Clay speaks this week about the death of his mother, Mil, and discusses Jefferson’s thoughts and correspondence about death.
What Would Jefferson Do?
The following is a rush transcript.
Clay S. Jenkinson: 00:00 Good. All right, let's do the —
David Swenson: 00:02 The podcast intro?
CSJ: 00:02 Yes sir.
DS: 00:05 Yeah. Well we're rolling already so we can get right into it.
CSJ: 00:08 Hey citizens, you are listening to the podcast edition of this special edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour about, among other things, death for Jefferson and the death of my mother. She was an extraordinary woman as you will hear from this podcast. And although I was not really wanting to talk about it, you, David, said, let's do.
DS: 00:27 Yes. Well, your mother was a fascinating woman. Like I said in the show, I met her maybe half a dozen to a dozen times and she certainly, she more than carried herself — she had a bit of an aura about her and —
CSJ: 00:41 Her nickname was the hammer.
DS: 00:42 You relate a story where she babbled, as you said —
CSJ: 00:46 On an opioid after an operation.
DS: 00:48 Yeah. Anyway, we talk about, we talk a lot about your mom. We talk about you, we talk a lot about your daughter and we also talk about Jefferson and death and some of the correspondence. And so I would say we should leave it at that and let listeners listen to this program before we go though, I would just like to say —
CSJ: 00:48 Oh boy.
DS: 01:11 If you enjoy the Thomas Jefferson Hour, and I know there are some of you listening who do because we get your mail and read every piece of it. You can help the Jefferson Hour to survive and to thrive by going to Jeffersonhour.com. Click on donate. You can help us further the show. That way you can become a 1776 Club member and get some fun extras. And we really do just appreciate your support. It all goes to the show. We're not buying cars or TVs. We're not taking anything. Actually, it all goes to the show.
CSJ: 01:11 I can't even buy cable.
DS: 01:47 Without your listenership and your support, we are nothing.
CSJ: 01:53 David, let me indulge our listeners with just this one little piece.
DS: 01:55 Go right ahead.
CSJ: 01:58 Dr Johnson, Samuel Johnson is one of my favorite literary figures. He was an 18th century man, he produced the first great dictionary of the English language in 1755. He wrote the Lives of the Poets, one of the greatest biographical series of introductions to the great poets of the English language. He also edited Shakespeare. He was maybe the greatest conversationalist of all time, and his lackey and protege James Boswell took down on Johnson's conversation and here's a little piece I looked up the other day because it was beloved of my father. My father came to Johnson and Boswell thanks to me during my time at Oxford and he and I laughed many times at this and it's about the perspective on death. So here, this is Boswell: I told Johnson that I had dined lately at Foote's who showed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern he felt on, quote, this sad affair of Baretti, a man who was to be hanged, begging of him to try, if you could suggest, anything that might be of service and in the same letter recommending to an industrious young man who kept a pickle shop. Johnson: Aye sir. Here you have a specimen of human sympathy. A friend hanged and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickled man is kept Davies from his sleep, nor does he know himself and as to him not sleeping, sir, Tom Davies is a very great man. Tom has been upon stage and knows how to do these things. I have not been upon stage and cannot do such things. Boswell: I have often blamed myself for not feeling for others as sensibly as many say they do. Johnson: Sir, don't be duped by any of them. He will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you any good. They pay you by feeling. A man hanged and a cucumber pickled. David. That's the nature of life. We trivialize it and it we make it profound in the same paragraph.
DS: 03:49 And with that, let's go to this week's show.
CSJ: 03:51 Thanks for listening everyone and thanks for indulging us in this very personal edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 04:00 Good day citizens, and welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. We're joined this week on the Thomas Jefferson Hour by the creator of the Jefferson Hour, the gentleman seated across from me now, Mr Clay Jenkinson.
CSJ: 04:14 Good day to you, my friend. It is the mid summer of 2018 on the northern great plains and I can tell you this, if we do not get hail, I'm going to have one of the best tomato crops I've ever had.
DS: 04:26 Me Too. But I'm looking for some wood to knock on.
CSJ: 04:31 We've had — at my house. I don't know about yours, we live within two miles of each other — at my house we've had two just ferocious thunderstorms and in each case I thought here it comes because last year I was actually at the movies with my daughter who was visiting.
