Thursday, March 22, 2012

Memory Book

Alex Fraser and Anne Fraser

Memory Book

Anne Fraser

Anne has now joined Alex, physically in the urn they share and spiritually in whatever way makes sense to you. It makes no sense to talk of them separately as they were married for fifty years but always maintained their senses of themselves and their children. They were remarkable people and they will be remembered by the great many people who knew them.

There are two CDs with Interviews with Anne in recordings made a few months before she got sick. Hers is a story that goes all over the world and you won't hear the tiniest fear of death in her. She was an extraordinary woman who lived to see five great-grandchildren and she knitted blankets, despite being nearly blind, for every one of her children, their spouses, her grand-children, and her great-grand-children. That kind of determination is unstoppable and that might have been the best lesson she taught.  (The CDs are not for sale but you might consider making similar recordings with your own family.  It's not difficult with modern tools and they become treasures over time.)

During many years of Alex' teaching at the University of Cincinnati, she worked with him in the class rooms and in his office as her memory of the students was extraordinary.  Between the two of them, they developed quite an amazing rapport with the students, many of whom stayed in-touch for years and years after leaving the school, and a few even up to shortly before she died.

She typed all of his manuscripts back when one used paper instead of some cheesy word processor.  She was typing his papers back before the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter, was anything but science-fiction.  All this on top of doing everything else housewives of the time did already plus with six maniac kids complicating every part of it.  People are often stunned by how much Alex did but that overlooks how much she did to make it happen.  While what she did seemed secretarial, it was much more than that and he knew it.

She even tried go-kart racing with him but every time Alex got a kart ready to send her out, something would break and that made for some great stories but they probably weren't so amusing at the moment they happened.  In those days, brakes failed, motors caught fire, or you could lose the steering.

While I don't think a motor ever caught fire in a race, the other incidents definitely happened and she just laughed them off as part of her incredible range of experience.  (For the younger siblings, the Mermaid motors in Australia routinely caught fire and there was nothing for it but the driver to slow the kart as much as possible and jump and run!)

Her ability to stay calm during extraordinary circumstances was remarkable as, on top of everything else, tea had to be ready whenever Alex wanted to 'have a cuppa.'  However, she did become a little indignant when Alex questioned whether she had given him a 'cuppa' after a rest stop during a cross-country lecture tour.  Alex thought for a moment and then slowed the car before getting to the end of the entrance ramp to the freeway and, sure enough, she had given him the cup and it was still on the roof of the car, the tea still in it.  He thanked her and we drove on.  That's just how they were.

Some in the family have considered the 'cuppa' stuff to be subservient but in her reflections of their lives together she was very clear that one of the things most endearing to her about him was that Alex was always ready to do whatever she wanted.  Much more than it seemed, it worked both ways.

There may have been another lady somewhere on the planet who could have kept up with him but she would have been very tough to find.

Written on 5/14/10 and updated on 4/12/12


This introduction was written several years after the memory book. Looking back on the memory book, it's a little cheesy but consider it from the perspective that it was written not long after he died when the family was in a state of chaos. He was indestructible and yet there was the phone call at three in the morning to tell me he had died. It was shocking and it was a relief, all in one. He would not have tolerated slowly drifting away so he left the world pretty much as quickly as he entered it and there is considerable comfort in knowing that he ended the game in just the way he anticipated. So this section is primarily for the family but there are no dark secrets and you may find it interesting.


Memory Book

My purpose is to remember things others may have forgotten and perhaps to add a different perspective to things others do remember.

Alex grew up in Hong Kong and Anne grew up in Shanghai but didn't meet each other until they moved independently to Edinburgh. They married and, shortly thereafter, gave me life. Within a year, Alex accepted a position at the CSIRO in Sydney so he moved his new family, via steamship, halfway around the world.

My earliest memory in Australia is of sitting on a horse and this took place when I was eighteen months old. It must have scared the hell out of me as I've been terrified of horses ever since. But that's not the point. Alex put me on that horse because he wanted to share something that he had loved when he was a kid. One of the worst punishments he ever got from his father was when his horse was taken away. He loved horses even though he was so badly injured by riding that he nearly lost his right leg. When Alex developed a passion for something, he would invariably try to share it.

