Category Archives: obituaries

Jonathan Winters made me laugh whole-heartedly

How does one fittingly eulogize a comedian? Are tears the best farewell? I’ve been thinking about this since Jonathan Winters died.

I loved Jonathan Winters. He was wildly inventive and brilliantly spontaneous. It’s fitting that such a physical comedian made my whole body shake with laughter. We live in an age where ROFLOL is virtually meaningless. As a kid, I literally rolled on the floor with side-splitting laughter thanks to Jonathan Winters.

Following Winters death, many have mentioned Robin Williams, who became stale for me, and Jim Carrey, who had a similarly plastic face capable of such rapid transformation and exaggeration. But I’m thinking, too, of Red Skelton. (Am I imagining an appearance of Winters on Skelton’s show, another staple of my childhood?) Both men shared a kind and gentle manner — true gentlemen — as well as a quick child-like wonder.

Thinking of Winters also brings to mind my dad, who looked a lot like Winters. I imagine, more than remember, watching Winters with my parents and sharing our laughter. My thanks to Winters and the many comedians of my youth. Laughter never grows old.

Every film must end

Ebert, nation’s best-known film critic, dies at 70 – Toshiba By CARYN ROUSSEAU, The Associated Press, Thursday, April 4, 2013 9:06 PM EDT

The heavy-set writer in the horn-rimmed glasses teamed up on television with Gene Siskel to create a format for criticism that proved enormously appealing in its simplicity: uncomplicated reviews that were both intelligent and accessible and didn’t talk down to ordinary movie fans. …

"So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies." Ebert wrote Tuesday on his blog. …

Fans admired his courage, but Ebert told The Associated Press that bravery had "little to do with it."

"You play the cards you’re dealt," Ebert wrote in an email in January 2011. "What’s your choice? I have no pain. I enjoy life, and why should I complain?" …

"I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state," he wrote. "I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting."

Ebert, nation’s best-known film critic, dies at 70 – Toshiba

Remembering Madame Votaw

006 - Copy (2)When I first met Madame Votaw over 40 years ago, I was frightened. Descending from the floor above in a rattling cage-like elevator, she emerged smoking like a dragon, surrounded by baying hounds. Add her daughters as sirens on the rocks of adolescent heartache and we have an opera. One she would have enjoyed.

Like some mythic figure, Madame Votaw literally created some of my dearest friends. She shaped even more of us. She will never be gone so long as we are here.

Although she was a commanding and powerful figure of unquestionable authority, I’ll never forget her wonderful laugh or smile. I still hear the music she added to my nickname: Gue. No one else made Gue sound so lovely.

Eszti and Al Votaw were phenomenally gracious and generous in welcoming many of us into their home. In their salon, I first heard Doc Watson, as well as Pete Seeger. At their dinner table, I first ate artichokes. At their back door, I first tasted cigarettes.

I taxed the Votaws’ hospitality more than most by visiting them in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast. It was the trip of a lifetime and nearly the end of mine, but it was a privilege to experience a little of Africa with such worldly hosts.

The last time I saw Eszti was in her apartment. She wanted to meet my wife Merri. They hit it off instantly and the three of us chatted and laughed like old friends. I finally felt grown-up.

Much of her lives on in our hearts and memories. I’m grateful to the Universe for placing the Votaws so directly in my path that even I couldn’t miss the opportunity. To say the least, my life was changed immeasurably.

Grief is the Price of Love

Lucky Dog died two years ago today, at 2:10pm. We miss him still, of course. I think we always will. He was a gift from the Universe and was with us during the very best times over 10 years.

It was a bad year for dogs close to home: Shy (Joe), Gracie (Earl & Marcia), and Kaboom (Paul) – all within a few blocks of here, all friends of Lucky. Survivors know that the end of our loved ones’ suffering is most important and outweighs our own pain in grief. Lucky suffered longer than, and more than, he should have, but we needed to be together as long as we could.

The Heaven of Animals

The meadow is his home now.
Up high in the mountains,
he lies in the shade
in a circle of trees
among the wild iris.

He yawns and stretches,
flips over
and rolls and rolls,
groaning in pleasure
in the tall sweet grass.

At any moment
he will sit up, alert,
ears sharp,
sniffing the air,
eyes intent on something
we can’t see
off under the trees.

His world is perfect now,
though I know he misses
the pats, the belly rubs,
the love in our voices:
lie down.
stay now.
good boy. mjh


I wrote this five years before Lucky Dog died, remembering a beautiful spot the three of us discovered. And, imagining the inevitable, I sobbed. This supports my hope that “any horror could be faced / and become a poem.”

mjh’s blog — Lucky Dog (8/11/09)

Remembering My Dad

mjh0018My Dad died 40 years ago, 5/28/71. I had just turned 16 and we had just moved into a new house, a quirky fixer-upper that would become Pine Street in many memories.

Dad came home early that day in a cab, not feeling well. He went upstairs while I threw a ball against the back of the house for Barnabus, our St Bernard, to catch. The ball got slobberier and muddier with each iteration and a Pollack of brown spots broadened on the white stucco between windows on the second story. Those blotches stayed there for years. I heard a thunderous crash and ran inside to find my Dad prone on the landing where the stairs turned. He was unconscious but breathing. I tried to rouse him, then ran for the phone. I didn’t know what to do, so I called my sister, Elizabeth. (This was before 911.) She called emergency rescue. I sat on the steps near my Dad, listening to his last breaths. Rescue arrived too late to save him.

I remember when my friend Dave Stilwell came over the next day I said, in effect, if things seem weird around here today, it’s cuz my Dad just died. My first obituary.

My Dad was a farmboy who grew up to be an engineer and work for a series of communications companies, ending with Comsat. Mom loved to say it was his job to figure out the cost of the phone call between the President and the astronauts who first landed on the moon. By hobby, he was an excellent carpenter. Just this weekend, I saw a bench around a tree whose hexagonal design reminded me of a far-sturdier version he build for Mom years earlier. To this day, when I concentrate on certain chores, I whistle tunelessly just like he did.

Dad was a military man, proud of his service in Asia as part of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was a Colonel in the Army Reserves at death. Military service played a huge role in his largely-self-destruction. I have no affection for the War Machine. We need to outgrow the waste and destruction we celebrate too often.

I don’t remember crying when Dad died. We were unhappy with each other then. However, many years later, I wrote a letter to Dad, imagining he had outlived Mom and lived in Montana with dogs and a pickup truck. Then, I cried.