Elegy to My Father

Carl John Clemens

1905 – 1986

Born on a Minnesota farm, you milked cows, picked corn, and shocked wheat. You hated farming; that’s why you left Minnesota, that, and your mother always telling you what to do. She cried when you left home; you were only sixteen. You had nine siblings, all with the same Clemens nose; your sisters looked like you in a wig. As a boy, you slogged three miles to and from school in the snow—uphill—both ways.

Mom was 17 and you were 27 (and a virgin) when you married. You were 43 when I, the youngest of your five children, was born. In Sonora you were a storeowner and town councilman: a big fish in a small sea. Things changed. Never speaking of Mom after she left, you told me not to either. You lost your business, your family, and your pride, paid your debts and left town.

Carl, Cathy 1956You ate bottles of aspirin and rolls of Tums. When I was sick, you rubbed Vicks on my chest, gave me two Aspergum, and stroked my forehead. Sitting on the edge of my bed, you had tears in your eyes as you remembered the only time your mother comforted you was when you were sick. You taught me how to sew on a button, iron a shirt, and dust a banister. You let me put your donation envelope in the copper collection plate during Mass. You sang me German songs, found quarters behind my ears, and slapped your thigh at your own corny jokes. You gave me crisp two-dollar bills and a ballerina music box. We held hands when we went to Golden Gate Park, Fleishhacker Zoo, and Fisherman’s Wharf, my triple-time steps keeping up with your long stride. We took pictures with your Brownie; I have them still.

You were tall and upright, with wire-rimmed glasses, blue eyes and gray hair, and smelled of Old Spice, Vitalis, and Listerine. You wore a three-piece suit, a tie, and your felt hat with two small red and black feathers in its brim. Your starched white shirt hid muscles you built from working in construction and delivering ice. Offering your arm, you walked on the curbside and tipped your hat. Always the first to stand and the last to sit, you also held chairs, doors, and umbrellas. You had no sense of direction, none, and missed the same turn-off three times. You tried to fix the living room door when it was sticking at the bottom. You sanded it, sanded it again, and sanded it some more. Then you sawed it. When done, it was an inch and a half too short at the top. You re-hung it anyway, and were embarrassed every time anyone mentioned the gap.  You cooked double-thick lamb chops, canned green peas, and new potatoes, and you loved fresh crab, asparagus, and French bread. You read Look, Reader’s Digest, and the TheSaturday Evening Post. Blood made you faint. Alcohol made you sick. Arrogance made you mad. The Ten Commandments, good judgment, and common sense directed your life.

You ran a five-and-dime on Haight Street. After work we drove home along Stow Lake, counting the rabbits and squirrels. When I got my learner’s permit you let me drive, even though I scared you. When I was fifteen, you locked me out of the house while I was out with the neighborhood boys. When you told me to pack my bags, that I was going back to Carleen’s, I cried. You let me stay. I worked with you every summer from the time I was twelve until I got married. You taught me to make change, stock shelves, and take inventory; to sweep the floor, run the register, and watch for shoplifters. You taught me honesty and you taught me loyalty. You also taught me the cost of security: in twenty-five years of running a dime store, you never made more than $500 a month. You hated the Summer of Love, throwing buckets of cold mop water on the “goddam dirty hippies” when they slept against your shiny red-tiled storefront in the morning fog. You resented their freedom, sexuality and values, detested their music, drugs, and panhandling. When the Haight—along with the world—changed, you closed the store.Carl John Clemens 10-7-67

On my wedding day you walked me down the aisle; you taught me to dance that day. You weren’t fond of my husband, but you loved our babies. You cradled, tickled, and kissed them. You fed Matt his first watermelon and Jon his first ice cream. We played cards and cribbage and you taught my sons to play too. They were easy to beat and fun to cheat and you laughed when they caught you.

At the movies during the nude scene (it wasn’t even a nude scene; she was standing at the second story window and slowly lifted her sweater off over her head while the cowboys watched from below), you were so startled you covered your eyes and threw your popcorn and Coke all over the people in the row behind us, your false teeth flipping out into your lap.

At your surprise seventy-fifth birthday party, you cried in the doorway of Sonoma’s Depot Hotel. For your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary you had your tiny 1852 gold piece made into a pendant for Marie. You asked me to give it to her, knowing you wouldn’t make it until then as cancer had spread to almost every part of your body. You could no longer walk, eat, or turn over by yourself. When the black-robed priest quietly appeared at your bedside to give you the last rites, you blurted, “Oh shit,” and ducked under the covers. Three days later, just before dawn, you took your last breath. They drove your body away in the back of an old brown station wagon. We got to say goodbye. You got to say you’re sorry. I got to say I love you.

Catherine rail hatI have your Kodak Brownie, pearl cufflinks, rosary beads, and your felt hat with the small red and black feathers. They all remind me of you, the best parts of you, and remind me of what I had.

Your daughter, Catherine (Clemens) Sevenau

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  1. James Bair says:

    Lovely. You say so much, so sweetly. This feels close to home, of course. Thanks for offering such beautiful tribute.

  2. Dear Cathy: so beautiful – I remember your Father, even though I was very young. Your writing always brings back such great memories. Thank you for that.

  3. Your father sounds so remarkable! And I really enjoyed reading the tribute. If I were to write about my father, though there is much to say, I wouldn’t have those kind of sweet memories to share even though he, too, hated the farming life in Germany and became an engineer. He just could not relate to females other than serving him…very old fashioned! Your writing is very engaging and I love the subtle and not so subtle humor that you weave in!

  4. I’ll say it over and over again—I LOVE the way you write! Maggie

  5. God Catherine, you are really putting it down. Really good writing, yours is so much better than mine would have been. I really enjoyed Queen Bee. I do tear up periodically, I am empathetic. And most of all sympathetic. Keep it up, see you lata.

    • Thanks Billie. It takes practice to become a decent writer, so keep practicing. This piece was edited more times than I care to remember, and my repetition and funky punctation got cleaned up in the process. Glad you liked Queen Bee!

  6. From my friend, Barbara Jacobsen:
    Well, you did it again, more tears. I love this man! This is such powerful healing work you’re doing, Catherine!!!!!! In Robert Moss’s Quantum Dreaming course he helps us go back to our child selves in both happy and troubled times and do some theater journeys to reclaim the wonder and heal the pain… there’s so much richness there, as you well know! Thanks again for sharing these treasures. Love, Barb

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