William B. Wetherall's funny bone
William B. Wetherall forking a fresh rawhide boot-lace salad
William Bascom Wetherall's sense of humor ranged from corny to silly. He was not good at relaxing, and amusement was not on his list of needs. But he could appreciate a good joke, and now and then he did his best to tell one.
He was funniest when goofing off -- forking old leather boot laces into his mouth on his wedding anniversary. At family events, he and my brother Jerry, and sister Mary Ellen, were the most likely in the family to engage in spontaneous antics. I specialized in wisecracks.
My mother rarely acted or talked funny, but she didn't need to. As the rock of the family, she was usually in good humor, always ready to enjoy the lightness and cuteness of life, a good listener, a good audience, a good appreciator of those around her. She made it possible for the rest of us to get along as well as we did, and to release ourselves in humor when we felt the urge to get attention by provoking laughter.
When it came to oral humor -- the ways my father told stories or jokes were usually funnier than the material itself. More likely he had told the story or joke before, and even if it was new from his mouth, the odds were high that everyone already knew it -- and were even higher that he would scramble the order of elements, omit an important element, or fumble the punch line.
But we laughed. Or chuckled or groaned. To interrupt him would cause him to whine that we didn't appreciate him.
My father did not limit his humor to the family. All company visiting our home were at risk. Joke telling is a common enough social activity in America. In our family, almost invariably, after if not during dinner with guests, someone would start telling jokes.
My father was not usually the initiator of a joke telling fest. Some relatives and friends had funnier bones than he had. When in the audience of another comedian, my father would wait for a chance to jump in.
His main joke-telling rival was Wilton Vincent (1916-2002), the husband of Theo Vincent (1916-2007), my mother's 1st cousin once removed, thus a 1st cousin twice removed to me and my siblings. As a couple they were striking, in that Theo was taller and statuesque, and Wilton, though not especially short, was notably shorter than Theo. Yet in her autobiography, Missouri Transplant, she writes this (Vincent 1985, page 76).
The difference between Mama's and Daddy's height was always a source of embarrassment to me. Mama was five feet ten inches tall, but Daddy was only five feet four. I thought it wasn't proper for the lady to be taller than the man when I saw a couple walking together, and would try to talk one into walking with me and the other trailing behind! This amused them and they sometimes gave in to my demands.
There was none of that in Wilton, who exercised his authority in quieter ways. Joe Scott, the husband of Carole (Vincent) (Lyon) Scott (1926-2001), Wilton's sister, was a radio D.J. who had a quick and sometimes sarcastic sense of humor, which he displayed as the emcee of my father's 90th birthday party in 2001.
Joe had generally Republican opinions that sometimes sharply contrasted with the more Democratic views of both Wilton and my father. Wilton had the sense to stay out of most political arguments, but not my father -- who distinguished himself on debate teams at both East High School in Des Moines, Iowa, and at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho.
When my father and Joe got into it, it was free admission for the rest of the family, who sat around the room in ringside seats, mesmerized -- or bored -- by their sparring.
Once, at the Vincents' apartment at Golden Center Court, a convalescent housing complex in Placerville, Joe interrupted my father to ask if he'd been listening to what he, Joe, had been saying.
"I'm listening, Joe," my father said.
"How can you listen with your mouth open, Bill."
It was all very friendly. But it was only in such verbal dramas that I saw my father in the ring, as it were, giving and taking, blow for blow.
I once witnessed my father negotiate a new-car purchase with a dealer who had probably taken him for an easy mark, judging from the sort of simple questions he had asked the dealer, both on the lot and after he had taken the model he liked out for spin. He led us into his office, served us a beverage, and began pitching the accessories that drive the sticker price up, and the car loan plans that generate huge profits. My dad took the carrots but declined the sticks, dickered the stiker price down, said no to all options except a radio, dumped the automatic transmission for a stick shift, and paid cash. The dealer didn't stand a chance. My father knew the dealer's hand, and he knew the order in which to reveal his own cards.
I overheard many conversations between my father and his clients after he closed his office and started practicing out of his home. By then, most of his work involved estates and trusts, though occasionally he handled a divorce or property matter. When visiting my parents, I turned the davenport in the living room into my office, and so I was positioned to greet clients when they came to the door and left. Some of his clients were the parents of classmates or others I knew at school. My father had his very informal home office in the back room. He generally left the door open, and it was hard not to hear conversations. He was a lot better at small talk with his clients than he was with his own family around the dinner table.
