9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course

By Janet Grace Riehl

What’s creativity anyway? http://bit.ly/dZ7Nhq That question ripples through all 38 Creative Catalyst posts since November 2008. During these three years of exploring the Creativity Question new definitions continue to pop up. Here’s today’s: Creativity is a horse we ride to go wherever we need to go, and do whatever we aim to do. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s not. During the past seven years my trusty horse has carried me through the forests and fields of care-giving.

Starting in 2004 I partnered with my father to care for my mother who died in 2006. My father survived that blow as he has so many others. Now it’s his turn to be cared for as he somehow combines vigor and fragility at the end of his life. At 96 he still writes, plays music, carves little critters, and bosses his crew around to tell them how to fix just about everything. It’s not your typical care-giving situation. No diapers. No hospice. No last breaths to report. Not yet. This care-giving creates a context for my father’s longevity. “Creative Aging” I think it’s called.

On our family team each of us has a job that allows Pop to stay in the home where he grew up, raised his family, nursed his wife the last five years of her life, and now spends his last years. My job is to be Erwin Thompson’s daughter. In fact, I am his youngest. In the time of my great aunts the Younger Daughter stayed home to care for her parents. This was understood. The Good Daughter was a clearly defined role within the family and society. Not so much these days. But, I have to say I’ve been a pretty good Good Daughter. My life now is as anachronistic as my childhood. I carry a portmanteau filled with a passel of jobs that tumble out when I open the lid just a crack: companion, confidant, assistant, attendant, social secretary, executive secretary, public relations director, publisher, cook and housekeeper, hostess, maid, driver, audience….  All the invisible stuff that has made up traditional women’s work.

My job really, though, is to prepare for my father’s death. We’ve done all the obvious stuff over the past five years: obituary (we wrote it together), eulogy (I wrote it in Ghana in 2008), funeral arrangements (he picked his urn), gravestone design and epitaph (with my brother), and getting the family grave site in order (restoring and moving stones), recording his wishes for his memorial service (including which songs to play).  He and Mother put their legal affairs in meticulous order decades ago. For most families this would be more than ready.

In ours, though, there’s the heritage and legacy project to harvest not only his life, but the life of our family back to the 1800s. We’ve set up archives in universities, local libraries, and county historical societies. We’ve continued publishing his books (three in the last five years—plus mine—several winning awards). We gave talks and workshops and appeared on the radio. The regional Smithsonian Scholar recorded Pop’s music now released on the Midwestern Library data base. Gosh only knows what we’ve been doing. Even I can’t keep track.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 was not to do more, but to do less. My brother and I agreed that our top priority had to be saving our sanity so we could stay the course. I resolved to be a Slacker—to put my Puritan work ethic to the side—and just enjoy Slackerhood. That’s more of a challenge than it might seem. It’s as if I’d founded a nonprofit called the Riehl-Thompson Lineage and Heritage Society. Naturally I was the Executive Director and more than ample staff. I resolved to cut waaaaay back on the staff work and sent the director on long term leave. Bye-bye projects. Not just his, but mine too.

If you’re gonna to do something, you gotta do it well, right? To be a Good Slacker I let more and more things go—while continuing to be My Father’s Daughter and the Woman in His Life. I channel my mother with a nod to my sister Julia who died in 2004. It’s a lot to shoulder, and there’s no way I’ll be coming up to that standard. Of course nothing I do will hold back Death who one of these days will not be chased away from his door.

One of the hardest things I had to do this year was to tell my father “No.” We sat in his office—nominally our dining room—with papers and photo-documentation books and pictures and clippings and tape cassettes piled high on the table. He worked on one of his computers while I read in the comfy Lazy Girl Chair that affords bird’s eye view of the birds flying onward to the Mississippi.

Pop swiveled to face me. “What do you think our next book should be?” His face glowed with all the excitement and anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning. My heart sank. This was the question I’d been dreading.

“I’m sorry, Pop,” I told him straight-up. “But I’m all played out. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the juice.”

