Barbara Morris writes by chance, not by choice. The 2017 death of her novelist/songwriter husband left her with his charge “to help make our gift to the future be good and true and right” and a desire to keep his books visible and his legacy alive. The following is her reading on Memorial Day 2018 at the Memorial Day Writers’ Project in Washington, D.C. in memory of him. MDWP is a twice-a-year venue where Richard Morris shared his writings of fiction and songs in recognition and memory of those who served our country.
Projected on the black screen at the front of the packed church were the words, “Richard Alexander Morris, August 16, 1943 – November 21, 2017.” And, in a three-minute video’s span of time featuring several songs, my deceased husband’s voice was singing, “I have received, what will I leave? What is my legacy, my gift to others? What will I leave?”
His charge to me came from his song, “I needed a Girl Like Barbara,” written fifty years ago, regarding reasons why one might fall in love and marry, and envisioning the partnership that outlasts death:
“16. I Needed A Girl Like Barb’ra
© Richard A. Morris 1968
She liked my world and liked my dreams and
I liked hers and so it seemed that
Somewhere she decided to love me, and
Happily I took my cue.
I made up my mind to love her too.
I needed a girl like Barb’ra to
walk with hand in hand, to
help me on the perilous journey
to our promised land, to
help me laugh at the failures, and
learn and try again, to
never let my heart get old and
tired before the end.
I needed a girl like Barb’ra to
know me as I am, to
be a mirror to my soul and
see through any sham, to
help me know my weakness, and
bring out what is strong, to
light a candle in my darkness
when the night is long.
With faith in dreams that seem absurd she’ll
keep my hope alive.
The power of a loving word will
keep me going, reaching, growing,
I needed a girl like Barb’ra to
find eternal life in
what we give our children and in
what we give mankind. To
help make our gift to the future be
good and true and right. For
all these things I needed Barb’ra
for my only wife.”
Richard Morris was the author of four novels, a blogger with a couple hundred posts, and a singer-songwriter of over twenty songs, some of which were written overlooking Vietnam’s South China Sea in 1967-68 during our first year of marriage. I have been charged with seeing that his legacy is remembered and that his books are not forgotten, the care of “our gift to the future.” I have been told countless times by many of the two hundred attendees of the memorial service that it was the most memorable service they have ever attended. Perhaps that is the advantage of being a writer of words; you leave more of yourself behind than others are able.
The condolence cards often talk about being comforted by the memories. In addition to my memories, I have his voice surrounding me with music; I have his words in print. With a little help from me, he continues to participate on Facebook when I link one of his blog posts to the current conversation. When the P.T.A. announces that children can dress as a favorite book character on Dr. Seuss day, I comment “Remembering Richard” and link his blog post, “What I have in common with Michelle Obama.” There is his picture reading Green Eggs and Ham to the children at our local school and describing his delight in being allowed to tell one of his own stories as well. He narrated, “One child followed up with the standard question, ‘Was that a real story?’ I replied, ‘Yes…but of course, it was fiction.’ ‘Maybe it was realistic fiction,’ another suggested. Fiction is a wonderful word. I’m glad I didn’t have to say, ‘No, it wasn’t real. I was lying.’”
When Facebook erupts with objections to arming teachers, someone says, “Being armed didn’t help people being shot at Ft. Hood,” which gets the prompt reply, “They aren’t allowed to carry guns on military bases.” Then Richard pops into the conversation (with my help of linking his post “Fact or Fiction in Vietnam”) to add that even during the Vietnam War, on the First Cavalry Division’s Base at Ankhe, “no one carried a gun.” On the anniversary that would have been our 51st, Richard’s blog post “Back to the scene of …” gets reposted, about celebrating the fiftieth anniversary last year in New Orleans while selling novels.
One of the final blog posts that Richard wrote, “On the wrong side of history,” was intended as a conclusion to the blog series he had just written as he watched the Ken Burns and Lyn Novick The Vietnam War programs, summarizing each, placing himself in the history, and connecting his writings – both his Cologne No. 10 for Men novel and Skytroopers CD songs from the Vietnam War. That’s the way it began; it ended more as a summary of important decisions in his life and his confidence in the future; what a terrific final act – just weeks before he died. I have noted since that even though he referred ten different times in his blog about the lingering effects of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, he never talked about his own cancer being one of those conditions “presumed” to be caused by Agent Orange for those who served in Vietnam. As a result, I consider the revelation of that information to be an element of our partnership beyond death. This revelation is my share of his continuing desire to make the public aware of our country’s inclination to wander into war and stay there without regard for the consequences. Fifty years later, I say to people who mourn him, “So you think you are unscathed by that war fifty years ago? Here we are this many years later, mourning the loss of someone due to allowing our government to make the wrong decisions.”
The “social justice novels” were the final phase of a purpose-driven life in which Richard Morris was aware of wanting his life to make a difference. In graduate school, while serving as driver for mayoral candidate Carl Stokes in Cleveland who eventually became the first black mayor of a major American city, Richard was so inspired by Stokes that this experience made Richard think politics was the key to changing the world and caused him to change his direction in life. He dropped out of graduate school, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The year in Vietnam was, of course, the basis for his war satire Cologne No. 10 for Men and his Skytroopers CD of nineteen songs he wrote during that year.
Partway through that Vietnam year, Richard decided that politics was not the key to changing the world; instead, law or business was the answer. He took the GRE in a Quonset hut in Vietnam and upon his return, entered and graduated from Harvard Business School. His plan was to get involved in the construction of prefabricated houses and eventually immerse himself in “the great problems of rebuilding the big cities.” He learned the basics of prefabbing houses in Massachusetts, then relocated to western Maryland where he built over a hundred houses and established a prefab housing company which prefabricated and shipped wall panels to other builders. The latter part of his career in housing was at the National Association of Homebuilders Research Center in Upper Marlboro, MD, and the National Association of Homebuilders in Washington, D.C. He wrote numerous technical publications about building codes, energy conservation, frost-protected shallow foundation design and construction, lead paint and remodeling, and universal design. His final novel, Masjid Morning, incorporates the construction part of Richard’s life in a book that, as homebuilder Jay Endelman described, “moves effortlessly between technical descriptions of a mosque rising from the ground like a living being and the emotional struggles between religions.”
Morris’s novels, Canoedling in Cleveland and Well Considered reflect other time periods in his life. Canoedling in Cleveland is a canoeing adventure from the 1960s that stemmed from Richard’s inquiry to his high school newspaper advisor as to why his community was all white. Never getting a satisfactory answer in high school, years later Richard Morris created book characters who would sleuth out the answers in fiction. Well Considered also reflected his concerns about racial justice and came about during the twenty years when he lived in Bowie, MD, and studied the history of Prince George’s County, MD.
Richard’s writing inspired my own writing, not because I want to write or see my words in print, but because I have a charge to keep. I want to keep his books in view, and I want to be sure that in death he is recognized for the contributions he made during life.
Richard not only had his words and my words to represent him; he also had children who had words. The mutual comment from the adult children was that they thought he had no idea how many lives he had touched and what a difference he had made. One daughter was assertive enough to protest the fact that he could even question “What is my legacy?” Her response song at the memorial service to his What is My Legacy? included, “And as you weigh your life, critics all betraying, measure true the life you poured into us.” Our family treasured the Rankin family song, “We rise again in the faces of our children …” but not everyone has children. And not everyone has what a writer has, a legacy of words. During this time of Memorial Day remembrances, writers take heart. Your writing allows you to clone yourself through your words. This is your legacy when you travel on.
Richard singing with Jonathan at Memorial Day Writers Project