Saying Goodbye to my Dad: The Ski Trip I Didn’t Take


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

The timing was oddly appropriate on Wednesday, preparing to fly out on Thursday for my final summer ski trip: my mother informed me that I should instead drive to visit my father in the hospital, where a relatively uneventful emergency room visit had suddenly changed for the worse. He had taught both me and my younger brother to ski, so the timing, or perhaps the juxtaposition, somehow made sense.

Dad, February 1975

Dad, February 1975

That my father, Melvin Charles Shefftz, had ever started skiing though in the 1950s always seemed wildly improbable. I once read of mainstream skiing as characterized by three successive stages: from adventure to sport to recreation (and since then onto real estate development perhaps). Back in the 1950s, skiing still had the aura of a rich man’s domain, and that of _crazy_ rich men at that.

My father was neither rich nor crazy. He was the son of immigrants too busy escaping the Russian Civil War to be concerned with escaping the city to slide down the side of snow-covered mountains. Furthermore, he had been afflicted with asthma as a young child, when treatment largely consisted of indoor confinement, as he longed to join the joyous cries of the neighborhood children playing outside in the snow. But a graduate school friend bullied him into trying skiing, and after a sleepless night so terrified at the prospect, he was hooked (even after later breaking his ankle that first season).

Then again, despite being a relatively mild-manner university professor, his father’s father’s side of the family had somewhat of a wild streak. Their immigration began when my paternal grandfather’s uncle as a young man — a la Jack and the Beanstalk — was supposed to sell the family cow at a local market, which he did, but instead of returning home with the proceeds, he bought a boat ticket to America. He became a sort of itinerant cattle herder, buying up single cows from small farms near Boston (until he died after being gored by a ram).

My father’s decades of skiing pretty much coincided with the nadir of backcountry skiing in the Eastern U.S. So his closest encounter with truly wild snow was probably when in the Alps he unwittingly wandered so far from the marked piste that he faced a long trudge back along the valley. I also never knew quite how to explain to him after describing some mountain I had just ascended and skied, that no, the mountain really wouldn’t be any better with chairlifts.

But I suspect he would have loved backcountry skiing, as he loved exploring, and was seemingly impervious to the elements. I remember once coaching an NCAA alpine ski team on the protected lower slopes of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, when my father appeared at the top of our training course, coated with rime. He had taken the tram to the summit, and then been the only rider of the exposed upper-mountain quad during a blizzard. A ski instructor at our local area once told me how during an impressive blizzard he saw only a single rider on the chairlift braving the elements. My father. Still reading his newspaper of course.

As a professional historian, he was always reading, whether on the chairlift or otherwise. Once we were flying out west for a ski trip, and although the flight was long, perhaps six hours, I asked why he had reading material more appropriate for six days, or perhaps even six weeks. He explained, “What if terrorists hijack the plane and all I have to read is their boring propaganda material?”

He continued skiing until a few weeks short of his 75th birthday, when his lack of knee cartilage and worsening myasthenia gravis finally snapped his streak of nearly five decades of consecutive ski seasons. He was saddened by the abstinence from his favorite sport, but the last year and a half of his life was filled with joyous visits with his granddaughter Micayla. Her most recent history lesson from Grandpa was at my request, regarding the 1895 Venezuela boundary dispute. Micayla appeared sympathetic that he could not remember the exact spelling of the “Schomburgk” line. We should all have such mental faculties at age 82, or at any age for that matter.

Son and Granddaughter, November 2010

Son and Granddaughter, November 2010. 'Look Grandpa, no hands!'

One of my most cherished characteristics of my father is brought up by an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, which I clipped and then saved all these years, from before I was even married. I can’t find the image on-line anywhere, and posting my scanned copy is probably in violation of copyright laws, but you can find an essay about the strip that concludes with these words:“This Sunday strip of Calvin and Hobbes is a definite testament to Watterson’s skill at expressing his ideas and telling a story visually, as well as proof that a picture, often times, is worth well more than a thousand words.”

The irony is that the essay about the Hobbes strip comprises 1913 words. I’ll summarize it. Unlike a typical Calvin and Hobbes comic, this one lacks any acerbic conflict among the characters, in words or otherwise. Calvin looks outside excitedly at the snow, and then tries to interest his father in joining him for some outdoor fun. But the father is up against an impressively high stack of work papers, and Calvin slinks away dejectedly. The father tries to concentrate on his work, but, but, but . . . suddenly we see the father run outside to be greeted by Calvin with open arms and unrestrained joy!

Maybe if my father hadn’t spent so much time outside in the snow with his two sons he would have published that book he had always planned to write, and maybe he would have acquired some impressive reputation beyond the university students he personally taught over the span of five decades. Yet by giving us his time he earned the love of his family, and taught us the values that matter most, and set an example as a father that I hope to live up to for my daughter.

