This post got lost in the draft folder. So I’m posting it about three weeks late. Just for context…
Last weekend, my father-in-law, Bruce Tom Tibbett, passed away. It was a difficult thing to comprehend, somebody that we’ve been so close to for so long will no longer be with us. I’m sure I heard it somewhere how Freud describes the death of a parent - it reminds us of our mortality. It starts the clock on when we are likely to follow. I think that is certainly true, but for Tom, I think it is something more as well. He has left a hole that will not be easily filled again in many people’s lives, my own being one of them.
I’ve known Tom for 26 years, almost to the month. In May of 1990 I came out to their house in the country to pickup his daughter for our Junior Prom. I remember it pretty clearly - it was a sunny day. As I drove up to the house I was greeted at the glass patio door. I don’t remember who greeted me there, but I distinctly remember Tom, dressed in his “uniform” (flannel shirt with suspenders) holding a video camera, capturing the moment. 6 years later I married that same daughter, so Tom has been my father-in-law for just shy of 20 years now.
Over the past 26 years I’ve come to know and love him almost as a second father. And he accepted me, as well as all of his in-laws, almost as children of his own. I would brag to my friends that I had the best in-laws you could ask for. I believed it then as I believe it now. Though there was occasionally conflict and disagreement in the family, it never escalated to the point that it interfered with normal family operations. Birthdays, holidays, baseball games, weekend get togethers - the Tibbetts are a family that celebrates one another, and Tom and Shirley were always at the center of it all.
He was a man of ritual. Some of his rituals I found amusing, like how he had to put ice cubes in his milk, or how he carefully labored to get butter on the entire surface of a piece of toast. Other rituals I found inspiring, like how he would walk the woods with his binoculars, read the bible each morning, or make maple syrup in the springs. He was a homebrewer at heart, though his brew was syrup!
There were two topics in the Tibbett household that were common currency among all comers, bowling and home improvements. Entering the family, I didn’t have a lot of home improvement knowledge, and I wasn’t much of a bowler, but that didn’t stop them from pulling me into the fray with the various construction projects around the family. It used to be a sort of family joke that “Tibbett and Sons Construction” was performing the job. Tom was always at the center of that as well. Typically, well into his later years, he was one of the first to start working and one of the last to stop. He would never shy away from a job, even if it meant he was working 40 feet up on a ladder with only one foot on the top rung and dangling from the peak with his left hand while hammering a piece of fascia in with his right. I’m only exaggerating a little.
After my baptism into the family construction habit, I finally had one topic that I could share with the rest of the group. One of my favorite things about Tom was how interested he always was in anything you talked about, and home improvements was sort of the one that he shared with me the most. He taught me that no job was too big to take on yourself. He also taught me that no job was too small to think deeply about and perhaps start on it tomorrow… The day we found out he had passed, Jenny and I were working on an improvement in our house, building a wall. I told Jenny that today I was going to finish the wall in her dad’s memory. She joked back at me, “no, if you were going to honor his memory, you would push that project off to another day!” Anyway, a gaping hole in my life now will be that interaction. Tom was the guy that I shared my home improvement stories with. No matter how mundane, he always acted interested while I regaled him with tales of lost tape measurers or throwing out my back while picking up the sheet of paper that the plans were drawn on. I am seriously concerned that nobody will ever appreciate this silly wall project that Jenny and I have done, where we tore down some old railing, constructed a perfectly dimensioned half-wall with 16” on center studs (well, I did mess that up a little, I should have accounted for the starting wall, but again, this is something I would typically share with Tom), drywalled it, and textured it ourselves with a knock-down texture without renting a tool.
He could certainly could tell a story, about literally anything. One time he told me a 15 minute story about a bee he encountered while on the roof at Bev and Bill’s house! He had a particular gift of gab in that he could strike up a conversation with literally anybody about almost anything. Jenny and I had lived in Seattle for about a year when Tom and Shirley came to visit us. At the time we hadn’t met many of our neighbors. After the first morning Tom was there, he had met almost all of them, knew their names, and knew a little story about each of them. He took great interest in people and found great joy in their stories.
Of all the things I will miss about Tom, the thing I will miss most is his keen curiosity. Tom was one of the most curious people I’ve ever met, particularly for somebody his age. He was rabidly curious about how things worked, what particular buildings were for, who owned something, how something was developed - it didn’t matter what, he was curious. And he would do whatever he could to find out about things. His main tool, as mentioned before, was conversation. I remember bits and pieces of a story about a driving vacation with Shirley (the only type of vacation they took, they made a point of avoiding the interstate at all costs), where they ended up on some private drive that was fenced off. Tom, who always precariously straddled the line of legality and decency when it came to trespassing, apparently ignored the private property signs, lifted the rope or whatever was blocking the drive, and drove back there to find out what it was! I can’t recall what he found back there, but I remember the conversation very well. Much like construction stories, I would seek things out of interest so I could talk to Tom about them. Very recently I was reading a blog about a guy who I could imagine was a lot like Tom as a younger man with time on his hands. This guy trespassed on somebody’s land because he had found out that there was an old abandoned nuclear silo there that the guy wanted to explore. His post was very engaging and spun off about a three hour research session on my part to learn all I could about Titan I ICBMs. The research was partly for myself, but it was mostly because I wanted to tell Tom about it the next time I saw him. That, to me, is what I will miss the most.
He was a wonderful man. He will be missed by his many, many children, grandchildren, in-laws, acquaintances, friends, and relatives. If you knew Tom, you wanted to be around him, and we are all now at a loss for not being able to do that any longer. We are all lucky and blessed for the time that we were able to spend with him and his memory will live on for as long as we continue to draw breath and remember.