It is a strange thing to grow up the daughter of Bob Nelson. On one hand, being the daughter of a Libertarian is pretty great fun. There are no rules. No limits on junk food, or how much TV you can watch. We believed in no religion, no God, only in one power: the human mind. Whether or not you agreed with my father’s particular views, you cannot deny that his energy for ideas was contagious, as was his core belief that you could reshape the entire world simply by thinking freely.

My father invited unconventional thoughts. So while I know it’s not how most people in this room might feel, I have to admit I’m quite at peace with the timing of my father’s death. My father was afraid of very few things, but losing his mental faculties was one of them. He’d watched both his parents go senile, and he did not want that for himself. As far as we know, he had no inkling that he was dying. He was found still sitting on a chair at his desk. My son Bjorn is less than a year old. There is a part of me that is very sad he won’t get to know his grandfather. Bob won’t see his grandson try out skis, or hit a tennis ball, or make his first steps. But aging is not what my father wanted. And when life began to ask him to slow down, I’m okay with him instead blasting off.

Let me tell you a story about what happened one time Bob was asked to slow down, quite literally. When Claire and I were teenagers, my father took us to Zimbabwe. My father liked a lot of things about Zimbabwe, but the speed bumps were not one of them. They were everywhere. To everyone else, this was a nuisance. To a Libertarian, this was a battle cry. He decided the best way to deal with the bumps was to……floor it. He explained if the car could get enough speed, we’d cruise right over. Pure physics. Claire and I flew so high our heads hit the roof. We squealed as he did it over and over again. He was convinced that if he just went a little faster it would work. We learned two lessons that day. Lesson 1: Always try to beat the Man; Lesson 2: Bob is crazy.

A particularly striking symbol of how little interest Bob had in slowing down is actually this house here in Shepherdstown. Most people my father’s age are very practical, and actively preparing for a time when they won’t want to mow lawns or climb steps. When it came time to decide whether to rebuild Shepherdstown after the fire, every sane person told him it didn’t make sense for someone his age to build a second home on 10 acres. With the world’s most high-maintenance tennis court. Not only did Bob go ahead and rebuild the house, he resurrected the rickety log path that goes down a mud cliff to the river. Perfect for taking gin and tonics on.

A couple years ago Aaron’s parents invited Bob on a club ski trip where they learned firsthand how hard it is to slow Bob down. My father hadn’t been skiing in decades. But he went out there and barreled down the mountain just like he did 20 years ago: no turns. With a lot effort they got him to use goggles so he could at least see objects he needed to not hit. Snow pants or helmet? As if.

My family has had quite a bit of grieving this year, with the deaths of both my father and his mother Irene. One of the ways that I make peace with these losses is to focus on the parts of them that live on. I’m a very different person from my father, but I will always be proud to be a Nelson and from a culture that values intellectual curiosity. In my father’s honor I promise to renew at least a couple of the magazine subscriptions he’s bought me over the years. He would never tell me. One day the London Review of Books would just pop up in the mailbox. Because you know what new working moms need? More political reading material. Speaking of mail, do you know who is really mourning the loss Bob? Amazon. Have you ever shown up at our house without a package on the steps? I will never amass a library like that, but I promise to always question the conventional wisdom. I promise to devour as many lobsters as possible in a single sitting. (Uncle Jeffrey, I’m turning 40 in two years, and I’ll be polishing off that 4 pound lobster in Bob’s memory. We have a date at The Palm.) And, most importantly, if someone ever dares put bumps in my road, Dad, I promise to gas it.


One Response to In Memoriam: Bob

  1. Sue Ellen Andrish says:

    Thank you for sharing a beautiful tribute to your father.

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