Shasta Summit Registry Entry

Shasta summit registry entry on June 30, 2011, with no idea that he would be with us for only 18 more days: 'Dad, thank you so much for teaching me how to ski. I hope that someday I can teach Micayla how to ski, and maybe we can even stand here together.'

My only regret is that I wish my dad had been given more time at the end: to see his grandson-to-be from my younger brother and his wife, and also to hear his granddaughter expand her vocabulary to say how much she loved him. But I’ll do it for her: I love you Dad.

Full obit here.

Comments

41 Responses to “Saying Goodbye to my Dad: The Ski Trip I Didn’t Take”

  1. Jan Wellford July 15th, 2011 10:21 am

    Beautiful eulogy Sheffy, thank you so much for sharing. Your dad sounds like a wonderful guy. I’m very sorry for your loss.

    Jan

  2. Norqski July 15th, 2011 12:17 pm

    You’re a good son, Jon. So glad that you were able to be with him at the end. It’s a lot tougher than your fine essay would make folks imagine.

  3. Dane July 15th, 2011 12:30 pm

    Great story. Thank you. Took me a while to decide this but I think skiing is one of the great gifts we can be given as children.

  4. Greydon Clark July 15th, 2011 12:53 pm

    Jonathan, I love the photo of your father on the slopes (and I think Ben is still wearing those sunglasses).

    Sorry for your loss.

  5. jerimy July 15th, 2011 2:15 pm

    Jonathan, quite a moving piece you authored. I am sorry for your loss.

  6. David Morris July 15th, 2011 4:37 pm

    Great story. Sorry about your loss. I too have a father who introduced me to skiing and who helped instill wonder about the outdoors and, in particular, the mountains. All from a guy who grow up in NYC.

    David
    SLC, UT

  7. SteveG July 15th, 2011 7:13 pm

    Such thoughtful memories. So nice you were able to be there at the end. My father never actually skied himself but made sure that my brother and I did. He’d drive us to the local sledding hill where we could earn our turns and once and a while to a hill with a ski tow. He died this morning at age 90 barely 20 minutes after I arrived at the hospice to relieve my sister. We communicated our love for each other, he with non verbal expressions, and I know he was at peace as he took his last breath 5 minutes later. I’ll always cherish those moments.

  8. Mahk July 15th, 2011 7:43 pm

    Great pic of your dad, Jonathan. A man and his skis on a slope in his own happy place. That’s as good as it gets.

  9. Jeff Huber July 16th, 2011 12:23 am

    I’m very sorry to hear of the passing of such a great man. Although I never met Professor Shefftz, I heard countless entertaining and thoughtful stories about him from Jonathan and Ben while on ski trips. I’m very thankful to him for creating such great ski partners. He was clearly well loved, created a great family, and will be sorely missed.

  10. MadPatSki July 16th, 2011 12:42 am

    I’m so sorry to hear this Jonathan. My deepest thought and condolences to your yourself and your family.

    Having suddenly lost my mother, and my ski instructor as a toddler, a little over one year ago, I think I might know what you’re going through. My mom left our home after visiting us for a few days and headed to a family get-together at her brother’s sugarshack where she had a brain aneurysm late afternoon after a great day with her brothers and sisters. We left about at the same time, me and my daughter towards Tremblant (near where she was born and lived for a number of years before moving to Montreal). She was already in a coma when I arrived at the hospital late that night and spent the next 2 days at her bedside.

    She didn’t suffer and wasn’t sick. She was still very active, so it would hard for her to end up in a longterm care home to finish her days. She still biked, cross-country skied and played golf, but she increasingly frustrated at the limitation of her body. Although too soon, I think it’s the way she would have wanted it. She was 74.

    I often think about her and her grand-daughter and I miss her.

    Again, my thoughts are with you. Take care.

    Patrick
    Ottawa, ON

  11. centrebet July 16th, 2011 3:38 am

    Jonathan at first I want to say sorry for your loss. As far I know your dad was a great man and I liked him very much. However thanks to you for your great share.

  12. Lou July 16th, 2011 6:04 am

    Indeed, condolences to Jonathan and the rest of Professor Shefftz’s circle.

    I find this story fascinating, in that here is your classic immigrant coming from the struggles in Russia to what must have been a pretty good life, a man for whom the concept of regular carefree recreation was probably a bit foreign, if not strange. But he embraced his life as a teacher and resident of the Northeastern US, became a skier, and passed that love of glisse on to Jonathan.

    Very nice tribute Jonathan, thanks, really makes me appreciate what we have.

