gather with Joe’s family. The Buttry family is expansive, and I’ve never seen so many of them in one place. There are aunts and uncles I haven’t met in fourteen years of knowing Joe, and cousins by the dozen. There’s so much to catch up on.
The morning of the memorial comes early. Our Thule has performed its sole duty, our clothes are dry and wrinkle free. As I rush around getting ready, Joe writes his portion for the memorial. It’s mere hours before he needs to speak. He doesn’t have it finished, yet he remains calm. His lack of anxiety compounds mine. I bother him. I ask if he wants to rehearse. I ask him if I can help. Clearly, what he wants is for me to stop helping.
We travel to the venue; setup is done when we arrive. The flowers aren’t right, but it’s too late to change them (sorry, Steve). The room is packed.
So. If you want your memorial to be knock-it-out-of-the park amazing, I suggest you make sure all your friends and colleagues write for a living. It’s embarrassing to think that anyone who spoke at Steve’s service might stumble across his old travel blog and actually read this post. Scratch that – it’s mortifying. Their words are crafted so precisely; their stories so effortlessly evoke laughter through tears. They’re just so fucking articulate. And here I am, “blogging” like I can take a crack at the craft they’ve made their life’s work. If you’re reading (and I mean you: Dan Finney, Ken Fuson, Chuck Offenburger, Jim Brady, Robin Tomlin, all Buttry relatives), I’m humbly sorry. This was all Joe’s idea.
The memorial is beautiful. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s true to Steve’s core. A hallmark of a truly amazing life, and of a family and career both well-loved. Steve’s gift of writing is visible in all three of his sons. My fears of Joe getting to the podium and not being able to speak are totally unfounded. He speaks flawlessly. High five, Buttry. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud.
It’s a long, good night of being with family. A family that’s welcomed me over the years, a family I look forward to seeing each and every time. A theme of gratitude flows through this week, especially in this moment. I struggle for words in a room full of people who make easy work of them.
Again, so somber. But so grateful to be here.