Mortality and the Season of Joy

Forty years ago today, December 7, 1980, my father began the final year of his life.

This reflection has been stuck in my mind for several days now so it is time to process it. Those who are familiar with my writing in TheDailyDrivel.com know it is a stream of consciousness blog and it is likely to go in any number of directions. Sometimes, like today, it comes out as a memoir.

A quick word about memoirs. My parents had four children – my three sisters and me. However, each of us grew up in four different families with these same parents. That’s not unusual. The experience each child has in its family is unique due to birth order, number of siblings, family circumstances, state of the parents’ relationship, etc., etc. By the time I came along (my youngest sister is 10 years my senior) the family experience I had was different from my sisters. For this reason, my memories and memoir is not theirs and never can be, anymore than theirs can be mine. It is not my intention to speak for them and their experience with our parents because I cannot. Hence anything I write here should not be associated to them. Family therapists have more eloquent ways of explaining this phenomenon of siblings growing up in different families with the same parents, but I hope this will suffice for now.

My father died on December 6, 1981, on my sister Carol’s birthday and in my 27th year. Yesterday, of course, was the 40th anniversary of his death. In his book, Tuesday’s with Morrie, Mitch Albom observes, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

I have a complicated relationship with my father. He was an alcoholic, and his drinking was particularly bad throughout my teens. However, I now understand he struggled with addiction for many years before and after that period. In my earliest years we lived in a four-room house on my grandfather’s farm. It had a toilet but no bathing facilities. In the cold months we bathed in a tub in the kitchen and, in the warm months, under a rigged up hose and shower nozzle in the cellar. When I was entering grade school we moved into my grandfather’s house, after he moved to town, where we had a bathtub in an upstairs room and a toilet in a small room on the main floor. In junior high school we moved from my grandfather’s house on the family farm into another four-room, one and a half story house in town. It was an exciting move because, for the first time, we had a bathtub and toilet together in the same bathroom. Odd the things that stand out in our memories, eh?

Carman Chester (Tom) Klaus (1913-1981). I took this portrait of my dad for a photography class in 1980, less than a year before he died. In this photo he was the same age I will be on my next birthday, 67. I was given his nickname as my birthname.

That house in town was small for three people. The last of my three sisters had moved away from home six or seven years before our move. From about age 8 on I was an “only child” with my sisters grown, married, and moved out. Sometimes my mom and dad seemed to be more like grandparents than parents. I had nieces and nephews who were only three to five years younger than me. It was a bit weird to see my parents be grandparents while they were still supposed to be parents to me.

In truth, though, I parented them. My dad would walk home from the bar most afternoons in time for supper in a state of near black out. He would have driven the three blocks home but he’d often forget that he drove his truck there. My mother spent most evenings raging at my dad for his drinking until she finally went to her bedroom on the 2nd floor. Dad’s blackout state meant he never noticed, or remembered, the raging. But I do. I also remember how everyday I felt like I had to keep the peace. Sometimes covering for my dad. Sometimes siding with my mom. Often putting my dad to bed at night. Always strategizing on how to keep some level of peace in our home. There were days when that small house felt like a tiny house with walls that kept moving inward.

The stress of parenting my parents was enormous. Our family doctor observed my father walking to and from the bar each day (he had to walk right by the doctor’s office) and likely surmised what was happening in our home. He knew that I was under extraordinary stress as a teenager. During a routine sports exam, he noted the impact it was having on me and prescribed mild sedatives to help me manage the anxiety. However, I was scared of drugs of any kind as well as alcohol, so I took them sporadically for a month and never refilled the prescription. In that time my family had more in common with the Vance family of Hillbilly Elegy than any of the smiling, middle-class, white families we watched on TV sitcoms.

There was one day each year I looked forward to: Christmas Eve. It had nothing to do with religiosity or gifts. It was all about the opportunity to be just a kid. As a family we were a mixed bag religiously. My two oldest sisters were raised as Lutherans and my youngest sister and I were raised as Methodists. In our German family’s tradition we celebrated Christmas Eve. It was the time when all my sisters and their families came home. On that one night I did not have to feel solely responsible for keeping peace between my parents. My sisters were there to run interference and I could laugh, play, and be a kid.

Ruth Miller Klaus Cary (1916-2006). This portrait of my mom was taken in 1980 at the same time I took the photo of my dad. Mom was 64 years old in this photo. She remarried 10 months after my dad died.

