A Phone Call for the Ages
One summer evening some years back, the phone rang and an unfamiliar voice asked for me. I informed the caller that I was the guy in question.
The man on the other end of the line introduced himself as Clair “Gus” Gustafson. Even though I generally don’t talk to strangers, Gus and I yakked for over an hour.
Gus had taught English at a college in Berkley, California. He and his wife, Helen, were retired and had made a habit of summering on their ancestral farm near Arlington, South Dakota. Gus had phoned me after reading some of my noodlings in the local newspaper.
Much to my surprise, Gus didn’t take me to task regarding my chronic gerund abuse or my slapdash approach to punctuation. He instead said that he was impressed by my work and seemed especially pleased to learn that I’d received no formal education as a writer. How could you not like a guy who calls to bathe you with praise?
A few days later, I drove to Gus and Helen’s farm to meet them. Helen, I quickly discovered, was a force of nature. Her dynamic personality had landed her the position of tea sommelier (I had to look that up) at Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse Restaurant.
In some ways, Gus was Helen’s opposite. Where she was a “let’s get this done!” type of person, Gus was more of a “we’ll get there when we get there” kind of guy.
But they shared a deep love of literature. Helen had published several books, and Gus enjoyed reading and writing poetry.
I spent many pleasant summer afternoons at Gus and Helen’s old farmhouse, discussing everything from the challenges of dairy farming to the hidden meanings behind an ancient Greek poem Gus had recently read. In the wintertime, when Gus and Helen had retreated to the balmy climes of Berkeley, I would call them every so often, and we would yak for an hour or more.
Gus became my literary uncle. He was both coach and cheerleader, a gentle guiding hand and a fountainhead of scholarly advice.
For instance, I once bemoaned to Gus how another of my many typos had made it into print. Gus said that the first thing I needed to do was take the lash off my back. Mistakes, he said, are regrettable but inevitable.
He told me how he and a colleague had once written a textbook together. Gus and his colleague and their editors meticulously nitpicked the manuscript until they were certain that all errors had been eliminated.
“Thirty years later I was in a library and happened upon our book,” said Gus. “I opened it to a random page – and there was a glaring typo staring back at me! I wondered how we all could have missed it and how many lives we had ruined. It was as if Titivillus, the patron demon of scribes, had been at work. According to medieval legend, Titivillus would sneak into careless monks’ manuscripts and sprinkle them with errors.”
Gus’s story lent me some comfort, although I still feel that my typos are mostly my fault.
Every spring when Gus and Helen returned to their farm, they would set up their teahouse, an octagonal screened-in shelter that sat upon a wooden deck near their farmhouse.
Helen had been diagnosed with cancer. At the beginning of what would be her final summer on their farm, Helen asked me to help Gus set up the teahouse. I volunteered our youngest son, Chris, to assist us.
After we had muscled the teahouse into place, Helen insisted that Chris and I join her for a cup of tea. As Gus watched with his laid-back, bemused smile, Helen explained, in great detail, the precise rituals for having a proper tea. Even though he was a teenage male, Chris seemed to thoroughly enjoy Helen’s tea lecture.
We didn’t realize it at the moment, but Gus and Helen had bestowed us with a pleasant memory that we will cherish for all of our days.
Gus continued to summer at his farm after Helen passed away, and we continued to have our occasional phone chats throughout the year. In his avuncular manner, Gus would praise my work and somehow make me want to do better. All of our conversations were enriched by his nuggets of wisdom.
I recently learned from Gus and Helen’s children, Paul and Jill, that Gus had passed peacefully away. It’s sad to know that we’ve had our last chat.
But this sadness is overpowered by how glad I am for that summer evening when I picked up the phone and a cheery voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is Gus.”