Ten years ago today, my dad died. It doesn’t seem that long ago. I realized that it has been ten years just yesterday, when I was thinking about memory and how it works. Much has been written, in many disciplines, about memory, about how it works and how we tell its stories and what’s included and what’s left out. We now talk about whose memory should be trusted (that’s part of what the me-too movement is about) and how memory is denied or manipulated (we now call that “gaslighting”), and whose memory gets to prevail when there is a dispute or something on the line.
But memories of a parent – that’s much more personal than most of these contested aspects of memory. Not to say that none of this is relevant – there can be disputes when we are remembering the personal as well. The challenge, though, is more intimate and personal. How do you remember someone? I was faced with this issue quickly, as I did the eulogy at his memorial service. How can I say something true, at a time like this?
Derrida grappled with this a great deal – it seemed that he was constantly faced with writing and speaking about his dead friends. Many of those are collected in his The Work of Mourning. I thought back to that, as I recall, when I was faced with writing about my father. There is far too much in that book to unpack here, but his idea that living is mourning struck me. It doesn’t mean that one should go around morbid all the time, but that we are always writing our memories of people, of ourselves. Fixing those meanings might be like killing them, and ourselves, and yet writing isn’t like putting something down in a permanent, unchanging form.
So, this is memory. It’s not just about speaking the truth about my dad at the time of his death, although it is that. It’s not just speaking his life as he would have wanted it spoken, although perhaps there is also some of that. It is about how they are not fixed in memory, not before they die, at the time of death, or even 10 years later. They haunt us, not as ghosts but as something which can unseat our stories and make us re-evaluate things that we might think are settled. They can do that, long after they are gone.
My dad wasn’t the only significant person to die at that time. My friend Emmanuel Eze passed away a couple of weeks before my dad did. In fact, I had to miss Emmanuel’s funeral because I was at my dad’s. I wrote a memorial for him as well, which you can find here. I could, and perhaps will, think about those two deaths in proximity to each other, in a future post. But for now, here’s what I said at my dad’s funeral.
Jacob Benjamin Janz (1931-2008)
Bruce B. Janz
Memorial: January 24, 2008
I’d like to thank all of you for coming, on behalf of the whole family. It means a lot that you are here, some of you from great distances. And others who couldn’t be here have contacted us. We appreciate all the kind thoughts, words, and actions at this time.
How do I speak about my own father, at a time like this? What can I say, that we will all recognize, that we can all say, yes, that’s him all right? Those are the things he really cared about, that’s who he was. That’s the image of God in him.
Let me start with a memory, specifically a memory of my dad building things. When dad built something, it stayed built. He made a doghouse for my sister Lydine, for instance, a surprise when you consider that he was hardly a dog person. That doghouse, as I recall, was strong enough to survive flying off the back of a truck at highway speeds when it was being moved – we were more concerned about the highway, in fact, than the doghouse. He built a barbeque out of bricks in the back yard, which could have served as a fallout shelter if it were only a little larger. He remodeled my bedroom in the basement of our house on Mayfair Crescent, with shelving made from 2×10’s, boards that might have been used as load-bearing beams. I used to climb on them, I recall, and marvel that so much wood was necessary to hold up so few books. And years later, in 2001, when I had a house in Camrose, dad came and helped me refinish two rooms in the basement. I remember he kept apologizing at the time for not being able to work faster – I thought he was doing a fine job. None of us realized at the time that his “slowness” was more than just a symptom of age, but foreshadowed his illness to come.
Dad’s theory of building was, why use one nail when six will do? And glue will help too – how could it not? And 2x10s are always better than 1x8s. Everything he built was made to withstand the worst that Saskatchewan weather or unruly children could muster. When it came time to remodel or take something apart, he was always annoyed at how hard it would be, but then the next thing he’d build would be just as over-engineered, just as resistant to the forces of nature, just as incorruptible.
We used to kid him about what, to us, was overkill, but I think he was trying to tell us something about how the world looked to him, and what his responsibility in the world was. For him the world was a place where, without proper care and attention, everything was liable to fall apart. His job was to put his world into order, to make it last, to care for it. And that job was more than a perfectionist impulse, it was a spiritual discipline.
His theory of building was his theory of life. Let me give you a few examples.
Anyone who knew dad for more than about 5 minutes would know just how important his faith was. He was passionate about the church and the Scriptures. He taught Bible classes for years, and it’s pretty clear that had he not been a principal of elementary schools in Regina for so many years, he would have been a minister. His classes were very carefully researched. He prepared for hours for those classes. Getting it right was so important – it was his way of honouring God. Even though one might not agree with some position or interpretation he had (and, it should be said, there were a fair number of times when he and I didn’t see eye to eye), it was always apparent that he had carefully considered his position, and carefully read the Bible and other relevant work. Honouring God, for Dad, meant making his part of the world as high-quality as possible. Making faith tangible meant putting the world into order, making it last, and caring for it.
That concern with his faith started with his own upbringing. His father Abram Janz and his mother Justina Janz were excellent Christian examples. All seven of their children, Adelina, Leona, Waldemar, Arnold, Jacob, Malinda, and Rubina followed their parents’ lead in matters of faith. Dad’s faith only became stronger as he went to Bible college at Briercrest, in the 1950s. His involvement with the church throughout his life, and with the Far East Broadcasting Company from the late 80s into the 1990s, was his passion and joy.
A primary expression of faith for dad was music. I recall that we used to go out to see Bert Hiebert in Caronport, when I was young, and I didn’t understand at the time that this was not just a friend of dad’s, but one of his quartet friends. They were special. Those quartets in Bible college, and for years afterward, were a source of such joy, and they were a great triumph of his life. He was proud of being a member of what some people thought of as one of the best quartets in the history of Briercrest.
