This article was previously published in Sword & Spade Magazine.
John Waldorf discovered what is most real about his inheritance.
Eugene Waldorf died just four days after his 84th birthday. As I write this,
most of my family is arriving home after gathering to celebrate the first anniversary of his passing. Besides being married to my mother for sixty-one years, raising six children, and being an awesome grandfather and great grandfather to twenty-three, he has done some pretty neat things along the way. Things like working on the guidance system for the Apollo moon landings, developing many products you use each day as an engineer for Honeywell and 3M, serving in the Army during the Korean War, spending nearly 20 years fighting for the rights of the unborn as a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, holding many prominent positions in civic organizations supporting education and commerce, not to mention running a couple dozen marathons. Aside from the accomplishments of his life, if you knew him, it was easy to see what came first: his Catholic faith, and his involvement in his Catholic community.
With a history like that, one may conclude that his children have learned a thing or two from the old man. I’m in the workshop at a table tonight, pecking away these words of reflection. Behind me on the wall is a CNC carving of him sailing in his boat, along another wall is his antique metal lathe, in front of me is his table saw…I am literally surrounded by my dad, or his things anyway. There is nothing magic about my dad’s tools, nothing magic about my shop, yet here is where an odd, but not unusual, request created some of the best magic I’ve ever experienced.
I joined the Navy in 1991 as a carpenter, sort of following in the footprints of my older brother Paul who owned a successful commercial cabinet shop. After my initial active duty service concluded, I returned to Minnesota often finding myself beside my dad, lending a helping hand to Paul, my brother, to push a project through to completion. Some of my favorite memories were working through the night with Dad and Paul to meet a deadline.
About twelve years ago, I found myself standing in Paul’s shop with him and my dad. Dad was excited to tell us about a project he wanted us to undertake. He wanted us to make his casket, just a simple coffin-shaped pine box, with a little twist. My father was a prolific reader, and he reassured us his health was fine, so until he needed the box, he would stand it upright and fill it with books supported by the shelves we would install. It was an odd, but not unusual request. It was odd to have someone request a casket when death seemed so far away, but it was not unusual for the old man to come up with some off-the-wall idea for a project. His idea was that when he kicked the bucket, we would just empty the shelves, lay him in, and shut the lid. Dad was always an outside-the-box thinker; I guess he was an inside-the-box thinker, too. As you might imagine, Paul and I were agreeable, but a little hesitant, to fulfill our commitment. We assured him we would make it, and promptly went back to living life. We did tell our younger brother David, a systems administrator, that he might have to brush up on his carpentry skills when the time came.
I remember my first cognition of dad’s mortality. One of dad’s favorite things was a good road trip. When I was five, we drove from St. Paul, Minnesota to El Salvador for Christmas. When I was nine, in the middle of a blizzard, we towed his little sailboat all the way to the South Padre Islands so he could sail on the ocean. At 16, I was treated to a tour of the East Coast from south to north, and then halfway across Canada back to Minnesota. Dad loved to see different places, so it was no surprise in 2013, that I wound up in a car with Dad and Paul, headed for Grand Junction, Colorado. Paul had shut down his cabinetry business after accepting a management position with FedEx and needed to relocate to Colorado. He would start work while his wife and kids prepared their household goods for moving. Dad and I thought it would be fun to tag along on the trip. My dad would die of congestive heart failure, which basically wore him down over a long period of time. While in the higher altitudes he seemed to just get tired very easily, opting to just rest in the car rather than take in the vistas we stopped to see. I remember thinking how “human” it made him feel to me, this man who always had the strength for any task.
