Richard Hermann Muelder, 1933-2012


My father died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 79.

My dad, like me, was an atheist. And when you’re an atheist and a non-believer, and the people you love die, you don’t get to tell yourself that they aren’t really dead. You don’t get to tell yourself that you’re going to see them again someday, in some hypothetical post-death existence that somehow both is and is not life. You have to accept that death is really permanent, and really final.

This may be surprising to many believers… but atheist ways of dealing with death and grief are not actually dire, or hopeless, or without consolation. I’ve been surprised, in fact, at how comforting my humanism and my naturalism have been during my grief. And one of the many consolations in a humanist view of death is the idea that people who have died live on: not literally in a supernatural afterlife, but metaphorically, in the ways they’ve changed the world. The people are gone, but like the water in a pond when a rock is tossed in, the ripples continue to radiate out, even after the stone has sunk to the bottom. My dad is dead, he is gone finally and forever… but the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive.

I want to talk about that today. I want to talk about some of the ways that my father lives on in me, and in the world.

My father had this loud, booming laugh: so loud it made people turn and stare, so loud it embarrassed the rest of the family at movies and plays and other public places. I now have an absurdly loud laugh that makes people in crowds turn and stare. It’s different from my father’s — my dad’s laugh was a deep, booming, Santa-Claus-on-laughing-gas “ho ho ho,” while mine is a high-pitched harpy shriek that I’ve learned to cover with my hand so people won’t think I’m being murdered. But I have my father’s noisy laughter. And I have my father’s priorities: his valuing of laughter and joy over not embarrassing yourself. The degree to which I don’t give a shit about making an ass of myself in public is the degree to which I am my father’s daughter.

My father used to read to us — me and my brother — from fun, brainy books for kids: The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland. His copy of Alice, the Annotated Alice with annotations by Martin Gardner, is the version I fell in love with, the version I still think of as the classic. I learned the poem “Jabberwocky” by heart when I was in third grade. I got the Jabberwock tattooed on my arm when Ingrid gave me a tattoo for my wedding present. And I didn’t just get my dad’s love of Alice. I got his love of ideas. Not a refined, high-falutin’ version of the “life of the mind,” but a delighted, silly, deeply joyful life of the mind: a sense of the playfulness in ideas, a sense of ideas as toys or puzzles or games, a sense of the deep pleasure and straight-up goofy fun that could be found in just tossing ideas around and seeing where they landed.

My father was a math teacher. He never taught me, not in school anyway — he was always careful to never have me in one of his classes — but I knew other kids who had him as a teacher. And the word I got was that he was one of the fun teachers. He was one of the teachers that kids were glad they got. His love of math, his love of the puzzle-and-game aspect of it… it was infectious. There are people in the world now who enjoy math, and aren’t scared of it, because they had my dad as a teacher. And my dad had a love, not just of math, but of the act of teaching itself. He understood that unique pleasure of conveying ideas to other people, the unique pleasure of sharing not only the ideas but the love and the fun of them, the unique pleasure of watching other people not only catch your ideas but run with them in their own direction. I’m not a teacher… but that pleasure is a big part of what motivates me as a writer. And it comes from my dad.

My father was a union organizer at his school: one of the two chief organizers, in fact. I remember once when I was a kid, I found a piece of paper with a list of teachers on it, and I asked my dad, “Why are only some teachers on this list? Why is Mr. Abernathy on the list, but not Mr. Mason?” My dad got very, very serious — not like him at all — and said gravely, almost in a panic, “You can never tell anyone that you saw that list. If you do, I could lose my job.” I’d had a vague understanding before then of this union business… but at that moment, it fell into sharp focus. And I got that my dad was willing to take a risk — a real risk, a risk not only to himself but to his livelihood and his family — to do what he thought was right, and to take a chance on making life better, not only for us, but for the other teachers and their families as well. I got that the administration relied on that “I can’t endanger my family” instinct as a way of intimidating teachers who might otherwise have supported the union. I got how much this scared my father… and I got that he was willing to fight for the union anyway. I got, at that moment, that sometimes you have to go out on a limb. I got that people in power rely on fear to keep their power in place — and that you sometimes have to do things that scare you, things that put you at real risk, in order to make change in the world. I got that courage doesn’t mean not being afraid: it means being afraid, and taking action anyway. I treasure all of that, and do my best to live up to it.