In fairly short order, Andy, Alexis, Annette, Alistair, and Aileen were given life. All of us, except one, were unplanned. The identity of the one who was planned has never been revealed and I'm glad of it but it does amuse me to know that it certainly wasn't me! I remember when Alex took us to pick up Anne from the hospital after one of us was born. Since there were at least three of us in the car, it was probably Alistair or Aileen. Even after having taken this trip multiple times before, he was so clearly enjoying it. There has been a varying degree of guilt in each of us regarding how much time any one of us spent with him or gave him in our lives but never forget that our mere existence gave him joy.

There is a memory that all of us would rather not have: the belt. We all know of our own pain but the next step is to learn about his. The thing that hurt him the most was that, despite his genius, he didn't know any other way to dispense punishment. He acted in the way he had been taught and he could not break out of it. Our job is to remember, consider, and forgive.

Forgiveness is something that Alex gave but that no-one ever really understood. While it's true that his anger was fearsome, he never held a grudge against anyone and always forgave. I never knew him to hate anyone and this is one of the greatest gifts he bestowed. Just as he forgave, so should we. His anger was sometimes disproportionate but it was never without reason.

The next memory, regarding forgiveness, will take a little introduction: Go-karts are regarded by the general public as amusing little toys but the reality is that the family, almost unanimously, had and still has an endless thirst for speed and go-karts were the only things that would satisfy it as there was virtually nothing else that would accelerate or decelerate faster. Important to the next story is that go-karts require portable starter devices that are fairly heavy and require a wheeled device to transport them.

There was a time when Andy was driving his kart onto the track but the motor stalled at the bottom of the pit lane. I grabbed the handle to the starter as Alex headed down toward Andy. I was running with the device in front of me and thought I would impress Alex with a tricky move by turning it as I ran past him. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and it hit him directly in the middle of his shin, putting a deep gash there that was well over an inch long. The pain must have been absolutely blinding but he never said a word at the time and never said anything afterwards.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The last story took place in California and there was so much more in Australia.

The youngest of us aren't directly aware of his celebrity in Australia and have only read of it in news clippings. Here's a story that wasn't in the news. Jack Brabham was the World Driving Champion in Formula 1 and may have been the first Australian to achieve it. Alex invited Brabham and another Formula 1 driver to be on one of his television shows and he thought it would be interesting if he set them up with Ferraris. The objective was to get some film footage of Brabham and the other driver doing some laps around the parking lot in them. He thought it would be even more interesting if he shared this with his kids so he put Andy in the passenger seat of one of the cars and he put me in the other. That which began as a staged event soon turned into a flat-out race between the drivers and Alex could do nothing but film while Andy and I, absolutely loving it, would wave to him as we roared at some incredible speed past the doors to the television studio.

The show that really put Alex into the limelight was "Doorway to Knowledge." What isn't commonly-known about the show is that it ran at eleven in the morning. He was bringing science to housewives and they absolutely loved it. I have no doubt that a certain number of them were simply lusting after him but that sort of thing doesn't last very long. Perhaps Alex's strongest talent was to take complicated things and present them in a way that was neither mysterious nor patronizing and this is what really built the audience.

One of Alex's dreams was to go heads-up with "Gunsmoke" in prime time. He didn't actually get the opportunity but he came close with "Science in Close-Up," a show that, due to its controversial nature, aired later in the evening. He walked out on the studio when he tried to present the birth of a child on television and it was censored. Forty years later, "The Baby Story" is doing exactly that presentation and viewers are charmed by it.

You would think the previous stories would have occupied all his time but they were actually just a sideline. During this period, he was changing the future of genetics and evolutionary theory. He was a visionary and he recognized immediately the power of computers. The American version of one of the first was ILIAC and Australia's implementation was SILIAC. I don't know the exact years but I'm thinking that this would have been in the late 50's or very, very early 60's. (For an extensive discussion on Alex's contributions to research in genetics, please see David Fogel's Remembrance.)

