As a crime writer I often have to deal with death — fictionally. But as most of us have, I also have experienced the loss of a loved one. John Haddaway McClendon, my father, would have been 91 today. I miss him, of course, and wanted to do a memory piece for him today, nearly eight years after his death. There are many things he missed these last years, college graduations, a wedding, the birth of his great-granddaughter. He would have enjoyed them all, in his quiet way. He was a shy man although life made its requirements on him and he adapted. His father was an academic and 40 when he was born. His mother died when he was 16, of cancer, which must have made a mark on him. He followed his father into university life (my grandfather, Jesse F. McClendon taught physiology to medical students at the University of Minnesota) and was above all else a student, a researcher. He graduated from high school as World War II broke out in Europe, and joined ROTC at Minnesota. After college he was in Army Intelligence (maybe that’s where I get my love of intrigue!) and spent six months learning Japanese in preparation for the invasion that never occurred. He had a lifelong love of Japan after spending a year there with his parents and older brother when he was 11. After the war ended he was sent to Japan for the Occupation, where he met my mother, a secretary from Texas who worked in his office. They knew each other for six months before tying the knot, and were married for 57 years.
Those are the basics. John taught and researched plant physiology his entire career and continued his interest in the origin of species in a book he wrote after retirement — we still have to get that book together, sisters! (Grandsons?) It sits on his computer, waiting for us to rediscover it. John had three daughters, none of whom followed him into science, a consequence that never seemed to bother him. Or if it did, like many things, he never mentioned it. He ended up with four darling grandsons to make up for the lack of sons. They often remind me of John. They are tinkerers and thinkers, conjurers of brew, hands-on builders of stuff, outdoor adventurers, and computer whizzes — all things he loved.
My father had to teach freshman biology every so often at the University of Nebraska. It makes me squint just thinking about. I never took a course from him, but now I wonder why. I should have. I had friends who took classes from him. I’m sure he wasn’t the best lecturer in the world and public speaking was low on his favorites list but I’m also positive that his students felt his genuine love of pure science and the way it relates to the world we live in. (Zero Population Growth was one of his passions.) I can hardly remember one thing my father ever said about his teaching. He wasn’t one to discuss his work, successes or not. Like many academics he felt his work spoke for itself, or maybe that none of us would understand. A family story — when I was about six or so and wanted to be noticed by my father (middle child, what can I say: I always wanted to be noticed) I climbed on his lap, stroked his cheek, and said in a vampish voice: “Tell me about your enzymes.” I still have no idea about enzymes, not really. So if you, blog reader, want to tell me about your enzymes, go ahead.
My father named me Lise after a physicist he admired, Lise Meitner. An Austrian physicist, Meitner helped develop nuclear fission. The spelling is often a problem, people never know how to pronounce it (lee-za) but I will never change it. (Yes, I am still daddy’s girl.) He loved to sail, a consequence of growing up in Minnesota around all those lakes. He had a sixteen-foot sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay when we were young, and made us a little yellow bathtub sailboat with a polka dot sail to learn on. I’ll never forget sailing with him around the Bay, and the time the wind knocked the boom into him, he tumbled overboard, and lost his glasses! Fun times!
In 1999 my parents came out to Montana for a vacation in our ski house at Big Sky. My book, Nordic Nights, had just come out and I was going on a little tour around the state to bookstores. I piled the kids and the grands in the Suburban and hit the road. I love so much that we were able to share that time together. Like my father I don’t like to boast about my work. Writing, like research science, is a pretty private affair. My father loved to read and would often pass me mysteries he loved, like Tony Hillerman or P.D. James. He particularly liked James, whose books include brainy characters like himself. At a reading in Whitefish someone asked me if I was Norwegian like my character, Alix Thorssen. My father popped up in the back of the room (so much for shyness!) and said: “The Scots are just shipwrecked Vikings, you know!”
He had a great sense of humor. Mostly he loved a good pun — “the lowest form of humor.” I will always remember his laugh — even if I have forgotten all those puns. I hope you’re enjoying a pun and a dram of single malt with Darwin, Daddy, wherever you are. Love you always, Lise.