  13. Dan Powers July 16th, 2011 9:19 am

    Thanks Jonathan. A very poignant reminder of my own parents, who started skiing in the 50′s also and passed on that love of skiing to me. I think they had no idea that it would take on such a prominent role in my life, and lead me to move to the far away western mountains. Your first photo reminds me greatly of skiing with my dad at the little hills of Central Mass., Mt Watatic if anyone remembers.

    Condolences, but also I’m glad you had such a great relationship.

  14. Dave Cramer July 16th, 2011 7:30 pm

    A beautiful piece, Jonathan. I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ve broken the Harvard tradition in my family, but have hopefully started a skiing tradition that will last for generations.

  15. byates1 July 16th, 2011 7:45 pm

    great write up sheff, wishing you all well,

    we are thinking of you and yours, and looking forward to seeing you more in the future.

    my father was also a great man, everyone should be so fortunate..

  16. Evan July 17th, 2011 8:30 am

    Sorry for your loss, Jonathan. Your father sounded like a great dad and a great person.

  17. brian July 17th, 2011 9:11 am

    i’m sorry for your loss. my thoughts are with you and your family. beautiful write-up, by the way.

  18. Mike Austin July 17th, 2011 9:14 am

    Jonathan – Thanks for sharing and my deepest condolences to you and your family. Mike

  19. Zuck July 17th, 2011 11:18 am

    shefftz,

    that was so wonderfully, adoringly written. so sorry for your loss. he lives on through you.

    zuck

  20. Donald Rickson July 17th, 2011 12:51 pm

    You wrote a great tribute to your Dad! So sorry for your loss! Thinking about you and your Family!

  21. roger July 17th, 2011 1:43 pm

    jonathan,

    such a beautiful tribute to an amazing man that raised such an equally amazing son.

    thank you so much for sharing. so inspiring.

    sincerely

    roger

  22. Lou Marchi July 17th, 2011 5:58 pm

    Jonathan,

    That was truly a great tribute to your father, he surely was a great man and a great father. You and all your family are in our prayers.

  23. Rob Roy Means July 18th, 2011 6:41 am

    Jonathan, I know you’ll miss him. He’s right there in your heart, he’s part of the man you are. That at least is a great blessing.

    All the best to you and yours.

  24. David July 18th, 2011 8:53 am

    A beautiful eulogy for a dad and a life well lived. Thanks Jonathan.

  25. slave.to.turns July 18th, 2011 10:56 am

    Beautiful.

  26. Patrick July 18th, 2011 1:35 pm

    A very nice remembrance, Jon. Thanks for sharing. Best wishes to you and your family.

  27. Pavel July 18th, 2011 4:50 pm

    Thanks – now I am crying remembering my Dad

  28. Jonathan Shefftz July 18th, 2011 8:50 pm

    Many thanks to all of you for the kind thoughts. The unexpected benefit of this memoriam has been hearing from so many other skiers who have such similar and wonderful family memories.

  29. Mark W July 18th, 2011 10:18 pm

    Great tribute. Though I never alpine skied with my dad, he got me into the outdoors and for that I, too, am forever grateful. Looking back, I wish I could have skied with him like you did with your dad, but perhaps this can somehow be fulfilled with my young son and I skiing together one day soon.

  30. stephen July 20th, 2011 1:34 am

    ‘ He explained, “What if terrorists hijack the plane and all I have to read is their boring propaganda material?” ‘

    Perhaps bursting into laughter while reading a eulogy isn’t very PC but your father sounds like someone I would have enjoyed meeting. Best wishes for you and your family during the period ahead. Things will get easier to bear – eventually.

  31. Bill Gaf July 21st, 2011 12:17 pm

    Jonathan-Wonderful heartfelt words. I to learned to ski from a immigrant father (Switzerland) who felt time with his family was always more important then money or fame. He is 87 and your story remids me that next time he wants to pull me away from a heart thupping workout to go snow shoeing I should remember what’s really important!