Until my father closed his office in Nevada City and began working out of his home -- and even then, only in the back room where he set up his home office -- there were no signs of his profession in the house -- no photographs, no certificates, nothing to indicate that the head of the household was an attorney. He never talked about his work around the dinner table. He would bring work home, and sit in a chair in the living room, or at the kitchen or dining room table, with an open file or legal pad and a pen. But we had no idea what he was doing.
Sometimes a friend, or someone who wondered if I was the son of Bill Wetherall the attorney, would tell me something about his work for their family. At times they spoke as though they thought that I might already know, and they would express surprise when I told them that I knew nothing about his work, and that he would not tell me anything even if I were to ask.
I never saw my father in court, either. From other Nevada County lawyers and judges, I heard only praise for his courtroom demeanor and skills, and for his knowledge of the law, professional ethics, and his human decency.
Once when I was visiting he ask me to join him with another attorney to ride out to a piece of property that was part of a disputed estate. We went up in my father's car, which my father drove. The other attorney rode shotgun and I sat in the back.
The property was at the end of an unpaved road near the top of a hill. It was fairly large and wooded, and in the middle of a clearing was a trailer. The clearing around the trailer was dotted with what at first we thought might have been pine cones. There was a dusty, dented pickup by the trailer, and scattered around the perimeter of the clearing was all manner of junk, including a few vehicles in different states of disrepair.
As we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by ferocious barking from inside the trailer, the stench of a dog kennel, and the discovery that the pine cones were piles of dog poop. But there was no response to knocks on the trailer door. And thinking that the resident might be out working on the property, we walked around the clearing -- watching very carefully where we stepped -- to exam the junk, the presence of which would reduce the value of the property in any settlement.
When passing by the trailer again, to return to the car, we heard the trailer door open. Out stepped a man with a rifle. My father began to greet him, but he cut my father short, said he knew who he was, ordered him off the property, and said he could have shot us for tresspassing.
My father had said, while driving to the place, that someone might be living there, and that he might be hostile. This "ride-along" experience the image of my father's job as peaceful and unexciting.
Russell Porter, a high school classmate who became a lawyer, and went on to build a law firm that employed as many as 50 attorneys, had occasions to meet my father in the early days of his career. Russ said this about him in email he sent me after reading an obituary.
I wanted you to know that he was always courteous and helpful to me as a young lawyer. He was an inspiration to me and I'm sure many others.
Christmas rhymes to Idaho and Iowa relatives
Among the things my father, William Bascom Wetherall, kept in a packet of my mother's detritus he labeled "Bug's Memorabilia", were the seven slips of paper shown to the right. The slips are the size of index cards, and on them are penciled, in my father's hand, what appear to be drafts of funny rhymes he presumably wrote on the cards he attached to the gifts which he presented the people named on the slips.
These poems could have been written anytime between 1937 and 1942. My father lived with his relatives in St. Maries while going to college in the early and mid 1930s, but in the summer of 1937 he moved to Orofino to start his first job after finishing law school and passing the Idaho Bar. In 1938, however, he moved to San Francisco to start another job, and in June that year my parents married in the city.
"Grandma" is Martha Ellen Baldwin (1863-1943), WBW's maternal grandmother, who was living in St. Maries, Idaho with her 3rd daughter Meda Jane (Baldwin) Ure and son-in-law Clifford Ure. Meda was WBW's maternal aunt, and at the time he was living with the Ure's and Grandma Ellen, as he called her, while going to college, until the summer of 1937, when he began working in Orofino. But in 1938 he started another job in San Francisco, my parents married in the city that year.
Ellen's death on 27 April 1943 puts a 1942 upper limit on the date of the poems.
grandma -- vase
"Aunt Sadie" is Sada Elizabeth (Baldwin) Williams (1883-1964), Ellen's 1st daughter and WBW's maternal aunt. She is living in either Spokane or Saint Maries at the time, and was probably taking care of her granddaughter Marilyn (see below).
When you eyes are weakly battin'
"Mom" is Nellie Marie (Van Houton) Wetherall (1898-1966, later Sailors), WBW's widowed step-mother, then living in Knoxville. WBW's father died in 1936.
Mom -- slip
Note "Pomes" [sic = Poems] is probably intentional.
Mom -- stockings
"Claude" is Claude Jennings Williams (1907-1977), Sadie's son, Ellen's grandson, and WBW's 1st cousin.
"Dale" is Herbert Dale Ure (1928-2004), Meda's and Clifford's son, Ellen's grandson, and WBW's 1st cousin.