DS: 04:31 Oh I remember that.
CSJ: 04:50 And we had just a sockdollager of a storm and it hailed out my tomatoes and they were shredded.
DS: 04:50 Sockdollager, I like that word.
CSJ: 04:50 Sockdollager. It shredded my tomatoes. They recovered but I only had I suppose 500 tomatoes last year when I would have had maybe 5,000, certainly 2,500.
DS: 04:50 Well we will have to revisit gardening in the next few weeks and those who don't like our gardening talks, I'm giving you fair warning.
CSJ: 04:50 But some do.
DS: 04:50 Yes, it's going to be fun to, uh, to revisit the LeHoullier dwarf tomatoes.
CSJ: 04:50 How are your's doing?
DS: 05:27 They're just, they're just stout little fellows doing great. And the Klee Labs.
CSJ: 05:27 Is anything red in your garden?
DS: 05:34 Just about. By the time this show airs, hopefully.
CSJ: 05:37 Mine are still in a state of high green.
DS: 05:39 I wanted to talk to you today because I don't want to say there's been a tragedy in your life that's not really accurate. Um, there's been a normal course of events that in its way is tragic. I'm stumbling here.
CSJ: 05:54 What you, what you're referring to of course is that my mother, Mil Strauss Jenkinson, died on Monday the ninth of July, 2018. I actually was in London and I got a call from my daughter from the hospital saying that my mother who was 86 had been rushed to the hospital, having headaches and being unresponsive, breathing, but not able to wake up. And so within a few hours she was dead. People don't need to be very upset by that. They don't know my mother.
DS: 06:31 Well, that's kind of what I was hoping is we could devote some time this week to talk about her. I've met her a couple of times, well more than a couple of times. Enough to know where some of your character came from, frankly, sir. And uh, I'd like — maybe I could share a couple of things as well.
CSJ: 06:50 Of course. Let me start by saying this, that I'm celebrating my mother. She was a strong, vibrant, independent, smart, funny, often sarcastic person. The most autonomous person that I ever knew. In the last 20 some years she's been a widow. She didn't say, please come and change a light bulb or there's a cricket in the basement or — she didn't need any of that.
DS: 07:20 Forgive me for laughing. But I — yes.
CSJ: 07:23 as a strong, strong woman. And she was fiercely independent. She led a beautiful long, extraordinary life. She was with all of her mental faculties right up to the end. Her body was just barely beginning to let her down as, as every body does, she didn't look forward to decrepitude. And I remember saying to her many times in the last eight or nine years, David, "Mother, don't grow old." She would do something that an old person does and I'd say, do not grow old. And she would — she'd look at me and say, I know, I know, I won't, I won't.
DS: 08:02 I remember the first time I met her and she knew who I was and knew the connection I had to you doing the show. And she looked me up and down and it was, I guess what I'm saying is she looked out for her boy, she was kind of like, 'all right, are you good enough to be doing this?'
CSJ: 08:02 No, please.
DS: 08:27 It wasn't like any awful judgmental thing.
CSJ: 08:30 Maybe was, am I good enough to be your friend?
DS: 08:32 No, no, no, no, no. She was looking at — it's like, who is this new fellow in Clay's life? I need to — I remember the last time I saw her, it was one of those rare times I got out of the house, and went to a gathering at your house.
CSJ: 08:46 My daughter suggested we have a birthday party for my mother and a birthday party for herself.
DS: 08:51 And I walked in and she knew who of course, who I was. And we immediately began this delightful conversation about your daughter.
CSJ: 09:02 Catherine. Sometimes a guest host on this program.
DS: 09:04 She was a force, just put it that way
CSJ: 09:06 A sycophant, I think she called you once. My daughter.
DS: 09:08 Yeah. Not your mother.
CSJ: 09:10 No, my mother would call you a nitwit or a knucklehead.
DS: 09:12 That would be high praise, I understand. You had a beautiful post about the relationship between your mother and your daughter. We need to share that on the Thomas Jefferson Hour page at JeffersonHour.com. But it was just — my wife and I read it and she was so moved by it.
CSJ: 09:34 I'm happy to do that actually because it was maybe the strangest thing that I ever saw in my life. You know, grandmothers and granddaughters are often very close. But this was different. This was some sort of deep mutual love, admiration, friendship.
