The pilgrim soul in you

Walter Barlow enlisted in the Army during World War II. Though he became a highly decorated veteran, he spoke little of his wartime experiences.

Walter B. enlisted in the Army during World War II. Though he became a highly decorated veteran, he spoke little of his combat experiences.

By Patricia Conover

Forty-four summers have flown by. Forty-four winters, too.

Forty-four years since my father died in his sleep on a hot summer night.

He was fifty years old.

When I close my eyes, I struggle to see his face. Memory fails me. Luckily, I still see him in my dreams. He looks the same as he did the night before he slipped away.

In my dream, he looks at me and his blue eyes are like the sea fringed by a moonless night. His smile is wistful and he takes a long drag from his cigarette before he disappears.

My father comes to life, and memory, most fully in the summer.


My father, Walter, was a child of the South. A summer baby, he was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1920, on the Army base where his father was stationed after World War I.

The family left Georgia and moved to Illinois when Walter was in primary school. They were part of the mass exodus from the agrarian South after the stock market crash of 1929. Walter’s father, a veterinarian, needed to create a stable life for his family. Walter and his sister were raised on the south side of Chicago.

In 1941, Walter enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He landed on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy. He took a bullet in France but he was patched up quickly and he returned to his unit. He ended up being severely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. After the shrapnel was removed, he again returned to the fray. He earned two Purple Hearts. When his tour was over he stayed on in Europe and volunteered for the USO.

He never spoke about his combat experiences. I learned about them later from my mother, who said that his war injuries contributed to his early death.

Walter Barlow: University of Chicago chemistry graduate and lover of poetry.

Walter B.: A chemist who loved to read fantasy and to sing and to recite poetry

When World War II ended he earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master’s Degree in Chemistry on the G.I. Bill at the University of Chicago before moving to New York to work for Kraft Foods.

I wonder what his life was like then. Handsome and charismatic, moody and literary, he had a heart of gold but he was a hard drinker and a pack-a-day man. He kept in touch with his old Army buddies and I imagine that they painted the town red. When I watched” Mad Men” I had a flash of recognition.

The stories of those years in Manhattan are stories that I will never know.

It’s hard to imagine two people with less in common than my mother and father, but they fell passionately in love when they were introduced at a country club in 1955. My mother was an Irish Catholic and my father was a Southern Baptist. Her father was a police detective and his father was a veterinarian. She was 25 years old to my father’s 35.

Despite serious misgivings from both sets of in-laws, Walter and Joan married. Their first child, a son, was born almost exactly a year later. I was the second child, and three more children followed in quick succession.

How well did I know my father?

Dad was a chemist who loved to read fantasy and to sing and to recite poetry.

His favorite books were “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

He sang with an exaggerated Southern twang. He sang train songs like “The Ballad of Casey Jones” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” He sang with gusto as he mixed batter for Sunday pancakes or worked on an addition to our house.

He was a great mimic who loved Shakespeare and he could perform the soliloquies of Hamlet and Macbeth with a broad British accent. He had seriously debated majoring in English Literature but his father discouraged him. Becoming a chemist would give him a profession.

But Walter never lost his love of poetry and he could recite William Butler Yeats from memory.

He recited Yeats’ “When You Are Old and Full of Sleep” in a theatrical fake Irish brogue:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you…”

I remember waking up on school days and finding him in the kitchen, making coffee before his early morning commute to the office. He made coffee in a glass beaker with a paper filter by pouring boiling water over the grounds and waiting for it to brew. He drank his coffee black, without sugar, and he seldom ate breakfast.

He often seemed lost in thought. I was a curious kid and I asked him lots of questions. He answered, “Let’s talk about this when you are older.”

He wore a starched white shirt and a suit and tie and drove to his office in the city every day. He was what was called “a good provider.”

Despite a 10-year age difference and misgivings by both sets of parents, Joan and Walter married.

Despite a 10-year age difference and misgivings by both sets of parents, Joan and Walter got hitched..

During the school year I seldom saw my father.  We had dinner before he arrived home in the evening. Then, he and my mother sat down together and talked about the day. We did not interrupt them. Dinner usually consisted of steak and potatoes and a martini or two.