Dale -- b. ball
"Marilyn" is Marilyn Anne Mathews (1934-2013, later Disrud), the daughter of Sadie's daughter Faye M. (Williams) Mathews (1906-1995, later Rebenstorf), Ellen's granddaughter, and WBW's 1st cousin once removed.
Marilyn's birth on 22 December 1934 puts a lower limit of Christmas 1935 on the date of the poems, but a more realistic earliest year would be Christmas 1937, when she would have been 3 years old. The "pocketbook" was probably a small "purse" for her to carry shopping in town with her mother Faye, grandmother Sadie, or great aunt Meda.
Marilyn -- pocketbook
WBW's love-hate relationship with technology
Shady 49ers-fan William B. Wetherall in action
The older William B. Wetherall wouldn't have known how to turn on a laptop, much less use one. And he had trouble differentiating the mouth and ear ends of conventional land-line receivers.
He hated the way people yapped on their mobile phones in public. He was grateful I didn't have one, but he was critical of the amount of time I spent on my laptop when I came to visit.
Just the sight of portable devices disturbed him. He had no use for them.
But on the eve of his 102nd birthday, half a year before he died, he knew how to parody the sort of narcissist who sits in a waiting room and carries on like a master of the universe.
The younger William B. Wetherall began buying quality LP records before he had a player capable of doing them justice. He couldn't wait to purchase a turntable and amplifier that could reproduce his precious classical music. Always frugal, he avoided the more expensive equipment, preferring quality as opposed to junky middle-class.
In the late 1960s, I gave him a very well designed belt-driven Pioneer turntable I had bought in Japan. He used it until 2011 when his health deteriorated to the point that he moved to the home of his caregivers, Candace Hansen and Jerry Hodkins, in Nevada City.
The turntable was still working perfectly over 4 decades after I gave it to him. Now and then it needed a new rubber drive belt, which he ordered from an audio shop in Sacramento that was willing and able to accommodate him. At first he would bring the belt home and install it himself, taking care to loop it around the right wheel. The turntable was designed for use in Japan, which has 50-cycle AC in the western prefectures (including Tokyo), but 60 Hz in the western prefectures (including Osaka). When older, he would load the turntable into the car and let the shop replace the band.
WBW was both fussy and fastidious about the handling of his records and the turntable. He worried about the needle, and sometimes bought a new one simply because he feared that the old one might be worn to the point that it might be damaging the records -- though he didn't play them that often.
He harbored the belief that the audio quality of CDs was inferior, which was true when they first came out, and lamented the shrinking LP sections in record stores, which quickly became dominated by CDs. But the Kenwood amplifier and tuner I had given him with the turntable were acting up. So one day my brother Jerry and I bought him a new amplifier, and with it a CD player, which fit into the same space in the cabinet he used for the turntable and records.
That evening, while he was in the living room, we put on a CD, and thinking it was a new LP, he went over to the cabinet to look at the sleeve. Seeing that the turntable was off, and noticing the new equipment, he became confused and even irritated, until Jerry and I explained that he was listening to a CD.
Our father quickly learned to like CDs, partly because of the quality of the sound, but mainly because of the variety of quality music that was available only on CDs, and the ease of operation and generally lower cost. Though CDs became his main music medium, he continued to play some of his favorite LPs on the trusty Pioneer.
When my father sold the house, shortly before he died, my brother had the cabinet, and our father's record and CD collections, which included some 78-rpm shellacs, shipped to his home in Honolulu, along with the piano that had sat next to the cabinet, mostly unplayed since my sister left home. Jerry set up the cabinet and piano essentially the same way they had been arranged in Grass Valley, and his wife, Purita, now plays the piano while he plays the cello.
Television didn't invade the Wetherall living room until after all three of us children had grown up and left -- me, my younger brother, and our younger sister. Our father feared that TV would destroy our minds, distract us from practicing our music, and keep us from playing outside or pursuing hobbies.
When finally he bought one, he did so on the pretext of wanting to watch football games. He and my mother quickly developed an interest in a few sit coms and detective series. My mother habitually watched Days of our Lives, which my father couldn't understand, but he became addicted to current affairs programs like Sixty Minutes and later shouting derbies like Hardball.
Before my mother died, and even more so after she died, my father religiously watched morning, noon, and evening news and market reports. And he knew exactly what time, on what day, to turn on the TV to catch a favorite conservative news round-up -- so he, a liberal, could shout back at the talking heads on the monitor.
