Goose texted this week to let me know that Nancy was gone.
For four years, she battled both ovarian cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. One is bad enough, but fighting both concurrently? If anybody had the fortitude to do it, it was Nancy. Her husband, Peter, was the athletic half of their marriage, but Nancy was always the strong one.
I was in the seventh grade the year they came to Beaver Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the Powell community, where my family attended. They brought with them a daughter, Gretel, about the age of my younger brother, and a son, Denton, who would become known in later years as Goose. Most people thought it was a reference to “Top Gun,” but if I remember right (and it’s been 30-plus years), he was actually given that name by his high school baseball coach, who claimed he ran like one of those lumbering, top-heavy birds.
It was a good-natured insult, because while Goose wasn’t the best baseball player, he was a big guy. Strong and handsome, he was a male model while still in high school, and while his batting average wasn’t the greatest, when he connected with a line drive, it was headed over the fence. Goose was the athlete, the one all the girls fell in love with, and to a skinny kid who aced his classes but couldn’t play a sport to save his life, it was kind of like being friends with a Greek god.
Not that we’d ever tell him that. No, when it was just the four of us — me, Goose, Phil and Jerry — we were equals. Brothers, in fact, who spent most weekends at one another’s houses, and by extension became foster children of our collected set of parents. Most of the time, we wound up at Phil’s house, because his dad was eccentric enough that four teens normally mortified by parents thought he was cool. He was something of a hoarder, and the basement of their house was stuffed with electronic gear, old magazines, swordfish mounted on the wall and a pool table upon which “The Commander,” as we referred to him, would put us pups in our place, often with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
By contrast, Denton’s parents were a good and wholesome and fastidious couple that never failed to welcome us with open arms. Peter was always sharp-dressed and fit in that way that some older men achieve without seeming vain or pretentious, and Nancy, from what I remember, was always in the kitchen. She had a way about her that was direct without seeming condescending; I felt the need to call her “ma’am,” not because I feared her, but because she was a good and decent lady who seemed to see things in me that I didn’t see in myself.
She had a way of sniffing out mischief, her suspicious glances often throwing a damper on whatever it was we might have planned, but I can’t help but imagine that as soon as she turned her back, she was silently laughing to herself at the pack of goofy teenage boys that she probably felt she had taken to raise. She would wave us off and warn us against trouble, and we’d be back in her kitchen the next week or the week after that, waiting on Goose to change out of his baseball uniform so we could run the roads and do whatever it was that passed for fun at the time.
We stayed close through college; Phil and I roomed together for four years, and every summer we would hit the lake in the boat Jerry’s folks let us use or take road trips to Atlanta or Myrtle Beach or Cincinnati. We got rowdy and drank too much on occasion, but we never lost control, probably because Nancy’s suspicious visage hovered over one shoulder like an angel of the conscience, and we knew there would be hell to pay from all of our parents if we had to call for bail money or to be picked up from the hospital.
As we got older, we slowly began to drift apart — not by choice, but simply because life pulled us in different directions. We were all groomsmen in one another’s weddings (well, except for mine, because I eloped on both occasions), but the rest of the guys started families and landed good jobs and began to carve out the lives for themselves that role models like Peter and Nancy laid out for us all those years before. It took me a while to overcome some personal obstacles, but these days I’m right there with them.
Unfortunately, it seems to take a death these days to get us all back together in one room. When my dad died a couple of years ago, all three of them showed up, and after the service, we spent some time reminiscing. Within a couple of minutes, it felt like we were 16 again, cutting up in Nancy’s kitchen, piling out the door and into a car that we were certain was destined for adventure, while she just shook her head and told us to be careful.
I wouldn’t trade those days for anything, but I do wish I had realized how special they were as I was living them. It’s only on the backside of memory, I believe, that we truly appreciate how good we had it, and how much richer our lives were with a Nancy to look out for us.