David Shea told his story to his lifelong friend Alice Doyle in Butte, Mont.
David Shea told his story to his lifelong friend Alice Doyle in Butte, Mont. StoryCorps
David Shea didn't know much about his father until one Memorial Day when Denny Shea took his son along for a ride to the cemetery. It was there that the father introduced his son to the people who had made a difference in his own past.
When Shea's mother died in the early 1980s, he decided to move back home to help out his father. It wasn't long before David learned there were some things he didn't know about his dad.
Denny Shea had small coffee cans lined up in their garage. One day David said, "Dad, wouldn't it be cheaper to buy a larger can of coffee and have less garbage?"
His father replied, "Oh, leave me alone; never you mind. It's my house. I do what I want."
The cans kept stacking up in the garage. The day before Memorial Day, Denny Shea asked his son to go to the store and buy a bag of sand, some rolls of colored aluminum foil "and as many silk flowers as you can get."
Then on Memorial Day, the father asked his son, "Would you mind helping me with the graves today?"
"Sure, I'd love to do that," David said. He thought they were going to visit the graves of his mother and grandparents.
"We get out to the garage and he's got shovels and rakes and coffee cans full of bouquets. And I said, 'What are we doing?' And he goes, 'We're doing the graves. Just be quiet and let's go.'
"So we get in the car and he'd packed a lunch and we started driving around our cemetery looking for graves. And I said, 'Well, who are these people?' And he said, 'Well, these are the people that helped me through my life, and they don't have any relatives and they don't have any survivors and every year, I do their graves.' "
The father and son stopped at one grave. "It was the Torpeys, Mr. and Mrs. Torpey. And I said, 'So who are these people? I've never heard of them.' "
His father said, "Well, we were poor and we didn't have anything. And when I needed to learn how to drive a car, Mr. Torpey taught me how to drive a car, and when I had to have a car to go on a date ... Mr. Torpey would loan me his Buick.' "
That day, David Shea says he heard his father's "whole life through the process of paying tribute to the people that helped him out.
"My dad never spoke about his past. We never talked about where he came from. What a way to learn about your personal history. ... Typically, you think you're going to sit down and have a conversation with somebody. But this was actually just the process of doing what had been a ritual for years that I didn't even know about."
Denny Shea, a veteran of World War II, died in 1995 at the age of 73. David decorates his father's grave each Memorial Day.
Produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.