Bill Wetherall riding shotgun in Jerry Hodkins' truck
Automobiles were essential to my father's sense of security. Like most Americans, he saw owning a serviceable car an indispensable part of life. He liked to drive, and while living in San Francisco, he frequently took his growing family on day trips to places within an hour or so drive from the city. Summer vacations involved longer road trips to camping grounds.
In San Francisco, he sometimes drove to work downtown, but later he commuted by streetcar. After moving to Grass Valley, his office in Nevada City was only 10 minutes away, so he usually drove home for lunch. He sometimes, but not often, had lunch with a colleague or client.
His first few cars -- beginning with "Tillie", a Model T he bought while in college --- were used. "Blue Boy", a Ford he owned in the early 1940s, and "Old Chief", a Pontiac he bought in 1948, were also used.
Bill bought his first new car -- a 6-cylinder Chevrolet -- in 1953. I clearly remember the sensation of its new-car smell, and his cautions not to touch the overhead lining. He didn't go for a lot of accessories, but he conceded to a radio. This was the car in which we moved from San Francisco to Grass Valley in 1955.
After moving to Grass Valley, every 3 or 4 years he would trade in his car for a new one. His next two cars, in 1957 and 1962, were also 6-cylinder Chevys. His next cars were a Volvo, a Honda, then a couple of Toyotas, the last a Camry. Every car he bought had a manual transmission. He preferred the positive response of a stick shift to the spongy feel a slush box, as an automatic transmission was called. My mother learned to drive later in life, but her Volkswagen, Datsun, and Honda Civics were also stick shifts.
We knew when Bill was in a new-car mood, for he would bring home catalogs and make a show of studying them. Sometimes, though, he surprised us. One day he'd go to work, and pull into the driveway in a new car.
One year he came home with a Volvo. He got about 10 years out of the Volvo, then migrated to Japanese makes -- first a Honda, then a couple of Toyotas. My mother, when she learned to drive, had a Volkswagen, then a Datsun followed by a couple of Hondas.
WBW's interest in cars was pragmatic. He wanted reliable and economic transportation. He was not a fanatic about automotive technology. He had no interest in power or high-performance or racing.
He had no interest in pickup trucks or campers, either. He scorned shiny pickups with gun racks, speakers, and other macho accessories, when sitting behind one at a stop light, or tailgated by one in moving traffic.
But WBW loved riding shotgun in the "real deals" owned by his client-turned-friend Melo Pello (1933-2014), and his caregiver-turned-friend Jerry Hodkins (1955-2013). Both men died within months after him -- Jerry on 22 October 2013, Melo on 8 May 2014.
Melo had been a client of my father's since the time of his partnership in the late 1950s. Over the decades, he came to WBW's home on Grandview Terrace a number of times to take down a dead or dying cedar or pine, partly as payment in kind for legal services, but mostly out of his desire to help WBW, who he deeply respected. Now and then they went out to lunch and talked about logging and farming in the good old days, and football.
Melo spoke at my father's 100th birthday party, and he continued to visit him after he moved into Candace Hansen's home, where Candace and her partner Jerry Hodkins took care of him. Jerry took WBW along with him when going out in his pickup to do chores, whether at his own farm, or to help a friend split wood. My father treasured the bounce of the ride, the smell of the mountain air and the earth, and the dust. which took him back to his youth, when he worked on an uncle's farm in Nebraska during summer vacations in high school, and in blister-rust control camps in the woods of Montana when in college.
WBW's disdain for bureaucracy
WBW began practicing law in the days where people communicated face to face, telephone, or snail mail. Real people answered phones and real people replied to mail queries. Solving problems took time and patience, but no one was in much of a hurry. And people were helpful.
He was probably the only attorney in Nevada County who never bought a fax and did without an answering machine until he closed his Nevada City office and "retired" to the very informal setting in the back bedroom of his home. He reluctantly learned to use the computer his last office secretary had introduced, which ran Word Perfect, and was probably the last to still be using the software on an ancient DOS machine when he stopped writing trusts in 2011 after turning 100.
He never used any other software, thought a mouse was something to trap, and wanted to see menus only in restaurants. The TV was on a cable system but there was no Internet connection. When I was home, I used a dial-up modem for email, but my father had no use for anything on-line.
He dreaded calling companies and government offices, having to navigate a maze of menu choices, and when finally (if ever) getting a living voice, being told he'd have to call another number, then calling it and getting the same runaround.
He kept the computer-generated Selective Service letter shown to the right, dated 27 April 1985, reminding him that he had not registered. They took him for someone who was born on or after 1 January 1960, thus required by law to register within 30 days after their 18th birthday. Never mind that he was born in 1911. And how many William B. Wetheralls were there to confuse him with?