Alex loved animals and this was another thing he gave us. One day he brought home a boxer and named him Butch. What we didn't know until years later was that Alex had checked with the local police and chosen a boxer because that was the only breed that had no record of attacks on children. (The youngest in the family may not remember but Butch was a celebrity as well. The set for "Doorway to Knowledge" was simply a desk with Alex sitting behind it. Butch was always lying under that desk in full view of the cameras.) Anyone else would have left Butch behind when we left Australia but Alex had him sent to California and I suspect that none of us will ever forget how happy Butch was to see us when he got out of quarantine.

We left Australia after dark in a QANTAS 707 and we could see the lights up and down the coast as it as it disappeared behind us. Once again, he was taking the family, now much larger, halfway around the world. To this day, I would rather call myself an Australian than an American but that's a different story for another time. For all of us, except perhaps the youngest, there was the knowledge that we were leaving something beautiful behind but Alex was embarking on an adventure and he was taking us with him. He did so love adventures.

I'll return to skiing later but something that may have been forgotten is that relatively soon after we arrived in California, Alex took us all up into the Sierras to teach us to ski. It was a complete disaster as none of us had ever even seen snow much less ever been cold. There wasn't one of us who ever went near the mountains again until much later.

Alex was a great one for combining his passions and he arranged series of lecture tours across the U.S. so he could drive from one to the next, race the go-kart on the week-end, and have his family with him throughout. Long-distance driving was no reason to abandon tea-time so he would take periodic breaks at freeway rest stops and Anne would make tea. After one such stop, he decided that he would like to have a second 'cuppa' (Australian for cup of tea) for the road. We were well down the on-ramp back to the freeway before Alex asked Anne to pass the 'cuppa' to him. She told him she had already given it to him. He thought to himself for a few moments and then gently slowed the car to a stop. He retrieved the 'cuppa' from the luggage rack on top of the car and found the tea was still in it! He turned to Anne and said, "Thanks, love," and, with the 'cuppa' in hand, off we went down the road.

There was a routine called 'check-in' and when Alex called out those words all the kids were to line up according to age. He has been criticized for being militaristic but there was much more to it than that. The Australian beaches are among the most beautiful in the world but they're also among the most dangerous. On any trip to the beach, he was constantly counting heads and, if he fell short, one certain way to make sure all the kids were safe was to call 'check-in.'

It wasn't until years later and we were old enough that he didn't think check-in was needed anymore that we learned why he had really been doing it. After a go-kart race in Illinois during one of the cross-country lecture tours, we were quite some distance from the track before he realized that Andy was not in the car. He has been criticized for this but it was an easy mistake to make. None of us had assigned seats! One of the younger kids would sit in-between Alex and Anne in the front seat, three others would sit in the middle seat, and two others would sit in the back with Butch and there was constant competition as to who would sit where. No-one realized he wasn't with us because everyone assumed he was sitting somewhere else. Andy will probably never forget the terror of finding himself alone in the middle of an unfamiliar country, over a thousand miles from home, but what he won't ever really know is the speed at which Alex drove to go back to get him.

There was the chess boom after we moved to Cincinnati in which there would be five or six boards set up on the path to the front door of the house and Alex would come outside every so often to see what was going on. He would check out the progress in each game and, once in a while, he would accept the challenge to play. This was a high compliment for whomever was selected as he would not play unless he considered his opponent capable of a reasonable game. After a time, satisfied that we were all doing well, he would go back inside. The objective in recalling this memory is not to talk about chess but rather to show that you didn't have to be in front of him to make him happy. He only needed to know that you were alright.

I'm not sure when I got fed up with Cincinnati's winters enough to learn how to enjoy them. The family was amused by the fact that I had taken up skiing in a place where the vertical drop wasn't more than a couple of hundred feet but I was determined and went out after work and on week-ends to learn. I'm also not sure as to the sequence in which the rest of the family joined me but it wound up with virtually everyone skiing together. While I'd be happy to say that I introduced skiing, it isn't really true. Regardless of that, I had to drop out after a time because of work and various physical injuries (none of which had anything to do with skiing).

