The Thanksgiving That Changed Our Lives or Absence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger
To avoid confusing regular Rocket-Courier readers when I seemingly fell out of the sky into the position of news editor last March, I kept my references to family simple, as more people than I had expected to be were familiar with my last name. I hope that I’ve made it clear though how much family means to me, even though my family is in fact as reminiscent of a patchwork quilt as so many other families in this area.
I’ve mentioned my biological parents and my stepmother in my columns, but I don’t believe that I’ve ever written about my stepfather, Ernie Shartle, even though I would likely not be sitting in this chair right now had he not passed away last Thanksgiving. Ironically, while the Hiduks of Wyalusing were relatively well-known and served as an anchor for my return to the area and a catalyst to my being hired, I am bookended by Ernie’s legacy as a teacher, swim coach and instructor, and mentor to many youths and young adults in both Towanda and Tunkhannock.
In fact, Ernie, or Mr. Shartle as I knew him then, taught me to swim at the Towanda SCI pool as part of the borough’s summer recreation program in which he always played a big role. As with many other lessons he imparted on me through our time together, I didn’t always catch on the first time, but Ernie was not above taking a step back, taking me by the arm and pushing me forward again.
As a Towanda Middle School student, I walked up the hill with the other kids for one marking period each year to take swimming for gym. The test one year was simple. All I had to do was swim one lap of the pool from the deep end to the shallow end, and I started to wimp out.
“I can’t,” I whined, as I struggled past the halfway mark of the pool.
“‘Can’t?!’ Did I just hear you say ‘can’t?’” he bellowed. “I don’t even know that word. You can do anything that you really want to do. Now swim!”
Looking back, I’m never quite sure if I was more terrified or actually empowered. Nobody had ever talked to me like that in my life. I did swim to the end of the pool. I swam my way through the Red Cross swimming program and, four years after he and my mother were married, I became a lifeguard at Tunkhannock High School. Through Ernie, I pursued my Red Cross instruction to become a swim instructor, age group swim coach, and a lifeguard trainer. Ernie and I ran summer swim clinics together, and he helped me with lesson plans for my three years on the waterfront at Camp St. Andrew.
I don’t want to sugar coat our relationship though, as it wasn’t always easy. There were many times that I resented his pushing and constant insistence that I could do better. It took me well into my adulthood to appreciate the fact that he still wouldn’t hesitate to step back, take me by the arm and push me forward again. Although he often threatened to kick my butt if he caught me doing this or that, he never had to. He had a way of verbally kicking someone in the butt that was a lot more effective.
Ernie never stopped fathering me, even when I was in my 30s and not always making the best decisions for myself. Sometimes he had to track me down in the dark corners of my world and pull me back out into the light. By the time I reached my 40s, we had truly become friends. I could tell because he finally started expressing his feelings to me, and he valued my opinions. We also shared a morbid sense of humor.
On June 21, 2010, we sat up late on the deck of the home he and my mother shared in Eaton Hills, laughing at the irony of a thick purple cloud cover on what was supposed to be the longest day of the year. That’s when he told me that he didn’t expect to make it through the end of the year because his heart was growing weaker. I could tell that he wasn’t joking, and I asked with all sincerity why he was telling me. He said it was because I was the only one who would take him seriously and that someone would have to keep the family together when the time came for him to leave our world.
We had both shared the responsibility of speaking at the funeral services of family members through the years, and I thought to ask him what he wanted me to say about him.
“Oh, I don’t know. Say something stupid. Make them laugh. Just don’t make them cry,” he answered. To that end, I failed miserably.
My mother was seriously ill and in the hospital with pneumonia on Thanksgiving Day last year, and we were hoping that she might get out in time to join us at their house where my sister, Lisa, Ernie’s sons, Todd and Eric, and our significant others and children traditionally gather on the day after the holiday. Ernie had been back and forth between the hospital and my sister’s house so many times that he was exhausted when he went to bed on Thanksgiving night. He suffered a heart attack—the second one in his lifetime—just after he retired. He went quickly, for which we are grateful.
Unfortunately, the rest of the family was in shock. I felt guilty for having the wherewithal and strength to carry through, but I realized that Ernie was working through me. After the funeral and after everyone returned to their homes and started to put a life together that no longer had Ernie it, I had my moment to fall apart and miss him as horribly as everybody else did.
After a few months, it became clear to me that the time had come for me to leave behind the comfortable world to which I had become accustomed in Lancaster County and return to my roots. It was time for me to find out if the experiences and skills that I had built on through the years were enough for me to survive on in a place that seemed new and old to me at the same time.
The year since Ernie’s passing has certainly been difficult, full of unforeseen challenges, and often wrought with self-doubt. What has hurt the most are the many moments when I am questioning what I am doing here and realize that the person I would normally go to for advice and assurance is gone. I’m left to live up to the words that I expressed in Ernie’s honor when he died.
As we make plans to gather at my new home on Friday, I can’t deny that I’m not half the man that Ernie was. But I’m grateful this Thanksgiving to have had a role model as genuine as he was, and I find a solace in knowing that so many people of my generation have experienced and felt the same way about him.
Ernie was a lifelong member of the American Red Cross and worked extensively with chapters in both the Towanda and Tunkhannock areas. I urge those who would like to continue his legacy of mentoring and looking out for others to make a contribution to the chapter of your choice.