26 May 2022

When grief just won't come, part two

(left) Harald with Ellen and me, 1961; (right) Harald at his Skokie Park District office, 1978.

My father Harald Maurer and I were reunited in a vivid dream last night.

In my dream, he and I were standing on a street corner in Evanston, Illinois, having a very normal, peaceful conversation. Looking down the length of this residential street, we could see the skyscrapers of Chicago in the distance. Pointing at them, I said, "You know how I go on those four-hour-long walks sometimes? That's where I go."

(Actually, I oftens took long walks, but not that long and not to Chicago. It would take four hours to walk one-way from our home in Evanston, the one in my dream, to get to downtown Chicago. And the city's skyscrapers couldn't be seen from our street.)

My dream went on to other scenes, more contemporary, and my father wasn't in those scenes. However, just before I woke up, I saw him again at that same corner, and I walked back to him. As the dream faded and I woke up, I had the strong impression that, during those in-between scenes he had died, and at the end of my dream he was returning from the dead to say goodbye.

Today, my mind—maybe yours, too—has been in Uvalde, Texas; also in Ukraine and Russia; also with the Southern Baptists. (See links below.) But as I sat down to write this evening, I felt a strong desire to write about my father.

If you've been visiting this blog for a while, you've met several members of my family, and they don't always appear in the best light. Four years ago I wrote about how grief for my dead parents just doesn't seem to come; something is plugged up. I've described, occasionally and vaguely, what it was like to grow up in an household full of emotional minefields, where any references to religion or mortality were strictly forbidden, where my mother's racism was given frequent expression, where discipline could be completely absent one day and enforced with beatings the next, and how things became even more chaotic when my sister Ellen began running away from home. Grief for Ellen, when she was shot and killed on the southwestern edge of Chicago, came instantly; after all, in our crazy home, we were partners in survival.

My memories of growing up are dominated by my mother, who was certainly an addict but probably also suffering from mental illness. Her racism may have originated in her school years; during at least some of the Hitler years, the Nazi party was an active partner of the German school she attended in her home town of Kobe, Japan. I mostly coped with this stuff silently, but Ellen rebelled openly, and the resulting family drama became a frequent theme in the diary I started keeping as a high school freshman in 1968.

In these memories, my father is often in the background. That may be why he hasn't taken up much space in my writing. (This post is intended to even things out a bit.) Amiable and mild-mannered, he was quite a contrast to my mother. I remember his constant advice to us kids: don't irritate your mom! However, of my two parents, he might have been the bigger influence on my future: his undergraduate education was in political science, specializing in international relations. He had an LL.B./J.D. degree but never practiced law; he worked instead in insurance. The year Ellen died—1970—was the year his last insurance job ended. I know no details, but it can't be a coincidence: how would you hold on to a job when you're constantly looking for your runaway daughter, or dealing with the police in connection with her, or—as on March 28, 1970—summoned to the county morgue to identify her body?

From 1970 to 1978, his resume reads as follows:

TRANSLATIONS AND RESEARCH, Independent. Illustrative examples of activity, in part freelance and in part through the Berlitz School of Languages and other agencies, are: translations of articles in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish publications into English; other general, legal, or technical translation work, case research and correspondence for companies and individuals; lessons in the Norwegian language. 

I was asked to leave home a day or two before my high school graduation in 1971, and a year later I was on my way to university in Ottawa, Canada, so I can't comment on how accurate this work history is. I do know that he was coping with an increasingly erratic spouse, one who (for example) in 1977 posted a swastika on their lawn during the Nazi parade controversy in Skokie. Right around then, my father and I succeeded in bundling my mother off to an inpatient alcoholism clinic. (At the intake interview, my mother told the clinician that Germans handle alcohol much better than Americans. It was a priceless moment when he contradicted her in German.) This was the one of the few occasions when my father and I formed a strong alliance in the face of a crisis.

It was also around this time that my father confronted his own addiction, and sobered up to the point that he could again be on the job market. He worked as safety coordinator for the Skokie Park District for two years, and then worked for Catholic Charities as a senior citizens' job developer for the rest of his life, until his career was ended by the last stages of cancer.

His low point may have come the summer after I left home. I was at my job as cook and dishwasher at Andy's Hamburgers on Green Bay Road in Evanston, when my father walked in. I wasn't sure how to react; after all, he had so recently put me out on the street. Or, rather, he had not intervened when my mother put me out on the street. In any event, at the restaurant I could not begin to read his face. To my surprise, he handed me his watch and asked me what I would be willing to pay for it. I was making a dollar fifty an hour and was only paying $12 a week for my room, so I had some money, and (much to my boss's disapproval) I gave it to him. I find it very hard to imagine what things must have been like at home, for him to face me in that situation.

My father's baptism certificate. He was born Lutheran
in 1930, died Eastern Orthodox in 1995.
There must have been some major high points toward the end of his working life, because he loved his job at Catholic Charities, and the people he met there gave him crucial support as the end of his life came near. At his memorial meeting, one of his clients took me aside and said, "Listen, I hope you know that your father was a great man." Actually, up to then I didn't know it, but those words did find a place in my heart.

Thanks to that dream last night, grief seems to be a bit closer.

Related: My father's guns.

My mother's obituary.

Why evangelicals should like CRT.

My posts about Ellen.

A letter from Timothy Noah: Dear victims of the next school shooting.

Hunting’s decline made it harder to succeed with reasoned gun control arguments that protected the sport. It also caused the overall number of gun-owning households to shrink. Which, counterintuitively, increased political resistance to gun control.


Since the Columbine High massacre in 1999, at least 185 children have been killed in school shootings, according to The Washington Post. How many more children will die before things change? It’s my duty to inform you, future victims, that 185 isn’t going to be enough. Your blood will have to be spilled as well.

(In Russian) How Putin made his decision to go to war.

Darya Dergacheva: Russians find ways to protest the war.

Meanwhile, Russian children are pressed into service as propagandists. (We remember a similar campaign in a Wilmington, Ohio, school during Operation Desert Storm.)

Russell Moore: This is the Southern Baptist apocalypse. Anne Marie Miller responds to the report (video).

Rebecca Ankeny on Jesus and His Bible: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Terry Gilliam visits a favorite movie store in Paris and talks about ... movies.

Blues from the UK. Cadillac Kings, "Beer Drinkin' Woman" (not in honor of anyone in particular).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your words moved me, Johan - as always. Thank you for sharing your story.