Arts & Life

After 30 Years, Woman Visits Father's Grave

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Freelance writer Karen Houppert lost her father when she was a teenager. This year, she decided to try and reconnect with this story, and visit his gravesite with her teenage son. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Karen Houppert about her father, and why it took her over 30 years to return to his gravesite.

(Soundbite of music)

TONY COX, host:

Now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something TELL ME MORE does just about every week, to find stories about the way we live now.

We celebrated Father's Day this past weekend. And for some of us who have fathers that have passed on, it's a time of reflection about who these men were in our lives.

Recently, freelance writer Karen Houppert went on a journey to reconnect with her father's story. He died when she was a teenager and she had not been to his gravesite since. Last spring, she decided to return, this time with her teenage son.

Karen Houppert tells her story in this week's Washington Post magazine and she joins us now from New Hampshire's NHPR.

Welcome, Karen.

Ms. KAREN HOUPPERT (Journalist, Author): Hi, thanks for having me on the show.

COX: Your father was a pilot in the Air Force, and when he died, you were in the eighth grade, living in Brussels, where your family was stationed at the time. His death was sudden. A plane crashed. Tell us why it took all these years for you to visit his gravesite and to take your son. And was it hard for you?

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah. I think that what got me thinking about visiting his grave was the fact that my son was 13 - is 13 now, and that was bringing up a lot of memories for me of that last year of family life before my dad died. And my father was buried in Selma, Alabama, which we didnt live there at the time but we had been stationed at Craig Air Force Base in the '70s and really liked Alabama, liked this beautiful old stately Southern cemetery there.

So when it came time to bury my father, who was in a plane crash when we lived in Brussels, Belgium, my mother couldnt really decide where he should be buried, And in the end, decided to have his remains shipped back to this Alabama graveyard. And, you know, I had never lived in the area. I live in Baltimore now and I just really hadn't gone back there and hadn't, you know, visited the grave since the day we buried him in 1977. So I was on a road trip with my son and my husband and it was a quick detour off the road to Selma. So we camped there and went to visit the gravesite.

COX: Different people respond to and react to a visit like that very differently. When you found the gravesite and you saw your dad's name there, what did it do to you?

Ms. HOUPPERT: I think one of the things that it really made me do was think about my own parenting and my relationship with my own son. Because, of course, whenever you think about death I think youre suddenly faced with, you know, this idea that you have to prioritize things in your life, and whats the most important thing in your life? And to me that was really thinking about my relationship with my son, which since he's 13, is rocky now, as many of your listeners who have 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds may be well aware of.

COX: You know, one of the things that you wrote about that struck me was that at the time of your dad's death you were a teenager - a youngster yourself -but you weren't sure that he was really gone, that maybe the Air Force was keeping something back from you. You felt that way, didnt you?

Ms. HOUPPERT: I think that what was very strange for me was that we never saw a body. It was a closed casket. And, you know, because he was in a plane crash, I'm not exactly sure even how many remains there were to see or to even have in the casket, which is probably why the casket was closed. But I think there's a kind of reality that hits when you see the dead person's body, and I never saw that. And me and my sisters, we never saw that.

COX: Karen, you wrote about that in the article. If you don't mind, would you just read that passage? I think its very poignant where you talk about your suspicions about how your dad died and whether he really died.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Sure. I'd be happy to.

My parents had been fighting a lot before the crash, so I figured my dad wanted to leave us. Maybe those men in blue who notified us thought he died when his T33 went down, but he slipped out. He trotted across the potato field and disappeared into the woods. Then, he began a parallel life, moved to Paris, hooked up with a French woman, had children. That's why there was a closed casket and we never saw a body.

My sister, age 15, speculated that it was because he was burned beyond recognition. I knew otherwise. Although I had the sense not to talk about it, I kept this other truth in my head. For years it breezed along parallel in perfect formation beside reality - two shiny T-Birds dangerously close but never converging, a tricky maneuver for a fighter or a fighter pilot's daughter.

COX: Karen, thank you for sharing your story with us. I have one last question. Did you have expectations of what your son's reaction would be when he saw his grandfather's gravesite? And what was his reaction?

Ms. HOUPPERT: I was trying to think actually, before bringing him there if wed ever been to a cemetery or a funeral or anything like that with him, and we hadn't. So I wasnt exactly sure what to expect in terms of his reaction. He was, you know, quite interested as we were wandering through the graveyard to sort of study the various tombstones and look around. But when we were leaving the cemetery, he definitely decided he never wanted to be buried in a cemetery, that he'd rather be cremated and then have his ashes ground up as a smoothie for his friends and relatives to consume, which I thought was a very strange...

COX: Spoken like a true teenager.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Yeah. Strange reaction.

COX: Now that it's done, Karen, the trip, the visit, perhaps the closure, was it the right thing to do?

Ms. HOUPPERT: I think so. I think that even though there was much tension between our family members as there is when, you know, spending a lot of time with a 13-year-old, that family time and that time to reflect was actually something that will stay with all of us.

COX: Freelance writer and author, Karen Houppert. Karen, thank you.

Ms. HOUPPERT: Thanks for having me.

COX: Her latest work is featured in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you would like to read the story, and we hope you will, just visit the TELL ME MORE page on

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