DS: 09:52 Let me quote from that article. She said, out of the blue, this was about five years ago and she shocked you. She said, quote, I just adore Catherine. Adore is the only word I can think of to do it justice.
CSJ: 10:09 To which I said, give it time, mother. Give it time. There was something kind of electric, conspiratorial, deep and profound between them. And you know, my, my daughter is a wonderful young woman. She looked up to her grandmother as kind of a standard of character and strength. Fair enough. That's, I think that says a lot about my mother. But what really surprised me was my mother's regard for Catherine. My mother is not a sentimentalist. She's not a typical grandmother with caramel rolls and pies and so on. She's detached.
DS: 10:46 Well, I have trouble believing that to the core. Do you know what I mean?
CSJ: 10:51 Believing what to the core?
DS: 10:53 That she was not a sentimentalist.
CSJ: 10:55 She might've have had it deep in there, but boy, she had —
DS: 10:57 She didn't show it. Yeah.
CSJ: 10:57 You know, and I know people are going to object to what I'm about to say, but just stay with me. She was Germanic, and there was a kind of a Prussian in her, and if she had been alive in 1939, she would have invaded Poland. That's all I can tell you.
DS: 10:57 That's pretty good.
CSJ: 11:19 She would've been in the vanguard of the Polish occupation.
DS: 11:22 Well, after reading this, my wife Jan said it best in that both of them were very lucky.
CSJ: 11:28 And I was lucky to look on and see this and I knew enough to stay out of it.
DS: 11:33 Both as a father and a son.
CSJ: 11:36 I was thrilled and I always shook my head a little because my mother have to say, did not make it easy. She was a very, very strong individual. And as you know, as people grow older, they think that they have been given a license to say whatever they feel like saying.
DS: 11:53 I haven't hit that point yet, I'm looking forward to it.
CSJ: 11:54 My mother sort of took that on in her forties, but sometimes things that came out of her mouth, I mean, I'll give you an example. My daughter and I went to U Haul to buy boxes and tape and so on to help pack up mothers effects and this young woman, great young woman at U Haul with two nose piercings and tattoos. Very smart, very funny. And so I said, I need some boxes and she said, here's what you want. And I said, she said what kind of tape you're going to want? And I said, well, I think I need plastic tape. And she said, no, no, I think you really would rather have paper tape. And I said, no plastic. She said, no, it's going to be paper. And then we got up and she said, I think you should rent a storage facility. And I said, okay. And when we got out of there and she talked to me into spending way more than I want, but everything was a smart decision and she had guided me through this and given me the best deals on everything. When we got out, my daughter's in the car and said, you know what grandma would have said to her? She would have said, "My you're pesky." And she was right. My mother would have, would have said to this young woman, "My you're pesky." And gotten away with it. If I said that the woman would have sued me. My mother had — there was some way that she could cut through and tell the truth as she understood them, not always the right truth and people took it because there was something in her character that led them to accept it from her when they wouldn't have accepted it from you or from me or from somebody else.
DS: 13:25 She spent a great deal of her life teaching.
CSJ: 13:29 She was for 20 some years an English teacher at Dickinson High School in Dickinson, North Dakota.
DS: 13:34 And you mentioned in one of your writings that there's scarcely a week that goes by that somebody doesn't come up and recall that she was their teacher.
CSJ: 13:41 Someone comes up and says, 'Oh, are you Clay Jenkinson? I had your mother at Dickinson High School.' And I always give the exactly the same answer. I say, I commiserate with you.
DS: 13:53 There are a number of different names —
CSJ: 13:57 Her nickname was the Hammer. She was called the Hammer.
DS: 13:58 That must have had an effect on you having a mom as a teacher.
CSJ: 14:03 Well, we went — I was a high school student while she was a high school teacher and this was, I won't go into it, but this was a difficult time in our family life. And so we would drive to school in my father's car, which was a Chrysler New Yorker.
DS: 14:03 Oh my.