(And yes, the union won. As far as I know, there is still a teacher’s union at the University of Chicago Laboratory School today… and it’s there, in large part, because of my dad.)

My father was always proud to have a smart daughter. I remember the summer he taught me BASIC. I remember the time he mentioned, quite casually, that he knew I was smarter than he was. I remember his delight whenever I picked up a tricky idea, or stumped him in an argument. My ease and confidence with my intelligence, my sense that of course women can be smart, that it’s entirely natural and desirable for women to be smart, that there is no contradiction between being a woman and being smart and anyone who says so is a dolt… I owe that, in large part, to both my mom and my dad.

My father and I got into many arguments, heated ones even: not about personal family stuff so much, but about politics and history and science. And as heated as those arguments sometimes got, he never once tried to discourage me from arguing with him. He never once pulled the “I’m your father, don’t argue with me, treat me with respect” card. No matter how deeply he disagreed with me, he always respected my right to argue, and engaged with my arguments seriously, and valued my ability to make my case. If I am stubborn and fearless about making an argument, and unconcerned with offending people in authority and power when I do… that’s my dad.

My father used to make up silly songs ad hoc. I remember the summer that he grew pole beans on the balcony of our apartment, marking every day’s growth on the string with a pencil, and making up endless ridiculous twelve-bar blues songs about feeding pole beans to turkeys and rabbits. He had a love of absurdity for absurdity’s own sweet, stupid sake… a love that I carry with me.

My father cursed like a longshoreman. He didn’t try to curb his cursing around his kids… or maybe he did, maybe that was the dialed-back version we were exposed to all those years. When I see a shitty dumbfuck douchebag and call them a shitty dumbfuck douchebag, when I celebrate Blasphemy Day by saying “Fuck God in all sixty of his non-existent assholes,” I am my father’s daughter.

And did I mention that my father was an atheist? My father was an atheist long before I was. My father was an atheist, and an out atheist, in the 1950s. My father talked his younger brother into being an atheist… when he was in high school. My father figured out that there was no God, pretty much on his own: without atheist billboards, without the atheist blogosphere, without a local atheist support group, without a dozen atheist books on the best-seller list, without anything but Bertrand Russell and his own fearless, “fuck authority,” razor-sharp mind. And he did it when he was a teenager. I hope I don’t have to explain how that particular ripple has rippled out into my life. And now, into yours.

There was bad stuff, too. A lot of it. Not all the ripples have been good ones. My father shaped me in wonderful ways that I treasure, but he also shaped me in fucked-up ways that I struggle with, ways I’ve spent years trying to dig out and throw away, ways that make my life harder every day. And I’m not going to pretend that that isn’t true. Ours is a family that speaks its mind and values the truth: we don’t cover bullshit with sprinkles and pretend it’s a cupcake, and I’m not going to disrespect my dad by doing that now. My father was often a difficult person, and a difficult person to love. And that became more true, not less, as the years went on. I’ll probably be talking about that more in the coming days and weeks and months.

But not today.

My dad is dead. He is gone, finally and forever. But the world is different, and I am different, because he was alive. And for much of that — not all of it, but much of it — I am grateful.

Comments

  1. No Light says

    This was beautiful.

    My partner’s dad (who died in June) was 78. I only knew him for seven years, but he treated me like his daughter.

    I think people were bemused by this old man, who seemed gruff and aloof, who seemed. old fashioned and set in his ways, but who only ever went anywhere if his dyke-daughters were with him!

    We made an odd trio, we went to unexpected places, and we had the most bizarre conversations. I loved him so much.

    I’m still in shock that he’s gone. If I’m being brutally honest I’m almost angry at my own parents, that he’s gone and they’re not. That this complicated, fascinating atheist man who never told a lie, who loved me unconditionally, is dead. That the compulsive fantasist and her mute enabler, who abused me physically, mentally, religiously and financially, have had 35 years of my love (I can’t help myself) while I only got to give him 7.

    So here’s to your Dad and mine, who spent almost eighty years each making the World a more interesting place to be. Here’s to the ripples.

    Hugs from across the Pond.

  2. says

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I love my father too, Greta. Your father sounds like a tremendous man. Complex, interesting, so delighted to be *your* father. Ripples indeed. And from what you haven’t said today, enormous waves too.

    My father has come to atheism late in his life, but these days, he looks into the abyss, and the abyss looks back at him, and he says, well well well, isn’t this interesting.