After three years, Paul relocated back to Minnesota when a position opened up in Minneapolis, and by that time it was evident that Dad was showing signs of decline. The topic of his request came up and we decided we should at least investigate planning. The first question was “Could we?” We were not sure if government regulation would hamper our efforts, if not shut us down altogether. We were used to seeing the cookie cutter fast food drive thru style burials, so we didn’t know what we could make. I was surprised to find that in Minnesota, there was great leeway in the burial regulations. We came to a quick decision that a coffin-shaped pine box just wouldn’t do. We figured he asked us to make it, and that gave us artistic license, as well as another chance at playful disobedience. His casket wouldn’t be a simple box, but it did present a unique problem. Paul and I had made many cabinets over the years, and a casket was basically a cabinet: a custom-made box for purpose, trimmed and stained for beauty, and adorned with hardware that fit the style intended. The hardware was the problem. Like I said, burials in the U.S. have become something of a standard. A pressed sheet metal box and hardware that was either chromed, bronzed, or brass. All I could find for hardware was just that, chrome, bronze, or brass, meant to adorn a sheet metal box. I proposed an idea to Paul one afternoon. I would buy an anvil, make a forge, and teach myself to blacksmith the hardware. Paul loves to tell a story about when my mom and dad just had three young kids and a small income. The car broke down and he could not afford to pay someone to fix it, so being the resourceful man he was he obtained a library book, dug a pit in the driveway under the car, and fixed it himself. If he could do that, I could make the hardware for his casket. After getting halfway through making the hardware, Paul happened to call and ask if I researched the size of vaults. A casket (at least in Minnesota) can be just about anything, even a simple cloth wrapping; however, it must be placed in a concrete vault. In short, I would have to abandon my hardware design, because it would make the casket too wide. I put down my tools, and kind of just went back to life until the 25th of February 2020.
On that day, all but one of us kids converged on my folks’ town to celebrate Dads’ eighty-fourth birthday. (The one who could not make it was my sister Bridget, a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame who was living at a convent in Dallas at the time.) Dad was in rare form, awake, upright, a smile on his face, and engaging in conversation with his family. I snapped the last photo I ever took of my dad that night. He was sitting with a birthday cake that resembled something akin to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a grin as wide as the world. That night, Paul and I rekindled our resolve to work on the project. He would bring some oak to my shop that Saturday and we would get busy. Paul never made it to my place that day. Halfway through the drive, he got the call that Dad had passed.
We spent the day with Mom at their home, and with dad too, until it came time to call the funeral home to come take him away. When we left that night, a plan was in place. We threw out the invitation to all, to join Paul, David, and myself in making Dad’s final resting place. The next three days was a flurry of activity. In-laws, nephews, nieces, and the three of my father’s sons began to work.
For all of our planning and talking, we basically abandoned any plans we had and let the design organically form as we worked. We reflected on our choices, and many of them stemmed from who our dad was. The oak represented the strength of character that Dad had, his unwavering faith, and his strong commitment to his family and his church. The stepped form of the lid culminating in the cross was a reminder of how he lived his life, tirelessly climbing towards his ultimate goal, a meeting at the cross. The plush interior that my sisters made was an example of the softness of heart and love he exuded. The quilted pillow made from an unfinished quilt started by his own mother was an example of how our legacy can continue to support our loved ones after we are gone.
As it’s often said, “boys will be boys,” and we three boys haven’t always gotten along. David was born during Paul’s senior year of high school, and I was born seven years before David. With the spread of that much time, it’s a wonder we have anything in common. Dad’s death could have easily been the final severing of our bonds. Many deaths begin the translation of a whole life into dollars, and then divided siblings squabble over the “remains” of a man. In our case, we gave careful focus to his actual remains (or at least what held them), and in so doing we were drawn together in the reality of his death and life. His life was more than an estate, more than numbers and ownerships — we were heirs to who he was. And by guiding us back together for that project, he preserved us in that.
We may have just been building a box, or completing another project under a heavy deadline, but time stood still as we felt the weight of every piece of wood shaped with a purpose. Just the simple act of catching the eye of either of my brothers gave understanding to the moment. I will never forget one moment after applying a coat of finish to the lid, the three of us stood silently admiring the grain, the shades of tan, reds, and browns, under the shimmer of wet glossy varnish. It was not the beauty of the wood that was moving, it was the beauty
of the moment. It was the concord of brotherhood in a time of loss.
Dad was interned at Camp Ripley Veterans cemetery in Little Falls, Minnesota on the 8th of March 2020, surrounded by family and friends, carried in the box made by his children. I shaved my face, donned my dress blues, carried the folded flag to my mother, and rendered my dad’s final salute. A farewell befitting a man of importance, but probably pretty insignificant in his own mind, he got what he really wanted, he wanted us to know the importance of family.