I miss Dad. A lot. I miss his life-loving laughs, his broad smiles, the humor that seemed to fill his every waking moment and that he was so eager to share with every set of eyes his own met.
My memories are still clear and shining, even though he’s been gone eight years this week, ever since a second round of melanoma snatched him from us. I still hear those laughs, see those smiles and relive those witty moments that were so much a part of who Dad was.
And I still hear his voice loud and clear, although I’m heartbroken that several phone messages I’d been saving disappeared a few years after Dad’s passing at age 84 on July 26, 2014.
God put Clark Lindsay Christlieb, born February 27, 1930, in St. Paul, Minnesota, on this Earth to be a people person. To say hello to literally everyone he saw, to bring smiles to others’ faces whenever he could, to get the most out of life by being as outgoing as possible.
That’s why he made such a great salesman, including spending three decades selling lingerie for Hollywood Vassarette. When I was a kid, I’d sometimes go with Dad as he called on the lingerie “buyers” (mostly women, of course) at Houston department stores – Joske’s, Foleys, Palais Royal and Sakowitz. He was a great schmoozer and they all adored him.
Dad went through life living the well-worn adage of never meeting a stranger. He could make extended conversation with anyone – and that includes John Wayne, whom he met and drank with while in the Navy in Panama, where Dad fell for and married my mother Olga in the Canal Zone on Aug. 1, 1953.
He was never around people when he wasn’t at least trying to make them laugh and having a fantastic time. Even if Dad had just met someone, he’d always close by saying a sincere, “You just take care of yourself.”
Looking back, it’s hard to believe Dad was able to maintain such a congenial and cheerful outlook, knowing the chaos and misery he came home to almost every night. Our mother made life pretty unbearable for all of us with her alcohol-driven behavior, but clearly Dad didn’t let it affect his work.
After a major stroke at age 76 in 2006, Dad worked hard in his rehab and fought his way back. The last eight years of his life, the stroke’s effects made it difficult for him to find words, to read small print, and to recall details, and sometimes he’d get frustrated. But he persevered and still made people smile and laugh. He still lived in his own home, paid his bills, cleaned and organized his house, took daily walks through the neighborhood.
After Dad had two accidents in his minivan, he gave up driving but still got out of the house all the time, thanks to his dear friend and business colleague Akemi Inks and the scores of friends Dad seemed to make every week. He and several buddies formed the “Old Geezers Coffee Club” in the Missouri City area, gathering for java and camaraderie every morning.
The group was up to 12 but dwindled to Dad and his buddy Ronnie McCall (12 years younger than Dad) because 10 had passed away. They also often visited a friend in a nursing home, bringing joy and laughs to other residents there as well. Dad also continued to spend time with his uncle Ralph from Minnesota, who was 14 years older than Dad and like a brother to him. Ralph died at age 96 in 2012, just two years before Dad’s passing.
After Dad had surgery for melanoma in December 2011, he made another amazing comeback and returned to life like nothing had happened. I was always proud of his strength and desire to keep living, making every day count. When his cancer returned in early 2014, Dad, my brother Isaac, his wife Phyllis, and a team of doctors at M.D. Anderson in Houston came up with a game plan – and, not surprisingly, Dad gave it everything he had.
As I said, I miss the hell out of Dad. This week as the anniversary of his passing arrived, I pulled out an extra-special file because I knew it would make me feel better. It’s full of letters and emails I saved that Dad wrote to Kay and me in the early 2000s, and they’re overflowing with his special brand of humor. Not only do they make me laugh – they remind me how incredibly creative and funny Dad was and how much I miss that. His sense of humor was unlike any I’ve ever known.
So if you’ll indulge me, I’d love to share some excerpts from those letters. He typed them all on his computer at work, many of them on stationery for the “Body Cooler” business he and Akemi created together.
In February 2001, after we’d told Dad and other family and friends that we were expecting our first child, he wrote us a letter that included this gem:
At this time we do not know if it will be a boy or a girl and I certainly have no control over that. We will, therefore, have to consider names for both to eliminate haste and confusion in the future. Please believe me, this is for your own benefit.
GIRLS: Acceptable: Babette, Gertrude, Willa, Prudence, Alfreda.
Unacceptable: Hilary, Gilberta, Maude, Belle, Sadie, Violet and one that I will not mention.
BOYS: Acceptable: Wolfgang, Helmut, Olaf, Noah, Leander, Leif.
Unacceptable: Montague, Leopold, Rex, Thaddeus.
It is important to remember, for our future relationship, that the above are not orders but just sincere suggestions that I am sure you will take to heart and not let it lead to an old man’s disappointment. Please feel free to call on me any time for further advice.
What I am trying to say, in my own special way, is that I love you both very much, am very proud of you and so happy that God is giving you this opportunity. You will be the best of parents, of that I am sure.
