Tuesday, May 30, 2017

In Memoriam

His 84th birthday cake is still in the freezer. The Sunday we were to eat it with him, he was admitted to to the hospital after taking his third fall in less than 24 hours. Since then, we have have been waiting with him for what comes next. I've turned on the Big Ten network, on mute, where football players of the past are exhibiting highlight reel heroics. He likes football.

Mozart is the background music to the game. Over the past week, we've made our musical way through Bruckner symphonies, Brahms concertos, some Delius and Elgar and two somber symphonies of Vaughn Williams. Ben has contributed a six pack of Mozart hits, so this morning the Jupiter symphony accompanies Penn State and Wisconsin.

My father and I played a lot of Mozart in our day. Mozart and the clarinet are a match made in heaven. We played duets, stopping to repeat a phrase not for missed notes or a muffed accidental, but for style points....for playing too loud, for attacking too harshly, for not playing sweetly enough."One can never," he would say, "play Mozart too sweetly."

Not this side of heaven.

This is the man who taught me to practice, who led by example, whether the lesson was scraping rust with a wire brush and painting Rustoleum....preservation.....or keeping my chin down so my clarinet profile didn't resemble George Washington....perseverance....or picking up and putting away....well, maybe it took years for that lesson to stick.

"He was square with the world; he took good care of his tools."

He could make almost anything function.... ham radios, color televisions, non-destructive nuclear test equipment. The fixes were not always pretty, but they used what was at hand and they were constructed to endure the ages. Over built, in engineer speak.

What my father joined together, it was darned hard to put asunder.

He was the disciplinarian of our family. When I was very young, punishment meant standing in the kitchen facing the dryer.  Words carried more pain than the rare swat with the paint stick.  Our parents let us grow up and therefore we did, but on the few occasions he offered counsel or warning, I took his judgments seriously and pondered the implications.

He told me my marriage to Blake was for once and for all...there would be no "coming home".  His word was bond; the pledge he and my mother made to each other lasted through health and sickness, good times and bad, and only the grave separates them now.

My father was a most unpretentious polymath.  He read the German Abendpost weekly and the Spanish version of the National Geographic monthly and watched Spanish soap operas.  There was a planetarium in the milking parlor and all his older great grandchildren had the opportunity to look through the telescope. He loved wood and utilized an assortment of antique rough and ready tools to build book shelves, computer desks, and a customized dining table to accommodate the growing family.  He seldom sat still and always had a project on the work bench.  He knew every facet of Civil War history, was a lifetime member of the ARRL; he used to commute to Jefferson City on his motorcycle and check in with my mother every day on his mobile radio...  W0NWG to W0NWH. He and my mom developed their own photographs for years and shot targets at the gun range.

He fueled the curiosity of his grandchildren and great grandchildren; in photo after photo, he is holding forth, hands in the air, explaining something to one or more kids.  We didn't read at the supper table when I was young: we listened as my father expounded on one subject or another.  We even listened to him when the tornado warnings blew and the sky glowed lurid green, my mother fell deathly silent and I wondered whether the grand piano would hold us all down if the house blew away around us.

He had a wicked sense of humor...and I would constantly flounder trying to come up with a suitably witty reply. My sister and I longed for a horse and saved our nickels and dimes and birthday money for years in hopes of owning one.  When we moved to Missouri to a farm where we could keep one, my father's counter-offer was the purchase of a long horned Hereford we had named Brownie.  Soon, our quixotic dream of galloping the fields was replaced by the less romantic reality of a cow calf pair.  

He was upright, faithful, argumentative, obstinate, and a loving  companion to my mother for all his life.  I shall miss listening to him, working with him,  learning from him, and playing music with him.  

"Now lettest Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word,
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared
Before the face of all peoples."

Rest, faithful servant.  I look to the time when we shall plant together in the Lord's garden and play sweet music together in His orchestra.

C. John Renken, Jr.
May 14, 1933- May 27, 2017 

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