CSJ: 14:17 And we would park and then I would go in one door and she would go in another. And when it was slippery, she'd say, you have to take my elbow. I would put the minimum amount of human pinch on the coat. Not on her elbow, but the coat, and the minute we got through the door, I would sprint away, but it was mutual. Don't get me wrong. Her view was, 'What did I do to deserve to have to teach both of my children in high school classes?' We were terrible children. My mother somehow endured us. We were, you know, I think listeners to the Jefferson Hour know that there's kind of a smart alec in me, a deep irreverence, and my sister made me look like a church boy. And so my mother's view was, 'Can't they go to some other school? Do we have to go to the same school? ' So she endured a lot and I'm, you know, the picture that I'm drawing here as of maybe someone who would be considered bossy or overbearing. She wasn't. She never got in my face, never in my life. My mother and I were in many respects, best friends, David, we went all over the world together. She was a Lewis and Clark lover, sometimes a Lewis and Clark presenter. We've been to the White House together. We were at the millennium in Washington DC where I performed for Bill Clinton. Together. We've been. We've done many, many things from the Mediterranean to Alaska with deep harmony and joy, but I went to my house and she went to hers and we didn't interfere in each other's lives and you know what? That worked perfectly.
DS: 15:53 I think that's a good formula for success in family relationships to know your space. Right?
CSJ: 15:59 I adored my father. I worshiped my father. He died 24 years ago. My mother didn't worship him and she didn't worship me. She seems to have worshiped my child, but she had a healthy skepticism about her son, which I think is the only way to survive.
DS: 16:16 You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. We're going to take a short break, but we'll be back in just a moment. Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. This week on the Jefferson Hour, we're taking some time to talk about Clay's mother Mil Jenkinson, a phenomenal woman really. She lived in the same house in Dickinson for 50 years.
CSJ: 16:16 She did.
DS: 16:16 Or thereabouts.
CSJ: 16:46 We had the same phone number for 51 years. I could recite it now and whenever I call her now, thank goodness for cell phones because I would have called the number in Dickinson. We lived in a house that looked a bit like a barn, one of the earliest houses in Dickinson North Dakota. She made it her own. It was kind of a show place. But a year ago I said to her, look, there are 3000 square feet in this house. It leaks like a sieve in the winter, it needs a new foundation. The garage is detached. Let's sell this place and move you into someplace where you never have to shovel snow. You never have to do the lawn. And she readily agreed. It wasn't one of those moments where the child has to bully the parent into downsizing. And thank goodness we did. So we took a friend of mine and I took five gigantic, I mean, gigantic loads of trash to the city landfill and Dickinson. That was another weird adventure. It's like going into Dante's inferno. But then I moved her to Bismarck on the hottest day in human history and the crew didn't come, so one person and I had to load all of her things into this apartment. But just a few weeks ago, David, she said to me, 'You know what? I'm happier than I've ever been in my life.'
DS: 16:46 Really.
CSJ: 18:02 'I love this apartment. I love living in Bismarck.' She has this boyfriend name Russ who lives in new Brighton, Minnesota. They see each other about three months per year. And she said, 'I am happier than I have ever been.' Oh, that was just so. That was so delightful.
DS: 18:18 I came across a Benjamin Franklin quote.
CSJ: 18:18 Okay.
DS: 18:21 Many people die at 25 and aren't buried until they are 75. I thought that was pretty good.
CSJ: 18:29 She said to me when I moved her, she said, 'I am going to be carried out of this place feet first.'
DS: 18:29 She was alive til the end.