For years, Dad asked me to edit the marketing materials he’d write up for the business he and Akemi had, and I always did my best to improve them and mail them back to him. He was proud of my writing and editing ability and newspaper accomplishments – he was always bragging to friends about me – and I appreciated that he had so much confidence in me to ask me to edit those.
In that vein, here’s a P.S. on a letter dad wrote in January 2001:
Again, I must remind you that any criticism of my spelling or punctuation will not be taken as constructive. It may affect our relationship in ways that I shutter to even contemplate.
I didn’t mention to Dad that he should have written “shudder.” Or that I was proud of him for using “affect” instead of “effect.”
Here’s a short letter from January 2000. Dad wanted to let us know, in his humorous way, what he thought of the Christmas gifts we’d given him. One was a gag gift; I don’t even recall what gift card or VHS movie we gave him, but he got a big kick out of them. I figure the movie was a Laurel and Hardy flick, because he loved those guys and we were always giving him L&H movies, Abbott & Costello, Three Stooges, etc. He could watch hours of slapstick. There’s a good reason It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was one of his all-time favorites.
Dear Frank and Kay:
I received your Christmas gifts and thank you very much. They all seemed to be filled with hidden meanings that could give ME much trepidation as to the sinister and hidden feelings you might have toward me.
A box of soap to wash my 7 sins away. How do you know it is 7? I can think of a couple of minor ones here and there but 7 are a little too much. I promise you, if it makes you feel better toward me, I will give them all a try.
What are you trying to tell me with the gift card? That I do not care how my guests are treated, that I am lazy and really do not give a damn how I live or worst of all I am just a slob? All I can say is that nobody is perfect!
And last but not least the big one — THE MOVIE, this really perturbs me. I told you this story in the utmost confidence, for your ears only. How many people have you told of my deficiencies when I was but a child? How many have you told that my parents would bring me to such a low class movie? How many know that you did not even hold a girl’s hand until you had 5 dates? I hope that I can find enough courage to face your friends with some pride. I am crestfallen that you would do such things to me.
NEXT TIME JUST SEND ME A BOX OF CANDY
That was Dad. He made something funny out of almost everything. Sometimes, it didn’t really work. And not everybody got his humor. When he’d say something off-the-cuff to restaurant waitstaff, a grocery store checker or someone else, they might give him a confused look like they weren’t sure what he meant.
But most of the time, they could see Dad’s genuine affability, his desire to engage with others at every opportunity, and his desire to make others smile and relish life as much as he did. If people were working, he wanted to pick up their spirits so he’d wax witty, sometimes at their expense.
Sometimes what he’d say would sound insulting and it might have been taken that way. But when I would notice that something he said hadn’t been exactly well-received, I didn’t let it bother me, because I knew that much more often than not, people loved meeting and interacting with Dad, and his ultimate goal was to bring out the happy in them.
Here’s a priceless snippet from an April 2002 letter in which Dad described his experience, at age 72, of attending four days of the Houston Motorcycle Rally at the Fort Bend Fairgrounds. He went there to sell his company’s Body Coolers, polymer-based products that could be worn to keep people and pets cool in the summer heat. Dad was an ultra-conservative, and he made numerous observations at the rally that made Kay and me laugh as we re-read his letter this morning:
It was the people there that showed one that God is good and really knew what he was doing. Now that does not mean that I got religion, though I do have a tendency to look up, not down in the hope he does see me. But the planning He must have done and the foresight He must have had to know that this would happen someday is mind-boggling.
I came away from there knowing that He made a man for every woman, a woman for every man, a man for every man, a woman for every woman, and for what was left over, there was also something left over for them. The most amazing thing is that everyone seemed very happy and completely oblivious that they were completely weird to people of my ilk. I probably seem a little weird to them and they wondered just what I was doing there; sometimes I also wondered. So as not to leave the wrong impression they were, for the most part, very nice people having just a wonderful time; they were in their element.
Now seeing about 10,000 to 15,000 men and women wandering around with tattoos showing on just about every bit of exposed skin is something to digest. I do not think tattoos look good even when they are supposed to look good; the only time they could look good is on a young person or someone maybe up to around 45; after that it is “Oh my God.” There seem to be two different camps when it comes to this art form: one contingent has nothing but black or blue and the other has nothing but ones with color. If I had to make a choice I would go with the color. There is one thing you can be sure of when you get one and that is, it ain’t going to get any better looking or more valuable with age; after the first year it is strictly downhill. Starting around the age of 55 it looks more like a piece of skin that does not really know what to do with itself; around 70 it finds out and dies so you look like you are wearing some dead thing. It is also a blessing that you can see only the basic parts of the body, face, arms, legs; I was looking at a catalog of different tattoos and the different placements of the same. Well, I have absolutely no ambition to see them on a person living or dead; just visualizing someone walking past you, and what may be under there, is enough to give one the goose pimples.