His face fell as he swiftly swiveled away from me back towards his computer screen. “Well, then, there’s no use talking about it.” My ear knows the gruff voice of the stoic when I hear it. In a life filled with things that just have to be borne stoicism is a useful tool.

I got up to wrap my arms around him over the back of his chair. “I know you’re hurt and disappointed. I am too. I wish I did have the juice, but I just don’t”

Tears welled in his eyes. He softened, accepted, and we went on. As in any long term intimate relationship we’ve had to find ways to just get on with it. Shedding my Northern California personal-growth-speak I’ve learned once again the power of Midwestern plain talk—with a nod now and again to feelings that clearly are standing in the middle of the road.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing these days with at least half of my life: being Erwin Thompson’s daughter. That’s not a job title that rolls off the tongue in social situations when people ask me what I do for a living. These days it’s about what I do for dying.

In the city I take up my Slackerhood with great glee—as if it were secretly a project. I hang out (and exercise) at my health club, and visit friends, I read—a combination of brainy books and what would be beach reading if I were anywhere near a beach. I cook food I like rather than food Daddy likes. I do my best to do nothing with redeeming social value. I do my best to take a giant step out of Daddy’s World into my world.

My time with my father is likely to be the only ‘til death do us part relationship with a man that I’ll have in my life. His death will be a death of many things. Is there life for me after his death? That’s my biggest project of all: to believe that there is a life waiting for me on the other side of his death. Just as I believe there is a new life waiting for him on the other side when he steps over.


To round off 2011 for Creative Catalyst readers, and for myself, here’s the Creative Catalyst Year in Review. Instead of my ordered plan to develop material for an e-book on Creative Harvesting I ended up writing five posts on Creative Enemies and whatever came to mind. I’m making it up as I go along. That’s one of the skills in being a Good Slacker.

2011 Creative Catalyst Year in Reviews


11 Creative Catalyst Nudges for 2011


Creative Challenge: Five Tips for Creative Independence: Don’t sell your soul to the company store


Creative Challenge: How to pitch your creative work without losing your mind: 4 guidelines for actors, authors, painters, and musicians


Creative Challenge: The Lull


7.1 Art of Harvesting in Five Tricky Steps  by Janet Riehl and Stephanie Farrow


7.2 Harvesting a Life: Never too late to create


8.1 Creative Enemy: The “So What?” Factor


8.2 Creative Enemy: Art Envy


8.3 Creative Enemy: Censorship.Yours.


8.4 Creative Enemies: Someone else knows the answers? Nope.


8.5 Creative Enemy: Enough, already?


9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course (http://wp.me/p14fQq-yG)


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.” Become a Riehlife villager.

14 responses to “9.1 Daddy Care: Staying the Course

  1. lovely observations, Janet, as always… Here’s to being ourselves, whatever that is!

  2. Janet, this is a truly remarkable piece. It does justice to both the father, and to the daughter he must feel tremendously, lovingly proud of.
    I remember the woman I reconnected with in Botswana three years ago, who was tentatively venturing out in search of the strength and confidence with which she had taken on the whole world in her private war 30 years before. I read your account here and see that, in going home, you have found the roots of that strength in the soil it originally sprang up from. And that old confidence comes through, now mature, captured and reproduced in the voice you have found in this piece. Congratulations, seestah…

