Letters to My Dad

New Orleans        For all New Orleans families of this generation there will forever become a time marker that draws the line at “before Katrina” and “after Katrina.”  Life with my father follows that line as well in some interesting ways.  

    He and my mother ended up after many twists and turns in Kansas City staying with my mother’s brother and sister-in-law there and finally decamping to Baton Rouge with a friend of my mother’s.  My folk’s house was within a half-mile of Lake Ponchartrain in a neighborhood lying across Elysian Fields Avenue from the University of New Orleans campus.  The house ended up with a new roof but was a secure island of higher ground that did not flood thanks to the fact that the Orleans Levee Board had built up the area for development in the 1960’s.  They were happily back in their home by Thanksgiving.  

    My father had some health problems around that time that put him in an excellent hospital in Kansas City for a pacemaker and defibrillator for his heart.  We were worried about him but he was much improved after the operation.  None of us thought it was wise though for my parents to go home so early.   There was not another occupied neighborhood within 5 miles.  Water near them had risen to 8 and 10 feet devastating the Gentilly area.  There was no phone service.  There was no ambulance service and hospitals nearby did not exist if there were an emergency.  He had always forsaken even a cell phone.  I tried to talk to him about these issues at a dinner celebrating the November birthdays of all the women in our family.  Drawing him aside I asked him about his “real” plans to come back to the crippled city.  “Dad, did you get a cell phone yet?”  “No,” he answered.  “Did you check into whether or not there is a way to get an ambulance to your neighborhood?”  Again, he answered, “No.”  With some exasperation, I said, “Dad, what in the world makes you think you are ready to come back to New Orleans?”  He leaned over to me and said with a smile, “I have a full tank of gas!”  The conversation was clearly way over, and he was on his way home.

    That says it all about my dad in a lot of ways.  A week later I called him and we moved in with them for more than a month.  To our surprise, it was a gift.  My parents loved having us with them, and despite what I might have always thought, we loved being there with them as well.  On other side of the coin it was hard to ignore that part of the joy in our company was the realization of how little time I spent with them as a son because of work, travel, and my own family.  We pledged to do better, and given how badly I had done, I guess we achieved it, but largely it would mean that every Sunday when I was in town, we would make sure we drove out and visited with them for an hour or two.   They were always embarrassingly effusive, but one could also tell that something had happened particularly to my father.  He had clearly brushed against his own mortality in Kansas City, and the minutes were each small monuments and his pleasure at our company was palpable and sincere.  

    My dad’s instincts were conservative.  He had worked 37 years for Chevron after serving and being sent to school by the Navy in WWII.  He was a child of the depression in the orange groves of Orange County, California, remembering the problems that came with German being spoken by his parents at home and the miles every morning before school when he would ride his bike and deliver the papers over the hills around Santa Ana and Orange.  With Chevron (then the California Company) we had become oil field people in company camps in Laramie, Wyoming, where I was born or Wilson Creek or Rangely, Colorado, where my brother was born or Irvine, Kentucky, where I started school until we were transferred to New Orleans.  

    So it was a surprise during these years after Katrina that I also learned that one of my most devoted readers of this blog and anything else I wrote was of all people my dad.    He recently told me that I had added an extra “e” and misspelled Rangely in an essay I had done for a book and had shared with him.  He would ask what was going on whenever a blog did not run.  He had gotten my brother to set his computer so he could easily access the blog.  He wondered if ACORN was mentioned at the SEIU convention recently in Puerto Rico.  When I would log reports from some of my travels for ACORN International or the Organizers’ Forum in other countries, he was fascinated, but he always would quiz me on the “other things” that were not covered in my blog that interested him in addition to the meetings, organizing, and whatever.  He wanted to know more about what these countries “felt” like and some of their unique features.  After each trip over the last year or so, I began adding a final blog from the trip that recognized his interests and demands that would often be called “notes for my father” or something similar.  

    Writing a blog on a daily basis admittedly requires some discipline.  On the work and responsibility level I would rationalize it as a local group that I was still maintaining as an organizer with 3000-3500 individual members who paid dues every month by logging in and reading the blog.  But, on a personal level it was also easier knowing that in a strange and funny way I had found a way to communicate with my father and in a small way these postings were letters to him.  Not personal letters, but touchstones.  Something that we shared and that he would discuss or question.  Once or twice he even wrote a comment and would post on some blog or another.  