    Interesting fathers. A curse and a blessing, a joy and an agony.

    Thinking of you in these days of grief.

  3. thebugguy says

    Thank you for your recent writings. I’ve been reading them as my mother is in at-home hospice care.

    For me too, she will be in my memories, just as my father has stayed in my memories.

  4. StevoR says

    My condolences for whatever little they’re worth Greta Christina.

    Vale and sympathies.

    Raising a beer to a man I never got to know and a blogger whose excellent posts deserve far better in life.

    Please let me know if there’s anything I could do to help.

  5. steveinmi says

    Very well written, and thank you for sharing.

    You very modestly left out the downstream influence your father continues to have: because you are a writer, the impact he had on you is passed along to ever-how-many of us each day. And we are a little better for it.

    Best to you and your family. :-)

  6. says

    My father died at the age of 89 in March 2012. He grew up in a Mennonite community in Alberta, but never joined the church & was atheist for as long as I knew him. Your father sounds like mine in many ways, in addition to the atheism. I think I should point out this post to my siblings.

  7. says

    “I got that courage doesn’t mean not being afraid: it means being afraid, and taking action anyway. I treasure all of that, and do my best to live up to it.”

    You’ve done–and continue to do–a damn fine job of it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, memories, and emotions with your readers during this difficult time.

  8. says

    Dear Greta,

    So sorry for your loss. I am Jewish, culturally & religiously, but I don’t believe in anything after death. Frankly, that just makes life all the sweeter, and more important, and dependent on what we do in it and with it.

    I like the fact your Dad was a math teacher–so was I, for a very tough year. Nevertheless, in the magnet school I taught in, my best class was teaching the 20 best students in the school Geometry in 8th grade, two years ahead of schedule. Hope I made some difference in their lives. They were wonderful students.

    I know God does not control life, else why would he let my mother get dementia and be confined to a nursing home at age 78? This woman was such a powerhouse with her brain, and now she can barely sequence how to stand up, sit down, or talk on her cellphone.

    Lest you think I’m kidding, look her up: Lorraine W. Pearce, first Curator of the White House, worked with First Lady Jacky, is due to her scholarship the WH is restored to the way it looks now, and by extension, the collections formed at the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

    After her work was over at White House, she resigned to avoid all the backbiting office politics of “interior designers” wanting her job. She invented herself as a private teacher of Fine and Decorative Arts history in Washington, D.C., and probably taught as many as 1,000 ladies in private classes every week for 47 years. A powerhouse, I’m telling you. And now, all that knowledge has just flown away.

    I have been going through a slow motion hell for two years, as her faculties declined. I alter the phrase related to historically black colleges: “A mind is a terrible thing to WATCH waste”.

    Be well and thanks for your fine writing.

  9. mnb0 says

    “I’ve been surprised, in fact, at ….”
    I am not. I have had a similar experience. The important thing is to preserve, to foster all the good memories (and a few bad ones for a sound balance). It only gets nasty when you only have bad memories, which obviously is not the case.
    All the strength.

  10. says

    hi Greta,
    Condolences, And Actually Congrats On Having A Loving Father, Someone You Could Relate To.
    I Am A Doctor, Other Day A Girl Was Brought To Me, Who Was Having Strange Symptoms And Fears. I Ended Up Talking About Death To Her, In Front Of Her Parents. I Told, She Is Going To Die, So Will Be Her Parents. They Might Have Got Surprised, But I LikE It , To Talk Boldly About Death.
    And Sorry For The Case, Typing From Mobile.

  11. edwardsx says

    This is my first time on any blog site, but I started to listen to your “Angry” book today and felt I had to see more of what you have to say. Let me say, that I am sorry to hear about your dad and wish you the best. The world needs more people like you in it.

  12. Rodney Nelson says

    Your dad sounds like an interesting person. He had a loving daughter who saw him as he was, a complex human being.

  13. Rieux says

    Richard Hermann Muelder fathered an extraordinary woman, one we’re all lucky to have around. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

  14. says

    Truly beautiful, and beautifully truthful.

    Reality is important. So, too, are people. Compassion and integrity form a formidable combination. Thank you, Greta. And thank you, Richard Hermann Muelder. You have shown us both.

  15. magistramarla says

    Beautifully written, Greta.
    This is how we keep them alive in our memories – your Dad and my Mother-in-law.