After Bible college, when dad was teaching in Regina, the music continued, and out of that music emerged close friendships. We were regularly at Phil and Marcia Leskewich’s place, Lawrence and Esther Schmuland’s, Al and Verna Peter’s, and many others, who were involved in music with dad, and I remember these as good times and close friendships for him. He became choir director in this church, and held that position for something like 25 years. Whatever musical project he was involved in, had to be done right. That was what care meant – you don’t just wing it, you don’t settle for second best. Doing it right honoured God. I know that when he finished with the choir, and eventually Linda Phillips picked it up and continued with it to this day, he was satisfied that it would be held to the same standard he always had for it. That’s more than just perfectionism, I think. That’s a deep sense of what God asks of us – only the best.
And, teaching, in all its forms, was always a part of his life. Dad wrote a memoir a few years ago, primarily about his life in teaching and as a principal. One striking thing about this memoir is how much he refers to the struggles he had, with problem students, difficult teachers, and angry parents. You might almost get the sense that he didn’t enjoy it. But in fact, he did, and he was very good at it. He was sent to schools that had serious problems, to bring them back to health. He opened new schools, and had an opportunity to mould them from the outset into fine institutions. Again, he was putting his world into order, making it last, and caring for it, as God asked of him. Time and again in the memoir you get the picture of someone who struggled to recognize the right thing to do (although, once recognized, he never struggled to do the right thing). There were many prayers. But it struck me that his memoir was not boastful, even in the successes. It was never about how clever he was in figuring out a situation. It was the writing of someone who looked to God in all things, and was able to take pleasure when he saw God’s direction, and a situation was made better.
But more than his school teaching, he was also a mentor to many. In the way that he conducted himself with music, with Bible teaching, with everything, he modeled what it meant to give your best to God. And I believe that his influence will continue, in his children and family certainly, but in many others as well. He was someone you could depend on. If Jake was doing it, it would be done right.
Dad’s second major career was with the Far East Broadcasting Company, as its Canadian director. He had been involved with them, even while he was still a principal, and I think they saw in him a strong leader, an efficient administrator, and above all, someone with a passion for telling the world about Jesus. He loved the travel associated with that job. But most of all, he loved meeting people who shared his passion. It was, in some ways, a real achievement for him to be part of such a vibrant ministry. And, as significant as FEBC was his ongoing association with Briercrest Bible College, by being on its board for many years. That was important to him – it was the site of memorable times for him as a student, it was the place he insisted that his kids go after high school, for at least a year, and it was the place of people he admired, such as presidents Henry Hildebrand, Henry Budd, and our own John Barkman.
I think that sense of getting it right, and his accomplishments, were closely linked to the struggles he faced throughout life. Not much was just handed to him. First, he was faced with the comparatively young passing of his father, before I was born. Then, there was the death of his first wife, my birth mother, Ruby. Around the same time, he had to deal with me having a host of illnesses, which were serious enough that one night he was told I wouldn’t make it to the morning, and if I did, I’d have brain damage (my sisters still get mileage out of that). In order to earn his teaching degree, he had to go to university for nine summers, while he was already teaching. These were very difficult things. And later, there were several major challenges with his health. All these were struggles, even crises of faith. But he always had a strong sense that God was guiding, and providing strength. He continually put his faith in God, and even though there were times that sorely tested that faith, the faith always won out.
So, he achieved many things in the areas he valued, and he did so faced with some serious challenges. But it is essential, in understanding my dad, to understand another facet of him: he loved those around him. This is something I had to learn about him, because I often did not understand, growing up, that teaching us about his sense of order and quality, and expecting us to live up to it, was a form of love for him. But he did love. He loved his brothers and sisters, and always looked forward to seeing them. He loved his first wife Ruby, and was devastated by her untimely and shocking passing. He loved his second wife, Elaine, and that love grew and matured through the years. Mom told me of the times that we kids didn’t see, the tender, romantic times. His sense of propriety was such that these moments were private, for him and his beloved. But they were there, and they were real. He would have done anything for her.
And, he loved his kids. We all, I think, turned out differently than he might have predicted at the beginning, but I know he took great pride in all our successes. He loved our choices in mates, and admired the qualities of the people we also loved. Lydine found Rick, and Janine found Sheldon, and both were just excellent choices, and always have been. He never had a question about that. My partner Lisa was with me at Christmas when we saw him. He’d met her already, a couple of years before. I asked him, when she went away for a minute, what he thought of her. Even with his difficulty speaking for the last several months, I heard him say the clearest and most emphatic thing I’ve heard from him in ages: “Excellent”. One word, three syllables, clear as day. It was the old dad, just for a brief moment. Yes, excellent indeed, I thought. He wanted me to be happy, fulfilled, successful, and loved, and he knew I was, and it was all excellent.
And he loved his grandkids. It was a transition for him to move from thinking of kids in terms of a school environment to thinking of them as part of his lineage, but he did it. He saw Logan and Jolene grow up into the fine young people that they are, and he was pleased. He read to Katie and played with Sarah, and they made him young. Your grandpa loved you all. If anyone asks, you can tell them that.
Jacob Benjamin Janz was born in Main Center, Saskatchewan, on June 13, 1931, son of Abram and Justina, and passed away, peaceful in body and soul, in Regina Saskatchewan on January 19, 2008, surrounded by his wife and children. Between those two dates, he built a great deal, and in doing so put his world into order, made it last, and cared for it. He loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And, he loved his neighbor as himself. What could be better than that? This was a good, decent, godly life, a life of love and quality and care, and I loved him, and I will miss him.