My mom was an amazing cook and baker. The food on Christmas Eve was unlike any other day of the year. I loved Christmas eve. In fact, after I graduated from high school and moved out, I always made a point of being home for Christmas Eve. Until 1978.

In September 1978 I became the minister of a thriving rural church in Iowa. It was located over three hours from my hometown and had a tradition of holding a Christmas Eve service. In 1978, for the first time in my life, I had to miss Christmas Eve in order to lead the service at the church. My duties during that time meant I also missed Christmas Eve at home in 1979 and 1980.

In 1981 I changed jobs and it meant that I’d be able to join my family again for Christmas Eve. I was very excited. By the late 1970’s my mom and dad seemed to have achieved a different way of being in their life together. Mom seemed a bit softer and Dad’s drinking seemed to be more controlled. I had heard from Mom that Dad had missed me being home for Christmas Eve and was really looking forward to my return for the holiday.

I made it home but I was both too early and too late. I was called at work on Monday, November 30th and told my dad had fallen ill in the middle of the night. I drove home and took turns sitting with him in the hospital until he died the following Sunday, December 6, 1981.

Odd things happen in the moment when people pass away. I remember two things that happened. First, my mom turned to my sister, on whose birthday Dad died, and said, “Happy birthday, Carol.” That elicited a gasp from the nurses. Then all of my immediate family members – sisters and brothers-in-laws – turned to me and said, nearly in unison, “What do we do now?” Everyday since I have felt the unrelenting emotional weight of responsibility for my family.

For the past several days my heart has been carried back to Iowa by these memories. In fact, the memories have been intense and unshakable, hence the need to write. I think they are so strong because I’m also wrestling with my mortality, and that of people I know back home, in the midst of this terrible spike in COVID-19.

A friend from Western New York sent me an article from The Atlantic titled, Iowa is What Happens When Government Does Nothing: The story of the coronavirus in the state is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. I know people from Iowa who would refuse to read an article in The Atlantic because they’d associate it with “East Coast elites.” In this case they’d be wrong. The author is from Burlington, Iowa, which was the nearest city near where I grew up and where I hung out as a teenager. The article is written with the awareness and love of an Iowan who is appalled by the situation there.

Another friend told me this week that she is scared of what is happening with the pandemic because it is all so out of control. I agree. I’m scared too. I think we’d both agree that our fear is not so much about the virus. We both know how to mitigate it and we do the things we need to do to protect ourselves: mask up, physical distance, wash hands, etc. Our fear is rooted, instead, in the actions of people who are not taking it seriously and who, out of ignorance, or political leanings, or both, refuse to take the same precautions. We can protect ourselves from a virus easier than we can protect ourselves from such stupidity.

In facing my own mortality, I remembered my dad on the anniversary of his death. None of us knew on December 7, 1980 that he would have only 365 more days. I thought there would be another chance to be at home for Christmas Eve.

Yes, my relationship with my dad was complicated. For all the ways his addiction prevented him from being present in my life, he did one thing for which I am forever grateful: he did not confine me to the same life to which he had been confined. He let me go and, in fact, was proud of me for going.

I saw his pride in one thing he did which seemed silly at the time. In the Spring before I graduated from high school I received a financial award letter from the community college in Burlington. My dad thought I had received a merit scholarship. He got so excited for me that he tracked me to an athletic event I was attending in another town and hand delivered the letter to me. I opened the letter and read it, but it wasn’t a merit scholarship at all, only an award based on financial need. He was so proud, I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t what he thought.

In the Fall of 1981, when I learned he was looking forward to me coming home for Christmas Eve, the trip took on a new meaning for me. It was no longer about respite, but a way of saying thanks to my dad for letting me go. I never got to say thank you and Christmas Eve has not been the same since. Today it comes and goes with a bit of sadness.

And remember to say thank you while you can.

(Adjective) Thanksgiving

What is the most appropriate adjective this year, of all years, for the phrase “_____ Thanksgiving?”

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Lib Thanksgiving

At least one family I know has a fun and funny Thanksgiving tradition. Each year, after dinner, the family sits around the table doing a Mad Lib that has been written by a family member. You remember Mad Libs right?

Those are the fill-in-the-blank stories which are created when people suggest nouns, verbs, and adjectives without knowing what the story is really about. For example, they might be asked for an adjective, verb, and noun for this line:

(ADJECTIVE) Tony (VERB) to the store and bought a (NOUN).

