This is taken from a Facebook post I wrote six years ago today, Feb. 9, 2015 — coincidentally, almost exactly four years before I started this blog. Although it wasn’t the last time I would be in Dad’s house in Missouri City — I did go back later for the grandfather clock — this visit with my wife and children was very important to me, because it was the last time all four of us would be there together. So here’s what I wrote after we drove back home to Arlington …
The red Stewart & Stevenson jacket hangs draped over a chair at the kitchen table. Any moment, we’ll hear Dad shuffling down the hallway, the worn tiles crackling and snapping every few steps. He’ll come around the corner, grab the jacket, scoop up his keys and wallet from the table and say with a smile and a lilt, “All ready to go?”
But that won’t happen, because Dad’s not here. The contagious joke-a-minute, laugh-a-lot, friend-to-all personality that made everyone love being with him has ascended to another plane. Death hasn’t changed him; he’s just catching up with the old gang and carrying on as much as ever.
It’s been six and a half months since Clark Lindsay Christlieb’s 84-year-old body finally gave out — but never gave up — after he fought a gutsy five-month second round in his bout with melanoma. It seems such a short time, yet so unbelievably, unbearably long. We all lose our parents and other loved ones, and it suffocates us in grief for a time. All we can do is keep loving, keep longing, keep looking up, and keep living.
Early Saturday morning, Kay, Will, Lindsay and I hit the road in Arlington for Dad’s house in Missouri City, on the southwest side of Houston. Knowing our Sentra’s trunk had too little room to cram more memories and family history into, we rented a Pathfinder. It would be the fourth trip to sift through Dad’s left-behinds, as well as those of generations of both of his parents’ ancestors. It almost certainly will be our last time in the house before an estate sale this spring and the sale of the home Dad moved into with his aging mother Alma in summer 1994.
The musty aroma of time’s passage lingers throughout. In a room off the garage, layers of dust remain on stacks and shelves of books dating well into the 1800s: schoolbooks of ancestors; engineering texts belonging to my grandfather Frank and great-grandfathers Isaac and Knute; college and high school yearbooks; Hardy Boys books from Dad’s childhood; stamp collection volumes; and so much more. The house hasn’t been lived in for nearly a year, as Dad moved in with my brother Isaac last March when the chemo and radiation treatments began.
I spent most of an hour going through a teetering, partly torn stack of loose piano sheet music and books of all manner of musical compositions. The books are in amazingly good condition for having been published in the 1880s and 1890s as some of them were. I envisioned my great-grandmother Adelaide “Addie” Brabec Christlieb — a classically trained pianist who performed with the Minneapolis Symphony — perched on her bench for hours playing music so advanced and bleeding with so much black ink that I could only shake my head at the level of difficulty, realizing the pieces were way beyond my novice grasp.
Addie’s son, my grandfather Frank, was also an accomplished pianist, and my grandmother Alma played quite well too. Even Dad took lessons at age 12, and I found one of his lesson books from 1942 that bore his writing. I could only chuckle, imagining Dad laboring through piano theory and performance, knowing he hated every minute of it. I can just hear young Lindsay — he went by his middle name as a youth — struggling through a piece and finally muttering, “Aw, the hell with it.”
Not long before my grandfather Frank died, just as my junior year at Conroe High began in August 1976, I heard Granddad utter the same words while playing the old ragtime standard “Doll Dance” on the 1930s Haddorff upright at home in St. Paul. His 76-year-old fingers weren’t as nimble as they’d been during his younger piano-playing days. Seven years ago, Dad handed off that old Haddorff to my family, and it’s made beautiful music as Will, Lindsay and I have taken piano lessons off and on.
Dad’s is like most homes that go unlived in for a while: cold, dusty, still. Dead cockroaches lay here and there, beckoning to us about the long-overdue cleaning that’ll be needed soon. But most of all, it’s lonely. Desolate. Incredibly. Still full of furniture, heirlooms and other family history, despite the fact that we’ve taken what seems a truckload of cherished documents, photos, books and antiques back to Arlington. Yet so, so empty. So bare. So devoid of the life Dad gave it.
Saturday night, it was boys in one bedroom and girls in another. As 13-year-old Will and I lay in the room that had most recently been Dad’s — and his mother Alma’s before she died just days from her 91st birthday in September 2000 — I closed my eyes and drifted. Even my slightest move made the loudest of creaks. As I tried to find a comfortable position to avoid aggravating the puzzling left shoulder pain that had begun earlier that day, I likewise tried not to provoke the bed’s groaning in a way that would wake Will. Maybe the bed was trying to tell me something. Maybe Dad was trying to tell me something.
Whatever it was, every noise reminded me of hearing Dad shift positions in the crabby old bed when I’d visit him. I could still hear him clearing his throat and coughing during the night. I could hear his occasional sleep-talking. I could hear him wake up and lumber across the hall to the bathroom, then amble back to his creak-interrupted slumber. How the heck did he ever get any sleep?
And then there’s the wonderful old grandfather clock. We haven’t researched how old it is, but certainly well over 100 years. I remember its soothing chime so well from childhood visits to our grandparents’ house at 1401 Grantham St. in the serene St. Anthony Park section of St. Paul. It always stood like a tall, proud and dutiful watchman right by the front door, near the blue-carpeted staircase that led to 3 bedrooms — Dad’s childhood room (where Isaac and I always slept when we visited), Alma and Frank’s room (with the requisite twin beds rather than one), and the pink (yes, pink) guest room our parents used during visits.
I’ve struggled with the grandfather clock. It’s magnificent, stately and in decent, albeit nonworking, shape. It’s full of bygone times and warmth. And it’s family. But the revered mementos of yesterday can only flow into so many tomorrows before they must be parted with. Every monument to the past cannot stay home forever. Even though the chimes have long since been silenced, I’m torn between a desire to cling to this statuesque connection to my father, grandparents and whatever other relatives the clock belonged to, and the reality that there is little room in our home for it. And, that once we’re gone, the odds are slim that our children would want it.
But the more I revisit its prominence in my childhood and cherish its unbreakable tether to the past, the more I realize it must be saved — for now, anyway.
In less than 24 hours, our final frenzied treasure hunt through Dad’s home had ended. Such a short time to relive memories, to wish for more time there with Dad, to look for any other scraps of the past that should either be tossed or salvaged. The exquisite linens made by hand — many by Grandmother Alma, others by her Norwegian mother Agnete during the long, mournful decades she spent in a mental institution after being placed there in the 1920s when Alma was only a teen. The beautiful china of what seem infinite patterns. The large, ornate marriage certificate of my great-grandparents Agnete and Knute Anker. Alma’s baptismal record. The receipt from Clark and my mother Olga’s purchase in Huntington, W. Va., of a crib for my brother Isaac on Aug. 25, 1959 — three days after his birth and coinciding with his adoption. The letters and paperwork documenting Dad’s 1954 Navy discharge and return to the U.S. with his bride Olga after their marriage in Panama a little over a year earlier.
The vestiges of a family’s history are endless.
And the red jacket waits, ready for Dad to pick it up and head out the door.