He distributed copies the "What they mean" glossary to underscore his suspicion that, in the bureaucratic world, words are likely to mean something other than what their users want them to imply.
Candace and Jerry
It sounds like the title of a Hollywood romance comedy or noir bank-robbery film, if not a comic strip. But Candace and Jerry are the names of the couple that became my fathers surrogate family in the twilight months of his life.
They began helping him at his home in Grass Valley toward the end of 2010 when he suffered a minor stroke. He had hopes of fully recovering, but he never regained his capacity to drive and otherwise fully take care of himself.
In due course, he needed someone who could be at hand around the clock. So Jerry Hodkins began staying over night, and Candace, who did the cooking, relived him during the day.
Then sometime in late 2011 or early 2012, after his 100th birthday in March 2011, WBW moved into Candace's home in Nevada City, where Jerry also lived. There he had his own room, telephone, television, nutritious and delicious food, and all the amenities of a real home -- plus, in the back yard, surrounded by neighboring trees, a swimming pool by which to sit in the sun, around which to walk, or in which to take a supervised dip.
WBW had worked in Nevada City for over half a century, served as City Attorney for 2 decades, and is credited with writing the Historical Ordinance that safeguards the city's historical "Motherlode Style" of architecture and atmosphere from destruction by modern development. And a few of his closest friends resided in the city, not that Grass Valley, only 10 minutes away, was too far to visit. It just made more sense for him to move into a convalescent arrangement, and the private accommodations and personal care offered by Candace and Jerry were superior in every respect anything he would have gotten at a commercial facility, where he would never have felt "at home" the way he did at Candace's place.
Jerry was a local boy, born in nearby Roseville, but raised with three brothers on a small ranch off Wolf Road south of Grass Valley, where, according to his obituary, "They raised cattle, worked in their mother's garden, fished local ponds and creeks, hunted game and did their share of mischief-making" (The Union, 12 November 2013).
Candace had city roots as well, and a take-charge disposition that dispensed both discipline and compassion along with doses of gravity and levity as required by the situation at hand -- and was competent enough to handle practically anything including basic nursing care.
Jerry was the less talkative, but he had a deep, reflective side, and when he said something, you felt rewarded.
Forest City Dance Hall caper
I witnessed my father's last 2 years of life, pretty much as I observed his last 50 years of life, from a distance, mostly from Japan. He was born on 25 March 1911, and I was born on 23 March 1941. So he was 30 years ahead of me -- 50 years old -when I turned 21, by which time I was living on my own in San Francisco. I then moved to Berkeley, then lived in various places, including Japan, while in the Army, then in Berkeley again, then in Japan, then in Berkeley for a third time, and have been in Japan since continuously since 1975.
After leaving home, I stayed with my parents only the few summers I worked for the forest service, during which I lived in the woods or in forest service camps, going home only on weekends. Being in Berkeley, I was able to visit over longer holidays. But once I was living in Japan, my visitations averaged every two years. The longest spell without a visitation was about 4 years centering on 1980. During that time my children were born, and my mother visited once. After that, I made it point to visit my folks every other year, and from the late 1990s I tried to go, if only for a few days, every year. I typically stayed about 3 weeks, sometimes a month, and once stayed about 6 weeks, during which time I made excursions to San Francisco or elsewhere, to visit friends or shop for books.
My father was always busy, but while I was home, we walked together, and sometimes worked in the yard together. We didn't do much else together, however. We travelled together only to visit a couple of relatives who lived close enough to go and come back the same day. He wanted me to participate in some of his favorite local activities, such as Music in the Mountains, but I had no interest, and I didn't feel like pretending that I did, even though it would have made him happy to see me socialize his social friends.
My father was devastated by my mother's death -- his wife's death -- 2 months after they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. She was 89, he 92. He lived on for another 10 years but never recovered from the loss of the love of his life.
During the last two years or so of my mother's life, my father spent an increasing amount of time doing things that she had done, like grocery shopping and house cleaning. She wanted to hire someone to come in a couple of days a week to clean and even cook, but he would not hear of it. She did, once, hire someone, but my father essentially fired her. He simply did not like the idea of employing a servant. During the last year or two of her life, he assisted her with her bath as well. She remained ambulatory, and alert, and continued to read, but slept longer and read less, and was less eager to have people over, especially his clients, which she found stressful. This is something he never understood or accepted -- the burden that his working at home imposed on my mother.
