I apologize for bringing a moment of sadness into the holiday season, but I want to take this occasion to commemorate my father, Joseph C. Dodson, who died this morning at the age of 90. He had broken his hip and badly fractured his elbow in a fall last month and never really recovered. Fortunately, he was able to spend his final weeks in a place where he was cared for both lovingly and professionally; he was in no pain, we were able to say our farewells while he could still take them in, and at the end he drifted into a final nap. There are worse ways to go.
Dad grew up in small towns in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas; his father was a schoolteacher, and they moved around a fair amount. It was a large family by today’s standards, and he and a brother slept out on the porch because the indoor bedrooms went to the older brothers and sisters. The Depression hit while he was in high school, and he had to work hard to put himself through college. He had thought of going into journalism but wound up going to grad school in agricultural economics, where he met my mother (who was a department secretary—her family was also large, and they could only afford to send the boys to college, so she went to work). After his service in World War Two, he got a position on a commission supervising elections in Greece (a country he always remembered fondly) and then, through the good offices of a friend, was invited to join the occupation staff in Tokyo, where my mother joined him and I was born.
He had a good career in the Foreign Service and could have had an ambassadorship if he’d wanted it, but he didn’t enjoy the kind of socializing that would involve. He gave his three sons not only a fine education but exposure to life in several countries in Asia and South America, a rare opportunity to see the world with a wider perspective than most people get (and doubtless the impetus for my love of languages). As much as he enjoyed traveling, I’m afraid he often didn’t enjoy life very much. He was given to depression and insisted on peace and quiet when he was home, which could be hard for three opinionated boys to live with; he had the psychology typical to men of his generation, with their strong-but-silent ideal, and was never comfortable with intimacies. Only towards the end of his life did he learn to say “I love you” to his sons and begin to talk freely about his past. But he was a good and generous man, and he never tried to impose his ideas of how life should be lived on his children. No matter how many times I went off in directions incomprehensible to him, dropping mathematics for linguistics and that for poetry, quitting grad school for a feckless life earning minimum wage in bookstores, no matter how many Christmases I brought home entirely new women for him to accept as a temporary part of the family, he was tolerant and good-humored about it. He let me feel that life was a good thing to be taken as it came, and that is perhaps the greatest gift a father can give.
I’m playing Benny Goodman in his honor, and “After You’ve Gone” has just come on. Listen to the joyous sweep of that clarinet! He may not have been able to articulate it, but he was drawn to the abandon of that music, and Mom always said he was a wonderful dancer. I like to think of them dancing in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, still young and as carefree as you could be in those wartorn times, looking forward to a life of unpredictable adventures. I hope he was pleased with how it all turned out. I’ll miss you, Dad.