Surprise gifts

Surprise gifts are the best.

You don’t see them coming. You don’t expect them.

You don’t even know you want them until you receive them.

I thought Monday was going to be a routine speaking/book job . . . until a man I never knew gave me and my sister, Crystal, an amazing gift.

I’d been hired by the Norfolk Public Library to open their week-long observance of National Library Week.

I’d talk for an hour, sign books, etc. As people walked in to find a seat and the library director introduced me, I noticed a nicely dressed man, in his late 60s, enter the room.

While most attendees came in small groups (with their friends, book club members, etc.), I noted that he had arrived alone.

He quietly took a chair and I started talking.

As we meandered through stories of my past and present, I couldn’t help but notice his demeanor.

Every time I spoke about my father, he seemed to tear up. When the crowd laughed with me about quirky things, he smiled but still seemed emotional.

I couldn’t help but make eye contact with him many times, as he never seemed to take his eyes off me. And not in a creepy way – almost in a fatherly manner.

The hour wound down and the crowd had had enough of my talking. They bought books and told me about their aspirations to write, their love of reading, how they related to other people’s experiences.

As this went on, I noticed that the man seemed to be hanging back, waiting for everyone to leave.

As the crowd started to dissipate, he stood to his feet and got in line behind the last person. As she talked to me about her life and professional background, I noticed him silently looking down at his feet.

He was quietly waiting for something.

When the woman left, he was the only person in the area, besides Crystal, me and the head of the library.

We had prepared to start loading up materials for the trip home – but I knew in my heart that was going to have to wait.

He extended his hand to me and looked in my eyes.

“You were born in early 1968,” he began.

“Well, late 1967, but it’s all the same,” I responded, now even more curious.

“Yes, late 1967,” he said, as if remembering.

He started to talk about how I had white blond hair as a child, how he’d seen pictures of me and my brother, Terry, when we were little.

He could describe details.

“Yes, that’s true,” I half-whispered, staring at him.

“I feel like I should know who you are, but I’m sorry. I don’t.”

At that point, he touched his hand to his mouth and I realized he was choked up. There were tears in his eyes as he struggled to reveal his identity.

“I was your dad’s sergeant when he was in the National Guard,” he said softly. “And I had to come here tonight.”

I was stunned . . . and so was Crystal as her eyes grew wide and soft with tears.

“I knew Mel Mueller, he was a great guy,” the man said of my father.

“He was such a comedian, so funny. When I came here tonight, I suspected you might be his daughter, but I wasn’t sure you were going to be. Then you started talking and I knew right off that you were Mel Mueller’s little girl – you look so much like him, your mannerisms are just like his, you have that same way about you.”

Now the tears were welling up in my eyes because a glimpse into who our father was, as just a person, doesn’t come very often.

It’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve seen my dad . . . I was only 15 when he died.

For Crystal . . . well, it’s more complicated. She was four when Dad passed on and her only real memory of her father was witnessing the immediate aftermath of his accident and subsequent death.

Neither of us, like our siblings, had a real chance to get to know the guy behind the title of Dad . . . to know him as another adult and who he truly was.

We found out the man’s name was Clyde.

He talked about his memories of Dad playing the guitar, his love of music, how he would incessantly make fun in serious situations, how he never seemed to get enough to eat, how he was tall and lanky, how his smile was infectious, as was his laugh.

“I remember that little trailer house you all lived in,” Clyde said.

“I often had to pick him up, give him a ride, because your parents only had one vehicle. I’ve been out that way, in years past . . . and I’ve actually driven around out in the country to see if I could find Mel’s farm. But I don’t think I ever did.”

“It looks different now,” Crystal said softly, inching ever closer to Clyde.

“I never really knew your mom,” Clyde said.

“But my wife and I, we named our daughter after her.”

This story was becoming more amazing all the time.

“In October, 1968, my daughter was born,” Clyde said.

“I told my wife we had to name her Cheri. I loved the way the name sounded . . . especially the way your dad said it. He really loved her, you know. And when he said her name, talking about their life together . . . it just sounded so pretty. I knew we had to give our daughter that name.”

Now Crystal and I were both beyond ourselves . . . to hear a firsthand account about a love that we only hoped we had observed correctly so many years ago.