Whenever you wonder what you gave him and perhaps consider that it wasn't enough, remember that your existence was a joy to him. All he really asked of any of us was to enjoy life as much as he did. In the years after I moved to Rhode Island, there was only one thing that he really wanted to know: was I still playing guitar. He didn't have any more interest in the bank than do I but he knew exactly what drove the guitar playing and, so long as he knew I was doing it, he knew everything was alright. That was all he needed. And the same applies for all of us. He knew in every one what would make us happy and, so long as we were doing it, he was happy too. Your gift to him then and most especially now is to keep on doing it.

After Alex had his stroke, I wrote Webster to help him with his speech drills and Alexis worked with him daily to build the dictionaries to help him use it. What you don't know about this period is that I wrote a letter to the family to tell everyone how happy I was to have had this opportunity to help him. After reading it, he asked if it might hurt anyone if I sent it and I realized that it was, to some extent, self-congratulatory and I didn't do it. I'm not seeking a medal for this act but what I would like is for everyone to know that writing Webster didn't make any difference in his regard for any of us. He certainly appreciated Webster but his concern for the well-being of anyone in the family wasn't raised or diminished by one iota.

Alex had developed an incredible passion for skiing but, due to his stroke, he couldn't legally drive. It was during this time that Anne, Andy and Alexis sustained, by either driving him or meeting him, what was probably one of the great joys of his life. Anne didn't ski but she was very much a part of the extended family of the Perfect North Slopes. Alexis wasn't a great skier but she was a wonderful teacher and she introduced many of the kids to the sport. Andy became an excellent skier and his son, Shawn, became the best skier of all. After so many years, Alex had finally found a way that the family could come together. I'm not sure that he was consciously trying to bring the family together but I have total certainty that he loved the fact that it did.

There are all kinds of measurements that could be applied to skiing. Who gave Alex the most joy in skiing? Was it Andy? Was it Alexis? Was it Anne even though she never skied at all? The answer is that the measurements are meaningless and they're not something he would ever make so your gift to him now is to realize that. The gift you have been giving, perhaps without knowing it, is surviving as adults and developing in areas that he had never guessed. He loved your kids but he didn't love you more because you had them or me any less because I didn't. Your gift to him was your life and the knowledge of your happiness in it.

There is a topic that was so frequently assumed but never discussed. We were always atheists or 'happy heathens' and there was no discussion of the matter. I'll offer several memories on this. Alistair revealed to me one day that he decided that he believed. I completely lost it and said, in effect, that he was out of his mind. I don't know the steps of escalation but both of us wound up in front of Alex and the key thing to remember is that Alex did not present any judgment whatsoever. At another time, I had taken some LSD and it was during a time that Alex insisted that everyone who still lived in the house, even if we spent no other time together, should have dinner with each other. LSD hallucinations aren't like watching a movie; they vary in intensity from one individual to the next and for me they were absolutely real. The trip turned bad and Alex realized that I was in deep trouble. His response was to have me sit with the family in the living room and I don't remember saying anything else but I do remember specifically asking him if he believed in God. His answer was yes.

My purpose isn't to talk about the existence of God but rather to emphasize the fact that Alex would support you in whatever you believe although I suspect he might ask for some clarification if you became a Rastafarian and started blowing joints while worshipping the now-deceased Emperor of Ethiopia (these are, in fact, key components of Rastafarianism). I've felt his presence more since he died than I did when he was alive and this is something I can't explain nor do I wish to explain. Now, more than ever, he lives through all of us and the best way to return his love is to seek fulfillment in your life with the same fervor that he would.

How can you give love to him now? Support Anne, the love of his life. She has never believed that she was as important to him as he was to her and that he was as lucky to have her as she was to have him. Science, even though it seemed it, wasn't the love of his life. As soon as he had the opportunity, he abandoned it for painting and he would have abandoned that too if the family needed it. He had no need to come to Rhode Island; he came here because Anne needed it. Such was his love for her and such was his love for us all.

No comments:

Post a Comment