Ralph Geer, a man of few words, communicated not with long, elegant sentences, but with hammers, drills, saws, paint brushes, chainsaws, shovels, and ladders. Whether a big job or small, he exhibited a sense of purpose and pride in all he did.
At first his name appeared on my refrigerator list of plumbers, electricians, and emergency utility numbers. Over three decades, Ralph’s name rose to the top, as a reliable, skilled craftsman and also as a person I bonded with in admiration and mutual respect.
In September, my wife, Sarah, and I returned from a bike trip out west. It took a couple of days to get settled, but Ralph was high on my list of people to call, not because I needed his help but because he might need mine.
A few months earlier, Ralph shared that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I was stunned, surprised, and upset for him. Trying to boost his spirits, I related stories about friends who had successfully battled major health problems. Ralph seemed unmoved and almost resigned. Perhaps he best understood his dire prognosis. He was not one to talk about his feelings, or for that matter, ask for help. I struggled, too, as I tried to figure out how to be a supportive friend when devastating news is close at hand. Already Ralph was experiencing the side-effects of chemotherapy; he was weak and slightly unsteady.
I asked Ralph if I could bring meals. He showed little enthusiasm, that is, until I reminded him how much he’d enjoyed a meatloaf sandwich I’d made him while he’d been working on a back porch project. His eyes brightened, and he acquiesced. He recalled enjoying the sandwich and remembered that the recipe came from my mother. Over the next couple months, I prepared meatloaf meals, then raced to his house in Calais to deliver a warm dinner. The day before I departed for Wyoming, I promised Ralph another “meatloaf special” upon my return. He gave me one of his rare smiles.
As it turned out, I was late by a couple of days. Ralph Geer died just as I returned from the trip out west.
Until his illness, although slightly built, he had been a vigorous and powerful man. His death at age 69 came too early. It is probably of little consequence that he did not get to enjoy one more meatloaf dinner, but I lamented that he missed this particularly glorious foliage season by a couple of weeks. Ralph revelled in Vermont’s fall colors and the wonder of our transition from summer to fall.
We were a strange pair. My lack of mechanical aptitude and building skills, while not legendary, were obvious to family, friends … and to Ralph. I sat in awe of his knowledge and skills. He could tackle any mechanical problem and building or repair project. The more complex the project, the more Ralph rose to the occasion, always coming through in the clutch like one of his beloved Red Sox players.
Ralph was shy, unassuming, and independent. In 30 years of projects up at the house, Ralph never engaged a partner or assistant. Only rarely would he ask for help moving some heavy object. We often ate lunch together during a break. Ralph said little, but he seemed to relish my stories and banter.
Since Ralph’s passing, Sarah and I cannot go a day without paying homage to this sweet and gentle man. Ralph, years ago, working alone, installed a beautiful blue metal roof atop our house, laid a wood floor in the kitchen, built steps out front, fixed countless doorknobs, replaced an ugly and very old linoleum floor, and re-made a study for Sarah. He was exacting in his work and had a natural eye for practical, cost-effective improvements.
A few years ago, we planned a 73rd birthday party for me here on Sparrow Farm Road, rounding up the usual suspects — family, friends, and neighbors — for an evening of celebration. I added Ralph to the guest list. Not only did I consider him a friend, but he was an integral part of the very house I had lived in for 45 years. My only hesitation was that I knew hanging out in a crowded living room with strangers would not be his idea of a good time.
On a mid-January day, with glorious fluffy snow and crisp cold air, the house filled with spirited conversation. The only person missing was Ralph. Just as we served the food, I heard a knock on the side porch door. Ralph stood there, a mantle of white on his winter cap, and apologized for being late. I told him how pleased I was that he came.
I ushered Ralph in and found an empty seat near the wood stove. The next hour was filled with food, storytelling, cake, and song. Ralph was quiet, but I could see from across the room that, to my relief, several people chatted with him.
As the evening ended, one by one and in couples, people made for the exit with final words, hugs, and kisses. Several friends needed assistance, so I walked them out to their parked cars along the snowy road. When I returned, I was surprised to find Ralph, the last person remaining. It was, for me, a joyful moment.
In his quiet way, Ralph told me he appreciated being invited and he said he had a good time. For him, this might be considered extensive, personal conversation. His eyes shifted down under his chair and he pulled out a wrapped parcel. “Happy birthday,” he said and handed me the package.
This may have been my very best birthday present: a pair of Carhartt work gloves given in friendship and with affection.
Ken Libertoff, who has resided outside Montpelier on Sparrow Farm Road for the past 45 years, is a writer of short stories and memoirs.
In a large bowl, combine:
A pound and a half of hamburger meat
One cracked egg
One cut-up sliced red pepper
Small amount of mustard
A dash of salt and pepper
Stir all ingredients together by hand. Fill a meatloaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Let the meatloaf sit for 5 minutes and then serve and enjoy.
Courtesy of Ken Liebertof, via his mom, Lil Libertof