  3. Oh, so that’s why my youngest sister made such a hasty escape from the clutches of the family! Now that I think back, I believe my parents and others were subtly and sometimes not so subtly grooming her for the caregiver role. My brother, the youngest in our family, became the caregiver. It suited him well, and everything worked out.
    Janet, this is such a beautiful essay. I feel honored that I was able to visit you and your dad. When you write, I can visualize. I can see you and your dad, the sturdy old house, the Mississippi out the window.
    As I’ve said before, he is a wonderful old gentleman, truly of the old school. where a man’s word was not just a vague “commitment,” but a measure of who he was, and who he came from.
    The old gray pine (formerly called “digger” pine) in my back yard is coming down today. It is hard to say goodbye. It’s been my good friend for almost 28 years, warming the ground around it, and dropping tasty pine nuts. These pines have particular phases in their lifespan. As children, they are shaped like the classic Christmas tree, and are very sprightly. As mature adults they’re more rounded (like we are) and in old age, they begin to drop their lower branches, the trunk elongates and they reach great heights, and sometimes lean precariously for years before they go down. Well, this pine has reached that final stage, and we’ve had some near catastrophes with heavy lower limbs falling on the chicken houses. Not to mention the pine cones, which weigh 1-2 pounds each and fall like bombs from 60+ feet up.
    In the forest, I could let it live out its final years. but not here in a suburban back yard where it is beginning to lean noticeably over my house.
    It’s not quite the same loving and letting go of a tree, as it is to prepare to say goodbye to a dear father, nevertheless it is a letting go.
    Your final paragraph is so beautiful, so simple. I saw that same love years ago in your essay, “Yet Lost For Other Causes.”
    The Beatles were wrong, love isn’t all you need–all those jobs that tumbled out when you lifted the lid are needed, too–but without the love, it wouldn’t be what it is, a labor of love.

  4. What a wonderful essay, Janet. You certainly understand and live one meaning of multiple selves!

  5. Allowing for the oxymoron… you are an accomplished slacker! My dear friend, I admire your perseverance in this long task of caring for Pop. I treasure my small carving of his. I have complete faith that when this page in your life turns you will be ready with a fresh pen to create anew.

  6. Janet’s brilliant insights and prose is a testament to stepping up when called to do so. Caregiving is a way to balance the equation. I remember that many folks couldn’t understand how and why I was ‘wasting’ my good years in caring (full time) for my dear now departed mother, Adele. They couldn’t comprehend that for me there was no greater calling.

    Sometimes it’s essential to ‘waste’ time.

  7. Around here we have what we like to call Puddin’ Days, slacker days where we do little more than what is desired. What I have found is that they become days of heart-work; tasks done from caring for myself and others that bring more fulfillment than any other thing. You teach a great lesson by taking care of yourself so that you can better take care of your father.
    I agree with soulartist–sometimes it’s essential to ‘waste’ time.

  8. Slacker = caregiver of yourself
    Daughter = caregiver of your father
    I like getting to know these things about you.
    I feel a connection to the “what do you do?” conundrum.
    I envy your relationship with your father.
    I feel challenged to consider for myself the “biggest project of all.”
    I am amazed at how “prepared” your “family team” is.
    I like the phrase “the power of Midwestern plain talk.”
    I hear the hurt and disappointment: “His face fell as he swiftly swiveled away from me back towards his computer screen. ‘Well, then, there’s no use talking about it.'”
    Nice image: “He worked on one of his computers while I read in the comfy Lazy Girl Chair that affords bird’s eye view of the birds flying onward to the Mississippi.” Makes me want to sit in that chair.

  9. Dear Ones (Jake, Eden, Alan,Fran, Hal, Jude, Lynn, Selena),

    What did you get? Pretty much everything.

    “Slacker” for me is both a survival technique and also a bit of an inside joke to me and anyone who knows me. But, slacking off is so good for me. And, yes…caretaking the caretaker.

    This year my schedule is so erratic, I can barely keep track of the days of the week. Often I’m catching only a few hours in the city. Or, if I do have two consecutive days they become my de facto “week end.” When I have (rarely) 3-4 days at a time in a row, I think I’m in heaven.

    Con Cariño


  10. So much to think about, so much to take care of – including ourselves. Your expression and insight are remarkable and touching, as always. What a marvelous life he has lived, more than most would have ever considered possible.

  11. Thank you, Gerry. I’m so glad you and he met. I’m still so touched by your generosity in making the video interview with him. You are now doing it professionally? May you have many takers of this marvelous service.

  12. Great pic of you on a horse! And great analogy for creativity! Wonderful essay.

  13. GREAT essay Janet!!! Many blessings to you and your well-loved father!

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