I remember our summers at the beach. It was the only time my father seemed to relax. He used to walk out into the sea. It was a strange sort of game that he played. I watched him walk into the water until it was over his head and he disappeared beneath the waves. My mother stood knee-deep in the water, keeping a close eye on her brood. Suddenly she would look up and search for him.

“Walter! You’re too far out. Come back!”

I looked for him. The sunlight was dazzling. The sea sparkled and shone and I couldn’t see anyone. I remember how my heart pounded with fear when I could not find him. I would look in one direction and see a dark-haired man and start to breathe a sigh of relief. And then I realized that it wasn’t him. And then I saw another man. And it wasn’t him. And then he would appear, his even stroke rhythmically slicing through the green-tinged water beyond the waves, his head moving from side to side, steadily moving parallel to the shore.

At night he and my maternal grandfather — the same man who had forbidden his daughter from marrying this Southern Baptist — sat on the front porch together. I could see the red glow of their cigarettes as I lay in my bed and listened to them talk about politics, the Vietnam War, Nixon, and the civil rights movement.

They rarely agreed about anything, but their conversations were calm and civilized. I fell asleep to the sound of their deep voices and the slap of the ocean waves.


My father entered this world in the summer and he left the world in the summer, too.

I remember riding my bike to the public library a few weeks after the funeral. I couldn’t remember the last stanza of the Yeats poem he used to recite so theatrically. I needed to see the words of the poem in print to hear his voice.

Forty-four years later, and I have never forgotten the lines:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Patricia Conover among the flowers in Monet's Garden, Giverny, France.

Patricia Conover among the flowers in Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France.

Patricia Conover is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is currently a project editor and writer at Going Global, a multi-platform site for expats that offers guidance on culture, careers, and education around the world. She teaches writing, journalism and new media at EFAP, l’école de communication (the School of Communication in Paris.) In a previous life she worked at Penguin Putnam and Random House in New York City. She and her architect husband Kirk Conover raised three fierce daughters and an Irish Water Spaniel in New York, Portland and Paris. Connect with her on Twitter: @ParisRhapsody.

Editor’s note: I met Patricia when I was a young editor working in the Clackamas County bureau of The Oregonian. Patricia was a young mom, living in West Linn and pitching me freelance stories. From modest features written for our suburban community editions, her work since then has been published in numerous publications, including The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a terrific writer.

Tomorrow: “Golden plunger” by Jennifer Brennock


11 thoughts on “The pilgrim soul in you

  1. You have such clear, detailed and personal memories of your father who has been gone for so long. No other words need be written to show how deeply you love and miss this man. Thank you for sharing him with us.

  2. One of my favorite poems. It almost seems like two separate poems, one for love found and one for love lost. I think of my parents often, and I too have seen them in my dreams, but my favorite memories of them are woven in my fabric.

  3. George, you are certainly right that Patricia is a terrific writer. Patricia, you not only shared your father’s life and his soul with us in such a beautiful, loving way, but also got down so much of what his generation experienced and went through. Your mom is there as well, by his side and then on her own, and you kids are there. Our parents’ lives shape so much of us. Their stories are different, but we can all so relate. Thank you.

  4. A lyrical love song to a father by an amazing writer. It brought memories of my own dear father home to me. That’s what gifted writers do. Thank you, Patricia.

  5. I thought nearly the same things Nancy wrote. I felt I was in Walter’s time reading this piece. Good work. And, “Let’s talk about this when you are older.” Why haven’t I used that more!!!

  6. This remembrance allows me to catch a glimpse of the curious life of a man I did not know but have always wanted to. He witnessed history (WWII, Vietnam War, the civil rights movement ) through an intimate lens. He was a brave man, a family man. Thank you for introducing me to the life and times of my grandfather, Walter.

  7. I love the flow of this piece – seems like a gentle story, but there are sharp edges of reality, poignant moments, emotions that dart about between sentences, He was what was called “a good provider.” seems simple, but conveys a lot. A great tribute to a father. I can relate to your feelings – since my father also left early at 54.

  8. What a wonderful tribute to a man who was part of “The Greatest Generation”. We are so proud of our father’s strength and endurance. I know I am! Your piece makes me want to write about my father….thanks for the inspiration!

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