  16. says

    “I’m not a teacher” my foot. Greta, you have taught me and the world more than you will ever know. Your love of educating people, through slow, patient, kind, firm, and VERY painstaking persuasion comes through in everything you do. You have done so much teaching, and made the world so much more enlightened, it’s not even funny. And now we know that we have your father to thank partly for that.
    That was a beautiful memorial. Brought tears to my eyes. I hope you were able to share something like this at your dad’s funeral/memorial/wake, so that those who knew him could be touched by it as well.
    My thoughts are with you in your time of grief.

  17. captn88 says

    Greta, I was saddened to her of your loss. Your Dad and I are cousins,your Dads mom and my Dad were brother and sister. Many of the things you wrote about him bring back fond memories of time spent in Galesburg years ago. I wish you well..

  18. allencdexter says

    I, too, thank you for writing this memorial. My parents are both gone many years now. They never made big waves in the world. Just humble, hard working North Dakota farmer/ranchers.

    They were far from perfect. I could write pages about their faults if I had the desire to do so. I’d rather think and write about their courage and their characters which through their genes and their examples have helped make me what I am today.

    And, I agree with the commenter who pointed out that you are a teacher. Why else would I check out and profit from your blog every single day of my nearly over life?

  19. michele0lee says

    Thank you so much for your beautiful, truthful words. I cried as I read them. I am grateful that I am here to witness the ripple and be affected by it.

  20. loriwalsh says

    Greta, I found this very comforting. My dad died October 8th. I was just sitting here in his empty home sobbing when I remembered to check in with your grief diary. Many things resonated, but especially the part about the person who has died living on in the world by the way they changed it and the people around them. I was wishing there was some way he could still be here. Then I realized he is, in the ways you meant. My dad was a chemical engineer whose groundbreaking work helped make possible the integrated circuits used throughout today’s digital devices. His friends and collegues have told us how much they admired and enjoyed him. He made the world a better place. And he was an atheist, like the whole family. He loved life and wanted to live forever. Made it to 83. I’ve passed along this entry to my brother and sister so they too can find some peace in your beautiful writing. Thanks again, and much sympathy.

  21. standancer says

    Thank you Greta for introducing us to your dad, and for sharing your grief. This was a touching and honest tribute to the man who helped shape your life. All of us who have been touched and helped by you through your words and actions should be grateful to him as well. Thank you for helping him live on in the lives of so many more people though your words.

    My mother died 48 years ago, days before my 13th birthday, and yet she lives on in the ways I treat people and the compassion I can muster on most days. And she lives on in ways that are not so loving and that I too must struggle with and have struggled with all of my adolescent and adult life. I’m not sure grief ever completely passes. I still miss my mother, and I’m sure you will continue to miss your father far into the future, but the pain of it eases and the memories remain to be brought out and dusted off regularly like an old favorite novel.

    I also want to thank Ed Brayton for pointing me to your tribute, and for his own insights as well. I had been following your writing about your father’s illness, but got caught up in my own life and missed this when you posted it. I’m grateful to Ed for bringing it to our collective attention.

    And finally, be well with yourself and with those you love, the two legged and the four legged ones. There are many who care for you and share your loss, not that any of that serves to ease the pain.

  22. DLC says

    I lost my father in July. I’m sorry for your loss. I know, it sounds trite. It sounded trite when people said it to me, too.
    I like to think that My Dad’s not really gone so long as those of us who knew him remember him.

  23. adrian says

    Greta,I’m with ya.I lost my dad in Feb. of 2009,also at 79.Damn I miss that guy.He was,in his own words,A “hard-headed old Swede”.He was big,gruff,and at times ornery as hell,but damn I loved that man.When I was a kid,he was like superman to me.I can still hear him talking to me sometimes,generally when I do something stupid.It gets better,Greta.It doesnt go away,but it gets better.He was a believer,but not a fervent one.In fact,I believe he had some serious doubts.The rest of my family gathered around his hospital bed,in some kind of prayer circle,and gave me some serious dirty looks when I refused to join.I was shunned at the funeral by some of them,mostly because I started ridiculing one of my sisters when she suggested that my dad was” drinking a beer with jesus”.I know ,I probably shouldnt have,but it was just so damn stupid.Any,sorry to ramble,it just seemed like a good time to finally say those things I had yet to say.

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