    It was also a way at both of our ages and given his diffidence to allow him to share with me in a wordless and indirect way that he was proud of me, proud of ACORN, and had come to peace with my life and work.   Most of his life my father was most often a man of wit and anger, both of which would break quickly and then be gone as easily.  He was in some ways a hard man.  Friends commented upon his passing about his strength.  One said he was a “pillar of a man.”  Another said he was a “ramrod.”  None of that was surprising.  A lot of this was based on the discipline of his life.  He believed in work — lots of work.  While at Chevron, he went to night school and then became a teacher of accounting at the colleges.  He had tax clients that filed into his house from January through the summer.  There were tax files still open on his desk.  When he finally retired from Chevron within a couple of weeks he became a teacher first at Holy Cross College across the River, and then a professor of accounting at Southern
    University of New Orleans (SUNO) for another dozen years since it was only a couple of miles away from his house. He jogged from the age of 40 until in his mid-70’s.  The son of generations of farmers (his father was named Erdman, which in German means man of the soil), he worked in his yard his entire life.  Much of that was his legacy and life.  

    But there was another related side that I came to understand along the way.  All of his life he “adopted” elderly people, usually neighbors or people from his church.  He would bring them groceries or handle their personal affairs.  He ended up the executor for some of these people.  He had power of attorney for several elderly ladies that he still visited regularly with my mother in homes around New Orleans.  Until Katrina he always worked in the church.  Usher, treasurer, or wherever there was a role and a place for quiet, but steady service.  Over the years we would wait for him many Sundays as he came back from counting the collection of the various services.  In training organizers I have told story of the annual membership drive of the Lutheran Church and the visitations that they would do in teams for several Sunday afternoons to tighten up the membership and get the commitments of tithes.  Growing up, this was just what was normal for my parents.  Now it is called “civic engagement” and scholars’ remark on the commitments of my parents’ generation. There was never a call to service from my parents, but somehow there was always a steady seeping of these values that one can only really recognize many decades later.

    Seeing the anger finally fade while the wit remained and seeing him find voice to express how much he came to worship his grandchildren and his daughter-in-law over the recent years was a priceless gift.  Talking about the blogs, giving a critique of each Sunday’s sermon that he and my mother weathered, and, surprisingly, finding that he wanted to ask me every Sunday about something he had read or thought about in reading the “Lives” story at the end of each New York Times Magazine, started to give me a newer, fuller, and finer sense of the man who was my father.  
    
    I had become an organizer in a rage.  I left my parents home vowing to never return in the national argument over the Viet Nam War when I was 19.  I had come home and announced that I had dropped out of college to organize against the war.  My father believed that you had a duty to serve.  This had been his experience in WWII.  He believed, as he shouted in the loudest terms, that the Navy had also “saved him.”  In their desperation for officers in the bleaker days of the war, the Navy gave all recruits the V-2 test and the high scorers were plucked out of the ranks and put in Officer Candidate Schools as part of the NROTC during the war.  My father was a child of his day and class and had made it through high school and gone to work first at a Los Angeles department store as a clerk and then in an aircraft assembly plant nearer to Long Beach before enlisting in the Navy.  Thanks to his V-2 score he found himself being sent to college first at Milsaps in the strangeness of Jackson, Mississippi, where Johnny     Carson was in his same NROTC class and where he by chance met my mother, a daughter of the Mississippi Delta.  After another year the Navy sent him to Tulane University in New Orleans (where he and my mother married secretly against all regulations!) before shipping him out.  I only came to understand this and make my peace with my father after driving and camping through California and spending time with my grandmother in Orange and his sisters.  The black and white of the argument became grayer then.  I didn’t agree with him, but at least I understood him.  We were just going different ways at different times.

    Now in these last years there was also a new understanding.  We were different people.  He couldn’t abide Bush, but he clearly was not comfortable with Obama yet.  I had never heard him think out loud about not voting.   

    We had found a way to talk in an easy manner about things that were important while staying out of the higher weeds.  These daily notes became suffused in my own mind with interest in what my father might find fascinating or choose to raise later or even critique.   A part of writing became these small notes to my dad.

    It will be hard to shake that feeling in writing this and other things that I will be able to look forward to the surprise of those later conversations.   But today we are burying my father so the conversations will continue, but only in my mind where I will miss him greatly, and be thankful for the last several years in which we were able to finally share so many subtle and wonderful things.  

    Edmann Jacob Rathke, February 22, 1921 — June 6, 2008.  Born: Tustin, California.  Died:  New Orleans, Louisiana.  

Edmann Jacob Rathke
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