Of course, Mad Libbers don’t actually know the line so the complete sentence could turn out to be very funny, very nonsensical, and even very racy. Usually, they are just very funny. Like, “Upside down Tony gargled to the story and bought a new tire.” Okay, okay…I thought it was funny.

This year we have an actual Mad Lib Thanksgiving. What is the adjective we will use to describe it? Frankly, “happy” doesn’t work for me because this has been a year of such unhappiness for so many and it still isn’t over. While I write the rest of this blog, I’m going to continue to think about how I will answer the question I posed at its beginning.


Thanksgiving Reading

If you are looking to take a break from the endless news cycle and COVID-19 ravaged football games, there are three short pieces I recommend you read today. All came into my email inbox over the past 24 hours and each spoke to me in different ways. Just click on the header link to access each of them.

Letters from an American – November 25, 2020

Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor and writer from Maine, writes a daily blog which my friend Dave introduced me to a few months ago. In this blog she writes about the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It doesn’t follow the story we all learned as children – you know, kindly Pilgrims and even more kindly Indigenous people who didn’t let the Pilgrims starve. It focused instead on how President Abraham Lincoln came to proclaim the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. More fascinating than how it came to be is why it came to be. I won’t bury the headline but I won’t give it away either. Be sure to give it a read yourself.

Gratitude in Six Words, from Our Readers

Last week, David Leonhardt, the writer of the The Morning newsletter, in the New York Times, asked readers to send him six words that describe what made them thankful in 2020. I found it to be – all at the same – the most beautiful, moving, sweetest, and saddest of all articles I’ve read recently. After a very brief introduction by Leonhardt, the remainder of the article features the six word descriptions submitted by reader. Leonhardt received over 10,000 replies and, of course, he could not publish them all. Here are six that touched me, but, please, take a few minutes and read his list:

The crinkling eye above the mask.

Ambulance took him. He came home.

Held my son as he died.

We’re falling in love over FaceTime.

Alone, spouses thankful for tiny turkey.

This stinking year is almost over.

With Sufficient Force, Pigs Fly Just Fine

This is a blog written by my friend Geri Seiberling. She and her husband, Kevin, started etc!graphics, a visual communications company, in Carlisle, Iowa in 1988. Their office is directly across the street from the building that house the office of my first consultancy business, which I opened in 1998. Geri and Kevin were very helpful to me in establishing the “look” of that business. Unfortunately, that business was just beginning to get a foothold in 2001 when the events of September 11th happened. The subsequent impact on the U.S. economy forced me to finally close the business in 2004 though it actually died in late 2001 and early 2002.

For this Thanksgiving holiday, Geri published her blog as a letter about the year 2020 to her future self (to be opened again next year at this time). It is one of the most creative, hopeful, optimistic pieces I’ve read this year. It very much reflects Geri as I remember her. I’ve not seen her or Kevin since I left Iowa in 2005 but I remember their office was a place I could always stop by when I needed good advice, a sounding board, or just a word of hope and optimism.


Answering the First Question

I opened this blog with this question: What is the most appropriate adjective this year, of all years, for the phrase “_____ Thanksgiving?” I’m going to try to fill in that blank now.

This year I have become more aware of my privilege as a white American male than ever before. My awareness was further expanded about 12 hours ago.

Last night we had a Thanksgiving Zoom with our children. A daughter is in Brooklyn, New York, three hours away. A son and daughter-in-law are in Columbia, Maryland, fifteen minutes away. All three reported being overworked and wildly stressed. All three looked exhausted and like they had aged several years over the past several months. I’m guessing we must have looked older and more worn to them too.

However, we all also reported that we feel fortunate to be in a different place than some of our friends who have lost jobs, income, and loved ones to COVID-19. Also, we have all remained healthy. Only one of us has had a possible exposure to the virus that necessitated COVID-19 testing. We all regularly mask up, maintain physical distance, and otherwise do the right things to ensure we remain healthy, protect others, and don’t become a burden to the already overburdened health system. And, we all feel a certain amount of survivor’s guilt to be so fortunate so far.

I understand my privilege now extends to being one who still has a regular income, a place to call my home, food on the table, minimal worries about the physical health of our children, fewer worries about our children’s financial health and well-being than some parents, a plan to stay safe and well, and the resources to animate that plan.

