By Abby Quillen
My four-year-old son Ezra takes a bite of his toast. “What happens when we die?” he asks after he swallows.
I stare at my coffee. “I don’t know.”
“Grandpa knows,” Ezra says.
I nod. We’ve had this conversation quite a few times in the six months since my dad died. It’s like a skipping record, the same question again and again.
“Do you want to hear a story about Grandpa?” I ask.
Ezra nods, and I laser in on a Sunday night in February of 1985. My dad and his friend Allen Best sat at our kitchen table mapping out a backcountry ski trip over Old Monarch Pass. My sister Columbine, nine at the time, wandered in. “Why do I have to go to school tomorrow when you get to go have fun with a friend?” she asked. My dad shrugged and invited her to join them.
“So the next morning, I went to school, and Grandpa and Aunt Col drove up, up, up into the mountains,” I tell Ezra.
He sets down his toast and stares at me, as if he senses the impending doom.
The trip started out as a gentle glide on slick snow. But when they dropped into the trees, they skied into 18 inches of fresh powder. My dad and Allen took turns breaking trail. As the sun went down and the moon rose, they were still slogging along, miles from the car they’d parked at the other side of the pass.
“Finally they stopped, too tired to go on,” I tell Ezra.
His eyes are as round as our breakfast plates. “Did you and Grandma drive up, up, up into the mountains to find them?”
I make Ezra wait a minute for the happy ending. When my dad and Columbine weren’t home five hours after they were due, my mom called the sheriff, who refused to send out a search party until morning. Next my mom phoned our neighbor, who set off immediately. When he found my dad, Allen, and Columbine, it was midnight, and the temperature had dropped to 35 degrees below zero. Columbine and Allen had frostbite on their feet, but eventually it healed.
“Everyone was okay?” Ezra asks, with a smile.
I nod. It feels good to share a story about my dad, since Ezra will never get to know him the way I did, but also because this would have been a different tale if I’d relied on my own memory. Fortunately, I’ve just discovered my dad’s version of the events, because I’ve read more than a thousand of his Denver Post columns during the past two months.
After my dad died in June, my sister, mom and I contemplated what kind of memorial would be most appropriate for him. We continually returned to the thing that was as important to my dad as breathing: his writing. We decided to compile an anthology of my dad’s Denver Post columns that will start where his last one, Deep in the Heart of the Rockies, left off in 1999.
I agreed to edit the anthology, which meant that I’d need to read (or reread in many cases) 13 years of columns. When I opened the 1999 archives and scrolled through more than a hundred columns my dad had written that year alone, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But I set a daily reading goal, and two months later, I’ve read nearly a million of my dad’s words.
My father was a master chronicler, and while he mostly focused on Colorado, politics, and water issues, he left behind ample stories about our family, like the one above. He related them with his trademark humor, including this observation: “I emerged unscathed, but Columbine had frostbite on two toes and returned to school that Friday on crutches. (A hint to parents of chronic truants: She hasn’t wanted to ditch school even once since then.)” And his keen writing skills were always on display, as here: “The only bright spot was a full moon beaming through the kind of cold that appears only in the Gunnison Country and Robert Service poems.”
While reading my dad’s words, I was often flooded by emotion. It was uncanny how much his written voice sounded like him and heartbreaking that I couldn’t pick up the phone to discuss an idea with him, but it was healing to confront the evidence that he had a life and career life he loved.
Above all, my dad’s columns are entertaining, which is why I’m excited about the anthology, which I’ll start shopping around to publishers next month.
Long after our breakfast dishes are washed and put away, Ezra and I stroll through our neighborhood. Ezra’s one-year-old brother Ira is strapped to my back; he leans over my shoulder to point at a murmuration of starlings pecking at our neighbors’ grass. “Ba–bird,” he calls out.
Ezra clutches my hand. “Mama,” he asks, “Will you tell the story again where Grandpa and Aunt Col got stuck in the snow?”
How could I refuse?
Abby Quillen lives and writes in Eugene, Oregon. To learn more about the upcoming anthology of Ed Quillen’s columns, visit edquillen.com. There you can sign up to get updates about the anthology and a hand-chosen column of the week delivered to your email inbox.