A Letter to My Father at 100

Dear Mr. Crook, Clyde, Dad,

I don’t know what to call you. It feels strange to write “Dad.” I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know how you might have influenced my life had you lived beyond my eighth birthday. You don’t know me. We are strangers. Strangers or not, today, February 7, 2014, is your 100th birthday. I want to mark the occasion.

I don’t know anything about you as a person. Mom didn’t offer much insight; she didn’t talk about you. Once, in a fit of anger, she screamed at me, “You think your father was a saint! Well, he was no saint.” I wonder what prompted that explosion.

Uncle Clayton died about three years after you. He dropped dead from a heart attack. He was only 55. I think you would have been proud of Uncle Clayton. He retired, quit drinking and smoking. He bought a brand new Desoto. He loved that car. He’d been seeing a woman for a couple of years. Her name was Jesse. They had plans to marry. I remember when we went to Uncle Clayton’s funeral. I was ten. Mike was about five. Mike leaned over to Mom. “Maybe Daddy Clyde was there to meet Uncle Clayton at the garden gate,” he said. Teddy was really sad about losing Uncle Clayton. He was sad about losing you, too. I have a photo of you with Teddy. You have your arm around his shoulders, pulling him close to you. “Wow,” said Matt, Teddy’s son, when I showed him the photo. “Look at the love.”

Uncle Ralph died young, too. He was 60. Teddy, Jack, and Ralph Junior all died at young ages from alcohol related problems. Mike and I were able to overcome the Crook family curse and break the cycle of alcohol abuse. He’s coming up on 20 years of sobriety and I will have 25 years in July. Sobriety makes a huge difference in the quality of our lives.

By the time I was 24, Uncle Babe was my only living adult male relative who knew you. “Daniel,” he would say—he always called me Daniel. “I knew Clyde,” he’d say. “I knew your dad.” Then he would tell me the same story again. “‘Babe and I are going to the dump,’ Clyde would say. And then we’d go drink our beers.” Speaking of drinking beer, I remember going with you to the Irish Tavern in Oak Park. You’d put me up on a bar stool and buy me a bag of Top Hat potato chips. I’d eat potato chips and watch guys play shuffleboard while you talked with Chet, the bartender.

I was in the Navy for four and a half years. Then I went to college and graduate school from 1967-1972. Bill VanderWerff, my step dad, couldn’t understand being a librarian. “Do you know that the Library of Congress pays entry level librarians $12,000 a year?” I said, in an effort to convince him I was making a sound career choice. “All that money to stack books,” he said, shaking his head. What would you have said?

I was married and have two daughters, Susan and Sharon. They’re grown and each has two children. Susan has two girls and Sharon has two boys. I divorced and came out after 18 years of marriage. The world is a different place than it was when you left it. I’ll explain “coming out” another time.

Mike has been married three times. He has two boys by his first marriage and a daughter and a son by his second marriage. Vanessa, Mike’s daughter, has three daughters. His youngest son, Eric, lives in Santa Barbara. Eric and his partner, Nick, are being married June 28. I’m officiating. As I said, it’s a different world.

About a year after Mom’s 80th birthday, Mike suggested a family meeting with Mom to talk with her about her wishes for the last years of her life and her expectations of us. She was pleased we wanted the meeting. Mom was well organized. “I want to take care of everything myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be a burden to you kids.” She told us what she wanted done and how she wanted it done, including burial instructions. We promised her we would do exactly as she asked and committed to each other to do it.

Gaynl Ann was devoted to Mom. As Mom got older, it became more difficult for Gaynl to be aware of and to stay on top of Mom’s deteriorating condition. The last two years of Mom’s life were not pleasant. Senile dementia forced us to make the painful decision to put her into a memory care facility. We shared the responsibilities for Mom’s care. I managed her day to day needs. Gaynl Ann handled finances and insurance. Mike was the sunshine committee. We made it through that grim period without a problem, a disagreement, or a harsh word. After Mom’s death in 2006, I told Gaynl Ann and Mike that Mom would be pleased at the way we handled everything. I think she would be proud of who we are.

I wonder how different our lives might be had we grown up with you. We were each affected in our own way by your loss. Mike doesn’t remember you at all—he was only two at the time. He relies on me for a connection to you. That used to annoy me; but, I understand how important that connection is to him. I tell him what I remember of you. I recently found a photo of you holding him as a baby. I gave the photo to Mike. Gaynl Ann is the one who is most affected by your loss. She knows she was “Daddy’s little girl.” I don’t think she has ever reconciled herself to the loss.

It saddens me that we were denied the opportunity to know each other. I look at photos of you. You’re young, smiling, happy. I wonder what our relationship would have been. I like to think you would have been the father we needed. Another man got that job after you were gone.

We’ve missed you, Dad. We’ve missed the joy of having you in our lives, sharing our growing up years with you, our triumphs, and our disappointments. We’ve missed watching you enjoy your eight beautiful grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Most of all, we’ve missed the presence of your smile and the sound of your voice. Why you were suddenly taken from us at such a young age—in your life as well as in ours—remains a mystery. Despite the loss of your physical presence in our lives, I believe Gaynl, Mike, and I are a credit to you. What is just and true and good in you lives on in us.

Happy 100th birthday, Dad. We love you.


0 thoughts on “A Letter to My Father at 100

  1. Joan Raymond

    This is a wonderful tribute to your dad. I’m so sorry you lost him way too early, before he got a chance to get to know you better. I’m sure he’s proud of you and your accomplishments.

    Happy 100th Birthday, Clyde. I’m honored your son Dennis is my friend.

  2. terry redman

    Dennis, this is a wonderful letter. there are so many things I wish to tell my father and now that I have read this I know how to do it. Thank you for that. I wonder at times how different, how alike my father and I are, sometimes I do something and imagine him doing the same.
    My father never did conquer the drinking but that’s a story for another time.

    1. Dennis VanderWerff Post author

      Thank you, Terry. Joan Raymond and I have talked about our fathers. She wrote a letter to her father that I thought beautiful and heartfelt. She encouraged me to write my letter. Writing the letter was a healthy experience.


  3. Elaine Bracci

    Thank you for the inspiration. My father died at 58 years … also too young. Even though I never took
    the opportunity to tell him how I felt about him and how much I admired him I hope he knew somehow
    that he was my hero and still is my motivation to attempt to accomplish many things even without a
    college degree. He also had a limited education but that did not stop him from being an outstanding example of a father and husband.


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