How dare I, from this position of privilege and through this lens, wish anyone a “Happy” Thanksgiving this year? I don’t dare.

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I can only hope for you a restful, peaceful, and safe Thanksgiving.


June 25, 2020 – Halfway to Christmas

Today is actually June 25, 2020 – not yesterday as I erroneously reported. Today really is Log Cabin Day, yesterday was International Fairy (Faery) Day, and Tuesday, June 23rd was National Columnists Day. My bad. I skipped over it in my list of holidays and recognitions…I think maybe the fairies made me do it…must have played a trick on me. Of course, this is all very confusing to you because I write this blog on the day before I post it, using the date that I write it as the header instead of the date you receive it.

Regardless of the date, I want to take a minute for a “shout out” to National Columnists Day. It was created for two purposes. First, to honor Ernie Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Scripps-Howard news syndicate who died during the World War II Battle of Okinawa in 1945. He was best known for his articles about ordinary American soldiers during the war. Second, it recognizes more generally the value of writers and columnists in all forms of media. In an hour when “fake news” tends to win the day, writers and columnists are valuable for putting out truth, exercising the rights in the First Amendment, and preserving it for now and the future:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Article I, Contitution of the United States of America.

halfway to christmas

Today, June 25, marks six more months until Christmas. It has always been my family’s tradition to celebrate Christmas, given our Lutheran and Methodist traditions. My two oldest sisters were raised as Lutherans and my youngest sister and I were raised as Methodists. Don’t know whyit just was.

Specifically, we celebrated the holiday on Christmas Eve which was our family tradition. Happily, Clemencia’s family tradition is also Navidad (“Christmas Eve” in Spanish), which means we can sleep in on Christmas morning.

My mother would stock pile baking supplies through the summer and then, in October, get really serious about baking for the holiday. She made all sorts of fudge, divinity, and cookies, including Zimmer and Springele, which are two types of traditional German cookies. Zimmer are spiced cookies and the Springele are more commonly known as as “Anise Cakes.” I’ve got both recipes but have only really focused on making Springele. I don’t usually fire up the oven to make them until November and, if I remember this year, I’ll take pictures and post them. They are not only tasty, they are also very artistic.

At Christmas, my brother-in-law Boomer would make the chili. Boomer, you may remember, was my biker/racer/father figure. He made a really excellent chili. I never knew what he put in it – and probably don’t ever want to know – but it was extremely good. None of it was ever left over for Christmas Day.

Boomer worked much of his life in the building trades. He learned cabinet making from a master carpenter in our hometown. Later, he transitioned to building steel infrastructure for buildings and worked for another man in our town who had a very successful steel and concrete business. However, he never gave up carpentry and woodworking.

He built two of the three house he and my sister lived in. In fact, my sister still lives in the second one he built. I remember he also built the kitchen cabinets in our farm house. To save money for my parents he built them out of plywood but they were naturally finished, very beautiful, and extremely strong. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were still in use. In fact, they may be the only thing that is keeping the house standing (and it is still standing, by the way).

When Boomer was “in the zone” while he worked, he would whistle. Most often, he would whistle the song Mountain of Love. The song was written and first recorded by Harold Dorman in 1960. It is a memorable – some would say infectious – rockabilly tune that gets into your head and stays for a little while. It remains one of my favorites. The song has been covered by many artists over the last 60 years, including Bruce Springsteen – 12 times in live concerts!

One of the most successful covers was by Johnny Rivers. His 1964 recording went to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. His is the version I heard most often played and is the one that I think inspired Boomer’s whistling. Non sequitur alert…in 1993, on the eve of the Great Midwestern Flood, as the river was rising only a 100 yards or so away, I got to see Johnny Rivers perform the song live in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the night before the start of the Des Moines Grand Prix which was, of course, flooded out and never returned.

The artist who has had the most success with the song, though, is Charley Pride, a former pro baseball player turned country western singer. Charley Pride is also one of the few Black men to be successful in modern country music. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In the 1970’s, he and Elvis were the best selling artists for RCA records. His country version of Mountain of Love is the only one that ever hit #1 and that was on the Billboard Hot Country Singles in 1982. Charley has a terrific voice and this is a great country version of the song.


chickenman – episode 69

Chickenman checks in at the Police Commissioner’s office only to be given a very special clean up task by Ms. Helfinger.