One night, when standing from her rocking chair, where she liked to read and watch television, my mother suffered a stress fracture in her lower back. She was taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. I last talked to her on the phone when she was in the hospital. She was miserable there, and had resolved to refuse the treatment her doctor had in mind for her and go home. To die. And within two or three weeks, she was gone.
My father continued to work as much as he had before her death, even harder. He had always worked 7 days a week. Rarely did he never do at least a little legal work on Saturdays and Sundays. Most evenings, too, he'd bring home files and legal pads, and work at the kitchen or dinning room table. Later, after closing his office in Nevada City and moving his practice home, he would work evenings in the office he set up in the back bedroom.
I used to think that his addiction to work was a form of escape, but now I believe he truly enjoyed it. I and other members of the family made a number of pitches for him to retire -- to hire a young partner and, when the partner was ready, sell the partner the good offices of the practice and take his name off the shingle. But he would say only that he would retire when he was ready, and he had no interest in taking on a partner. He always added that he loved his work. And now I understand that law was not a job or occupation for him, but a vocation, a calling. Some people worked in order to retire and spend the rest of their lives polishing their cars and golf clubs. He preferred spending his time polishing all manner of briefs and agreements, or while he was the City Attorney of Nevada City, documents like the Historical Ordinance. During the last years of his practice, he did mainly living trusts. His younger clients died before he did. The last legal work he did was to amend his own trust, with the help of Clara Yang, his adopted daughter and protege, who now specializes in elder law and trusts in Placerville.
Recreation, for my father, was pursued mostly alone -- the seasonal grubbing in yards and gardens around the house -- the rain or shine daily jogs, lopes, then walks around the neighborhood or in the Empire Mine woods behind it. His chapels, his confessionals, were ourdoors.
He also loved hiking along the Yuba river, with anyone who would join him. He never hiked alone that I know of. That was one thing I enjoyed doing with him. He and my brother, Jerry, hiked elsewhere as well when my father was able. Jerry and his wife Purita visited him more often, and spent more time with him when they came, than I did.
Leaving his home to live with Candace and Jerry was a difficult decision for my father. He knew he would never live there again. A break-in through the plasterboard wall between the garage and kitchen persuaded him to dispose of everything in the house and sell it. He was disappointed that none of his children were interested in owning the place after he died. Rather than leave it to us to sort everything out, knowing how difficult that would be, he did it himself. He closed the sale about half a year before he died.
When visiting the neighborhood in October 2015, two and a half years after my father died, we noted that the grounds around the home had not been well kept. When visiting in October 2017, we observed the conditions of the yards a bit closer, and saw nothing but brown, dead plants and dying bushes and trees. Within just a few years of neglect, all signs of half a century of development and care had vanished had vanished. Such is frailty of organized life that we call "civilization".
Today, nearly 5 years after my father died, I feel that the last year and a half of his life -- spent in the care of Candace Hansen and Jerry Hodkins, who a year before he met them in 2010 had been strangers, were among the most fun-loving of his life. They were difficult months -- as a classmate of mine reminded me when I was waxing sentimental about growing old -- "Aging sucks, Bill." My father suffered all the indignities of the loss of functions and abilities he had taken for granted for a century. Accepting dependency on others for basic needs, feeding and hygiene, came very painfully.
Unlike my mother, who gracefully accepted that her time had come, and wanted only to be at home, in familiar surroundings, where she could go her way -- my father had difficulty embracing the Grim Reaper. Only in my final two or three telephone conversations with him did he say -- insist, even -- that he was "ready to go" and "the sooner the better".
The plot twist to this somewhat meandering story came during the last year of his life, when Jerry Hodkins returned home from an appointment with a doctor at Stanford Medical Center, with news that he had cancer and could expect to live only few more months. The male half of my father's caregiver team would quickly need care himself.
Jerry went out and did a number of things he had always wanted to do, then came back to Nevada City and began the countdown, slow at first, then faster. By the time my father died in June 2013, Jerry was also under Hospice care in the room immediately beside my father's in Candace's Home. And he would die in October.
Candace and Jerry cared for my father through a contractual arrangement between Candace and my father, which they renegotiated when my father's condition worsened. In other words, my father paid for the care he was given under the terms of the contract.
There were no provisions in the contract for compassion or humor, or for the disipline that Candace and Jerry sometimes metered out, which WBW needed in his subbornest moments, much less for friendship. Such "benefits" of care came from the heart at no extra cost.