Then Clyde grew quiet, choked up again with emotion as he struggled to continue.

“When your dad died . . .” his voice trailed off.

“You know, in those years, with the guards, when we spent all that time together, we were friends. I really loved that guy. And then when I heard what happened . . . I went to the funeral, but there were so many people, I could only stand in a little space down in the basement that day. I saw you all . . .”

The three of us quietly remembered that day, while the library director whispered that she’d leave us alone for this stunning conversation.

I noticed tears in her eyes as well.

Clyde said he had heard about other things that happened in the years following . . .  the death of my sister, my mother’s abrupt passing.

He wondered about us kids, how things were working out, how things ended up . . . now in retrospect, I’m starting to recall receiving cards and even money from a man I didn’t know.

I think his name was Clyde, too. The same Clyde, I’m pretty sure.

“We turned out okay, all the kids grew up and have kids of their own now,” I told Clyde.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like for those kids to have known their grandparents, to know Dad as a grandpa.”

Crystal agreed, with a profound look of sadness, because her children will never know the people from which she came.

“I can tell you one thing for certain,” Clyde said, now smiling and lifting a finger to solidify his point.

“I think you all would have been very entertained by Mel’s relationship with his grandchildren. I think he would have been a great, great grandpa. One that they would have loved.”

We all laughed, imagining an alternative ending to this ongoing story.

Turns out, Clyde’s trip to the library was completely by accident. He was casually flipping through the Norfolk Daily News when he ran across an article about the activities the library was planning for the upcoming week.

He said he saw my picture, read my name (although it didn’t include my maiden surname).

“I knew, by looking at your picture and reading this brief profile (although it never mentioned my parents’ names), that you had to be Mel Mueller’s daughter,” he said tenderly.

“And I said I had to be here, to see if you were, to meet you . . . and you are her.”

He also joked about how although my father wasn’t blessed with his first child being male, he still made sure I was named after him.

I guess if Monday night’s library speaker had turned out to be someone other than Mel Mueller’s daughter, Clyde would have still benefitted from hearing a rousing, intriguing story about books.

I’m glad it was me.

“You are definitely his daughter,” he said, giving me a hug.

“And you are, too,” he said, now hugging my little sister who seemed to be overwhelmed.

“You two, you look so much like him. So much. And you act like him, you probably don’t even know that.”

Clyde asked me to sign some books – I wrote that his visit was special, a surprise gift for which I was grateful. Crystal even asked to exchange phone numbers so they could arrange to have coffee sometime – seeing how Clyde now lives in Norfolk, where Crystal resides, she said it would be great to just talk a little more.

Maybe sometime take a ride out to the farm, so Clyde could meet the brothers and reminisce about his days running around with our father.

“You know, back then, we were just young guys,” Clyde remembered.

“We’d talk about the funny things little kids do, what we thought they’d grow up to be. I think he was right, when it came to you.”

He was quick to tell Crystal that he couldn’t comment on that aspect pertaining to her, seeing how her birth came many years later.

Clyde did ask her about her life, her career. She said she was a probation officer, he said she looked too young and sweet to be in such a tough profession.

“He’d be very proud of you both, of all your brothers and sisters,” Clyde said, wiping a tear from his eye.

The synchronized tear-swiping continued as we said good-bye. He held his books in one hand, gave us a sweet wave with the other. And then he was gone.

As Crystal and I tried to hold back the tears, the library director returned. She’d heard much of the conversation and was emotional as well.

“What a wonderful gift,” she said in a hushed tone.

“That was simply amazing.”

Crystal and I hugged harder than usual, saying good-bye. We texted the next day, about how remarkable it was to meet Clyde, how nice it was for him to make the effort to make sure he could tell us about our father.

Other siblings began to hear about our encounter – we’ve been talking and texting about nothing else since.

This morning, I received an email from the wonderful lady at the library in Norfolk. She wrote, “I still have a lump in my throat about him and the gift you received from him.”

The lump in my throat remains as well.

Thanks, Clyde, for the surprise gift you gave us – a glimpse into the past, a look into my father’s heart and memories that had to be shared for us to know who he really was.

I’m glad you decided to be the messenger and that we were, in fact, Mel Mueller’s daughters.


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