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A man's courteous gesture touches a family's heart

On a sunny Wednesday in March, a funeral procession snaked through the rural town of Riverview with sheriff's deputies clearing the way for 15 or so cars headed toward the cemetery.

Mark Ober was behind the hearse in his old Chevy Blazer, thinking whatever you think when you've lost your last living parent, things you can't begin to know until it happens to you, even if you're a grown-up with kids, responsibilities and a big important job like being the state attorney of Hillsborough County.

Ober's mother had saved news articles about him, sat in courtrooms during trials when he was a defense lawyer. Once, she scolded him after the serial killer he was defending asked who the nice lady was and Ober told him.

He had just given her eulogy at the funeral home. He even got the crowd laughing. Maridale Ober — Dale, to people who knew her, Queen Mum to her kids — would have liked that.

Ober told stories and read out loud some of the notes she left around his house after she got sick and came to stay with him, when Lou Gehrig's disease began to steal her voice and silence the British accent she never fully lost, even after decades in America.

Fear Factor, said a note she posted on his refrigerator, which tended to contain large amounts of mackerel or mullet.

And: I put your bed pillows outside to air out. If you're lucky someone will steal them.

And, when she discovered a fishhook where a fishhook shouldn't be: Look what I found in the washing machine. This would feel good in your britches.

There was a decidedly Oberesque sense of humor there. Early on, a speech pathologist came to interview her and went down a list of required questions. Among them: had Mrs. Ober ever been abused?

Yes, she said.

By whom?

My son, she said. And then the punch line: "He makes me wash his underwear."

As the funeral procession moved along, Ober saw a guy who had just walked to the end of his driveway, maybe to check the day's mail. He wore shorts and a tank top. He looked at the cars, and then he did something sort of amazing.

The man took off his baseball cap, held it over his heart and bowed his head. He stood there like that as the procession passed.

Later, Ober thought how as the cars got closer to the city, other drivers got less courteous, more impatient, less willing to slow down and yield because of somebody's funeral. But back in Riverview, a stranger had bowed his head.

It stayed with Ober. Turned out his sister had seen it, too, and his friend Sam. It stayed with all of them.

The day he went back to pay the funeral home, Ober stopped at the house where he had seen the man. Another guy answered the door. "Oh, you're the public defender," he said when Ober introduced himself. Eventually, the man with the baseball cap came out.

They shook hands. Ober asked if he'd been in the military, if that was why he was so respectful, but no.

The man was in his 40s, a tradesman. They didn't talk long. Ober told him about his mother and about how much the moment meant to him and his family.

"I said, 'You could have just gone back in the house,' " Ober said. "He said, 'It's just a matter of common courtesy.' "

A man's courteous gesture touches a family's heart 04/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 10:28am]
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