How Pollacks tie shoes
If my father were alive today, as I write this in January 2018, he would be weeping because tickets to the Perlman-Argerich concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco from 14:00 on Friday, 16 March 2018, were sold out, and the few that appeared to be available from 3rd parties were going for scalper rates. While he didn't dislike Itzhak Perlman, he worshipped Martha Argerich, the goddess of Rachmaninoff.
My tastes in classical music were different. Among Russian composers, I preferred Tchaikovsky, and liked best my father's Deutsche Grammophon LP of Sviatoslav Richter playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, part of which I had played at my last piano concert in San Francisco just days before me moved to Grass Valley in 1955. I gave up playing myself, but today I still play a CD edition of Richter's version. More recently, I have taken a liking to Yuja Wang's interpretation. And I'd much rather watch Wang than hear Argerich play anything.
In any event, whenever I visited Grass Valley, my father insisted on playing Argerich's Rach 3 at least once -- loud enough for him to hear it without his noisy hearing aides. He would sit in a Lazy Boy near the front door, facing the speakers on either side of the fire place at the other end of the long living room.
I'd be sitting on the davenport immediately by one of the speakers, which I had helped wire, reading or working with my laptop -- when, without warning, he'd start the CD.
I then had two choices, neither of which was to stay on the davenport. I could go into the back room or out on the patio, where at least I could hear myself think. Or I could fly the proverbial kite -- walk a few laps around the block, or kick pine cones on the trails in the back woods, and hope that when I got back he wouldn't replay it for my benefit.
In 2000, my father bought 4 tickets -- for himself and my mother, and for me and my sister Mary Ellen -- to a Martha Argerich concert at Davies Hall in San Francisco. It would be the first time so many members of the Wetherall-Hardman family had been together in the city, where the family had started, since moving to Grass Valley in 1955.
My mother, however, did not want to go. She was frail, for one. More importantly, though, she did not relish being a passenger in my father's car on trips outside the local area. Like me she liked some classical music, but also like me she was not a fanatic.
She also shared my sentiments about Argerich. We had heard more than we wanted of her playing in house. If he wanted to go, fine. Better he indulge his appetite for Argerich in San Francisco, 3 hours away, than in the house.
My father was terribly disappointed. I had only once before this witnessed such tension between my parents, and how forceful my father could be when he didn't get his way. The first time was a year or two before this, when he wanted my mother to host a dinner for the Berliners -- Harold and Mary Ann Berliner.
My mother flatly refused. I'd never seen her so adamant. I didn't then understand her refusal, but her adamancy was enough to convince me that she had her reasons. She had hosted dinners for relatives, family friends, and occasionally for one of my father's professional friends who she did not personally know. Hosting a dinner for a foursome would require a little planning and work, but she was a veteran.
My father had remained on good terms with Harold Berliner, his former law partner, since the dissolution of their partnership around 1960. And he wanted to have the Berliners over for dinner before Harold or he himself died -- if only to reciprocate the time the Wetherall family had dined with the Berliners at their home shortly after moving up to Grass Valley in 1955. The problem was that Harold had been persona non grata on my mother's social register. But that's another story.
My sister, who unlike me had continued to play the piano, was willing to go to the concert if I went. This put me between a rock and a hard place. I didn't relish going, but I felt I owed my father a favor. We had had so little time to do things together, and I knew how much he looked forward to a family outing in the city.
So I told my father I would go, but said I would not go along with his request that I try to persuade my mother to change her mind. My support of my mother irritated him, but I suggested he respect her wishes and invite a friend. The next day he told he he had asked Fred Harriman if he'd like to go, and Fred had said yes.
Frederick Stimson Harriman was a free-lance interpreter and translator of Japanese and Spanish. He lived in Grass Valley with his wife, who was from Japan, and their two daughters. My father had thought he was a friend, and while I had met him once, and exchanged some email with him, we remained only acquaintances through my father.
One summer a few years earlier, my daughter, when visiting her Grass Valley grandparents, had met Fred's wife and daughters, and had spent a night at their home. But she and their older daughter had not stayed in touch.
In any event, there we were, 4 adults in a car, heading for San Francisco, fairly early in the morning, hoping to eat lunch and relax before the late afternoon concert, then long drive back. Once in the city, we faced the problem of where to park.
If we left it to my father, we'd be an hour or more finding a place and it might not be convenient. He was familiar with the streets, and knew some of the bus and streetcar lines, which hadn't changed since he'd lived and worked in the city. But he knew very little about parking options in the downtown area, which was much more congested that it had been when he lived there.