  32. Jonathan Shefftz July 21st, 2011 8:07 pm

    Bill, yes, I think it’s hard for us to appreciate just how much our visits matter now to aging parents, as well as how much they’ll matter to us in hindsight.
    Stephen, don’t worry, plenty of laughs in the eulogy I delivered (as well as tears of course).
    Here’s an excerpt that just keeps cracking me up:
    ****
    My father also loved talking, with anyone, about anything. [...] Perhaps his most unlikely conversation was when he visited us in Cambridge and took the subway into downtown Boston. I think he was in search of a proper corned beef sandwich. Previously he had tasked my wife with this mission, but unfortunately she had brought back a corned beef sandwich with . . . mayonnaise! [...] So on this subway ride, an obviously deranged lunatic started ranting and raving about how he had killed a space alien. Everyone shied away and pretended not to notice. Everyone except my father of course. What a wonderful opportunity to engage in conversation so as to learn about an alternative viewpoint!
    “Why did you kill the alien?” The lunatic was very startled. Now, you might think that someone who engaged in activities such as interspecies combat wouldn’t be startled by such a simple inquiry. But upon further contemplation, if you are a sane person who regularly rides the subway, you expect to occasionally encounter such people. But if you regularly ride the subway and proclaim your tales of interspecies combat, you don’t expect to be engaged in conversation with anyone. Except with my father of course.
    “An alien has the right to live, just like we human beings have the right to live.” My father was a scholar of the British Labour Party and European socialist movements, so he was used to championing the rights of the ordinary working man and woman against the powers of industry and oppressive states. I suppose that could be expanded to include the rights of space aliens. Maybe not the right to a living wage, but at least the right to live.
    “The alien was trying to kill me!”
    “Ah, self defense, okay, that’s justified then.”
    “Are you Jewish?!?”
    “Why do you ask so pointedly? Are you anti-semitic?”
    “And what is wrong if I am anti-semitic?”
    Always the historian, my father welcomed the opportunity to deliver a history lesson with practical implications. “Being anti-semitic puts you in the same category as Adolf Hitler. He was a very bad man. You don’t want to be in the same category as Hitler.”
    I’ve always wondered where that conversation would have ended up had my father not then arrived at the subway stop for his corned beef sandwich.

  33. telemike July 22nd, 2011 1:27 pm

    Thanks for that Jonathon.

    I’ve been thinking about my dad and mom and skiing a lot lately. My mom died a couple of weeks ago (while I was out backcountry skiing) on July 2. My dad died on July 3, 1989, a few months before I did my first backcountry skiing. Coincidence? Maybe… Just like the fact that our son was born on the summer solstice – our wedding anniversary.

    I’d grown up skiing all my life. Like my son and your daughter, I started early, as a toddler. My parents were very passionate about skiing, and we spent most every weekend and winter holiday in the snow. They probably didn’t realize, like I do now, that they were accidentally raising a ski bum.

    After my dad’s death, I thought a lot about my life, and I escaped the city to the mtns. I didcovered backcountry skiing. It changed my life. I probably wouldn’t have been steered that way if he hadn’t died, but it soon became obvious that that was the only way to go. I spend every day I can in the mtns and on the snow. It’s what keeps me going. I have my parents to thank for giving me the gift of skiing that I can now pass on to Owen and others. My dad would be so proud of what I’ve done in the mtns and even more proud that I’m purposefully raising a ski bum.

    I don’t know what else to say….

    ~mike

  34. Lou July 22nd, 2011 1:30 pm

    Thanks Mike…

  35. telemike July 22nd, 2011 6:58 pm

    Thanks to you, too, Lou. You and Louie are inspirational to me. I remember a photo of him in Coulior mag, in a backpack or sled, sucking on a binkey, covered in snow, looking a bit apprehensive, but afully cute. That picture had a big impact on me. I knew then that it could be done. It was a few years before I met my wife, and 10-15 years before Owen, but I’ve always remembered that picture.

    any chance you can post it again?

    ~mike

  36. Lou July 23rd, 2011 7:00 am

    I’ll leave that up to Louie!

  37. David P July 25th, 2011 11:51 am

    Jonathan, I just saw this (I haven’t been on Wildsnow in a while). I am so sorry to hear of your father’s passing, and your beautiful and moving post was especially meaningful to me because of the similarities between your story and mine. My father, who passed away 20 years ago at the age of 76, was also a college professor (engineering and fluid dynamics) and taught me to ski on a small hill in our back yard. He, too, began skiing in the late 40′s and early 50′s in the east, and I remember him telling stories of building his own ski rack for the car, freezing on the Stowe single chair lift wearing what now looks like absurdly inadequate clothing, and taking home movies with a 16mm Bolex (the footage of which I unfortunately cannot find). My mother never did learn to ski, but I and my middle sister have never stopped.

    ????? ???? ???? ???? ???? ???? ???????? (May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem).

    David

  38. SCOTTYB July 25th, 2011 7:57 pm

    No one really dies.

  39. telemike August 6th, 2011 1:38 am

    Louie

    Howz about letting your pops post that baby pic of you?

  40. Jonathan Shefftz August 25th, 2011 9:08 pm

    Thanks again everyone for the condolences and the many wonderful remembrances.
    So I finally took that ski trip that I didn’t take when I had originally intended.
    I thought I should include some sort of tribute to my father, and since he often read the newspaper on the chairlift, well, you can see the details here:
    http://tinyurl.com/3bd7cps

  41. Jonathan September 22nd, 2011 9:57 am

    Just noticed that I never posted the link here for WildSnow follow-up TR:
    http://www.wildsnow.com/5772/backcountry-skiing-summer-pnw/

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