I will leave for another day how important it is to have a beard, beer belly, more makeup than a Picasso painting, some of the weirdest shapes that ever came down the pike and last but not least THE very strange smells coming from the cigs they were smoking. I have come to the conclusion that I may be the one that is strange for they did seem just super happy and really did not give a darn about anything else but the things going on in their immediate vicinity, GOD IS GOOD.
I cannot stop laughing.
While Dad’s letters often were quite humorous, they also could be mixed with sincerity and love. Here’s an excerpt from a letter in June 2001, as we were a couple of months from the birth of our first child:
You are now going to enter the most exciting, happiest and most frustrating part of your life. Everything you have done, all of your experiences up to this point have been a prelude to this event. You are being given the most important gift two people can possibly receive and I know you will handle this new life well. I feel blessed that I will be able to share much of this with you.
And Dad’s wisdom and support gave me a substantial lift after my best friend Doug died of a heart attack at age 45 in October 2002. In his note, Dad – who had met Doug on several occasions, including as he was best man when Kay and I married in 1994 – told me how sorry he was. Dad knew how close Doug and I were, that we worked together, played golf together and shared a passion for the Astros. Dad’s letter contained the essence of his philosophy of life:
I believe you can learn a lesson from this. Give this tragedy some meaning and benefit from it for the rest of your life. The lesson is simple, live each day to the best of your ability. Do not let a day pass that you do not appreciate what a wonderful thing has been given to you. Each of us will handle it differently as each has different values, but it boils down to this: When your day ends, just ask yourself how you feel about it and generally if you feel good, you did good. It works this way for me – when I get up, I really look forward to what this day will bring. Talking and listening to people, trying to help them, giving them a little laugh and generally making everyone a little happier is important to me. I also have 2 rules: 1) Do not hurt anyone if at all possible. and 2) I always take a little extra time for myself and have a little fun, really takes the pressure off.
I had almost forgotten about this one, but Dad wrote a letter dated Feb. 11, 2002, to our firstborn, son William (Will) Hunt Christlieb, when he was 6 months old. His uniquely comic way shines through:
This is your GFC taking some time from his daily routine to drop you a note in order to bring you up to date on some of the more important things in life. Generally I would write or at least include your mother and father but I have come to the conclusion that they do not read them. I do not know weather (his spelling) this is due to their being too busy, they do not like me or they think it is junk mail and just can them. If you wish to share this with them that is fine with me, I trust your judgment.
It was nice seeing you at Christmas in McAllen. You, as usual were at your best in controlling the pace and tone of the get together. This is, sometimes, quite difficult considering the many varied personalities attending. I knew upon our first meeting that you were executive material and would automatically be able to evaluate any situation and know just what procedures to put in place. My first Christmas was at 10 months; at that time I was able to walk, talk and become interested in the family finances. I do not expect the same from you at 5 months but you are progressing at a fast pace.
Just seeing the picture of you giving Mr. Claus his seasonal instructions brought a tear to my eye. The look of relief on his face, knowing that you had everything under control, now that was a sight to behold; it brought back so many forgotten memories of my youth when I was in similar situations. Oh, how I envy you and your future conquests, I might even be a little jealous but that is not allowed of people of our stature and position of leadership. You will find that we are a lonely lot, but must bare (again, Dad’s spelling) this curse in order to keep the masses happy and under control.
I was going to end my correspondence with you after the above paragraph but I have some concern for your parents that I believe should be brought to the fore. Some of the health problems they are having may be because of their diet. They have a great deal of pressure just bringing up a future leader; couple this with the general pressures of everyday life and it may be hindering them eating properly. It is going to be important for your future well being to keep this pair healthy; they are right for the job. I really cannot think of anyone that would be better; man you really lucked out! I am enclosing some information on the proper foods they should concentrate upon; after you have reviewed it you may want to inform them of your thoughts on the subject. Believe me I am not trying to interfere in any way but it will be in your best interest to keep them healthy, at least for 35 or 45 more years. I know you will have a hard time relating to solid foods and the role they may play in the more mature person; you will just have to trust me on this. You have a wonderful experience in store for you when first chomp into some applesauce or mashed ham; I frankly think it is overrated.
If your judgment is to share all of the above with them, be as gentle as possible as it is sometimes hard to know how adults will react to suggestions; I know you will do the right thing. I understand that you may be coming to Houston for both my and your father’s birthday. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing your thoughts on the many problems that face us and the world. Please tell your folks I will be writing a personal letter to them soon; I do not want them to feel they are in a secondary position in the family. Take care but remember to take a little time and have some fun.
At the risk of making this unreadably long, I won’t subject you to any more excerpts. I hope you enjoyed those and got a sense of how funny Dad could be. Just being around him as he was taking humorous liberties was a memorable treat, even if it, ahem, got a little old sometimes.
I do miss everything about him. I’m sure he’s been sharing his wit with all the other angels. And if I know Dad, he’s doing a lot of flirting too.
We love you, Dad. ❤