Fred had been to city, but wasn't from the city, and didn't know it well. My sister had lived there when going to college, and when working there for a while, but she hadn't owned a car at time. I had worked there after high school, and gone there often while living in Berkeley, and while I have never owned a car, I had driven my mother's Volkswagen to the city a few times, and knew a couple of convenient parking facilities.
Given the location of Davies Symphony Hall, I suggested we park at the underground garage in Nihonmachi. Fred had been there and liked the idea, my sister hadn't been there but wanted to see it and my father -- after I explained the strategy and tactics -- agreed to it.
The symphony hall is on Van Ness Avenue, which runs north-south, and an off-ramp from the freeway would put us on Van Ness a few blocks south of the hall. Van Ness crosses Geary Street about 6 blocks north of the hall, and Geary Street -- which runs east-west -- passes Nihonmachi about 6 blocks to the west of Van Ness.
So getting to the garage at Nihonmachi would involve very little, and relatively easy, city driving. We could eat lunch there, then take the 38 Geary bus back to Van Ness. There was a bus on Van Ness too, but because it was a nice day, and we had been sitting all morning and would be sitting all evening, we could walk down to the Civic Center area and browse around until the concert hall opened. And when the concert was over, we had only to go back to the garage, from which in minutes we'd be on the freeway on-ramp off Van Ness.
Which is what we did.
Now comes the good part.
After a nice lunch at a Japanese restaurant run by Koreans and staffed by an ethnic menagerie of waiters and waitresses, we walked to the bus stop on Geary. While waiting for bus, my father got into a conversation with a woman who was old enough to have gray hair and few wrinkles.
I cannot remember whether she or he initiated the conversation, but it had to do with what a nice day it was to be out and about in such a beautiful city.
He loved San Francisco. He had been literally reborn there -- got his first professional break there -- married my mother there -- fathered his three children there -- and had nothing but praise for the City by the Bay. Perhaps he perceived, in the way she waited for the bus, that the woman was a native of the city, in her element, and hence not really a stranger. And he felt an impulse to share with her a bit of nostalgia he was certain that she, as a fellow San Franciscan, would understand.
Anyone looking at them, not knowing who they were, would not have been wrong to see them as two friendly San Franciscans enjoying each other's company on a breezy sunny afternoon.
Then during a lull in the conversations, my father suddenly asks her, "Do you know how Pollacks tie their shoes?" And before my sister and I could cut him off, he had planted a foot on a rail at the bus stop and stooped to lace the shoe on his other foot.
The woman politely laughed, while my sister and I moaned. I have no idea what Fred was thinking. By way of apologizing to the woman for my father's behavior, I gently upbraided him for telling jokes in public that others might find offensive. The woman just smiled and said that's okay, she'd heard worse, and besides, it was funny.
What surprised me was not that my father had told the joke. It was one of his favorites, and for that matter I liked that sort of humor -- with apologies to my Polish friends. What appalled me was that he had told it in public to a total stranger, with absolutely no provocation -- other than a moment of silence that perhaps he felt a need to break.
On second thought, his telling the joke, when and where he did that day, may have been totally in character. Maybe I had witnessed the real WBW, who knew when to stand on ceremony and abide by the rules, but preferred to be unshackled by social conventions, and was impatient with political correctness.
After the concert, while walking back to the car, he began talking about the middle-aged woman who had been sitting next to him, who apparently had come alone. He had talked with her during the intermission, about Martha Argerich of course. She had in the same flow of people of people leaving the hall, and they had said goodbye at the entrance.
He spoke of her as "the Chinese woman" and I assured him she was an American, born and raised in San Francisco, judging from what I had overheard of their conversation, but what did even that matter? "You know what I mean," he said, very shortly. "I do, and that's why I'm saying this," I said.
We lived in different worlds, and sometimes we clashed.
The Bottom of the Ninth
My father sent me the following version of this familar multiple entendre with a letter postmarked 2000-07-14. He had typed it out and sent me a copy. I suspect he also sent one to my brother.
Everytime my father told this tory, he told it a differently. At times he'd tangle the story line and have to pause to get his bearings, and we'd just wait for him to continue. Or someone would remind him he'd left something out, and he'd mumble that he was getting to that, thought he'd already passes that part of the story. Perhaps he wrote it out in order to review before meeting friends for lunch.
This is sort of humor he liked to swap with Wilton Vincent, a 1st-cousin-once-removed-in-law of my father, who shared his interest in classical music. Wilton, a Methodist minister who was the best read in the family and the closest to being an genuine intellectual, had a drier sense of humor that was limited to the kind of complex punning heard in this story.