CSJ: 18:39 She was alive — last week I went to London. I had to go for some important reasons and she was going to take me to the airport when she texted me that morning and said, 'I'm not up to it.' And I was shocked that was the first time in her long life that she wasn't up to something and I had a little teeny premonition, but I thought, no, she's indomitable. And so then I was in London when I got the call that she was rushed to the hospital. I wasn't able to get back in time to say goodbye, but I'll tell you this, David, my daughter flew out. The great Catherine. She picked me up at the airport the next day when I was in the worst kind of the bewilderment, grief, and also jetlagged. And the following morning we went to the funeral home where my mother would be cremated because — to see her — I didn't want to do this. I had seen my father when he died, he was sallow and gray and shriveled up and it was tough. And so I didn't want to do this. And my daughter said, 'No, we're doing it.' So we went in and she was there lying on this table in this room in this funeral home. And my daughter said, she looks like Eva Peron. She looked majestic. My mother was in command of death. We looked at her and she looked magnificent, powerful, and confident and almost smiling. And I said, I think she's going to wake up and say my the wallpaper in here is bad. She looked fantastic and so then she was cremated later that day and my daughter and I took the ashes to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, where my mother grew up and spread a few on the farm, which she — believe me, she walked away from that farm and was never going back. And she looked on my love of the agrarian as kind of a pathetic hobby by somebody who never milked a cow. So we spread a few ashes there. We took some to the cemetery. Now I'm taking a few on the Missouri River to the white cliffs this week because she loved Lewis and Clark. That was one of her favorite historical narratives. So it was great. She went out as she came, she was healthy and then one day she wasn't. She never spent the night in the hospital. She never suffered. There was no pain. It was perfect. And people are saying to me, why aren't you more broken up? And I said, if you knew my mother, this is precisely how she wanted to go. Overnight. No pain, not a lot of people holding her hand. No flowers.
DS: 21:12 You're the one who brought it up. We're children until we lose our parents.
CSJ: 21:12 Now I have to grow up.
DS: 21:18 Well, maybe, I don't know. You know, that's something that all of us face. We're one more up in the chain of mortality I guess.
CSJ: 21:25 Well, that's it. So I have no sister. She died two years ago. I have one child. She's very much alive, an incredible child. No cousins, no uncles or aunts. I have a grand nephew and a couple of nieces, but that's it. It's a teeny tiny gene pool. And not to get too serious about this, but I'm the last person named Jenkinson. My daughter, unless she keeps that name, will marry somebody and probably take his name.
DS: 21:55 That's kind of an odd things that happens to us males and I think it's sort of wired into us, don't you?
CSJ: 22:01 I'm not vain about it. I don't think, oh, the Jenkinsons must carry on. I don't feel that at all and it would be a really sexist thing to feel since I have a tremendous daughter.
DS: 22:09 You have to be really careful about that because it's not really right, but you know to deny that it's there in some deep recesses,
CSJ: 22:18 If Theodore Roosevelt were here, he'd say, 'you had a duty to provide young children, males, who will carry on the family line,' he would be unrelenting in saying, oh no, this is not about false humility. You have a duty to maintain —
DS: 22:32 Which is nonsense and there still is that, that thing.
CSJ: 22:37 Being the last of the Jenkinsons and now I'm the patriarch of the family, which is so pathetic, and I'm the eldest in the family. There's a certain — I mean the one between me and death has gone and you have to. I've been — I'm 63. I started hearing the clock when I was 60. I don't know about you, but on my 60th birthday for the first time, I could hear the clock, and I've been thinking, how do I want to spend the last 30 years of my life? What do I want to achieve? Where do I want to visit? Who are my friends? What kind of a community do I want? What do I still want to read? You know, you have to start thinking. You're not 30 anymore. You're not even 50 anymore. Mortality is now in the room, but there was one person between me and death and that was my incredibly alive and vibrant mother. She's gone and so now I have no choice but to think, all right, I'm almost certainly next. That could be 30 years from now, but there is nobody in my genetic line between me and the end, and so that, I hope, David, that that will liberate juices and will make me think about what I really want to achieve. And let me just close by this by saying this, that a friend of mine named Jonathan who went to Japan, spent two years there, came back and I said, 'what did you learn?' He said, 'I'll tell you the most important thing I can ever tell you. If the water table is 100 feet deep, it doesn't matter how many 98 foot wells you drill.' Think of that. If the water table is 100 feet deep, it does not matter how many 98 foot wells you drill. You only hit water or oil or success, achievement. If you drill down to the depth of whatever resource you're looking for. And boy, is that right. You know when you're 40, you think, oh —
DS: 24:35 It's a realization that we, both of us I'm sure wish we would've had when we were 20.
CSJ: 24:40 Well, but you won't — at 20, you don't believe it. But when you're 60 or beyond and you have to hear the clock from time to time and you realize that, you know, depending on your religious view, that when you die, your legacy is the effect you've had on people, and boy did my mother have an effect on people. I have had more than a thousand — this vindicates Zuckerberg — I wrote something about her death. I had 600 replies, I mean texts, people who could never have known that she had died from all over the world and then the six degrees of separation. So one person in Billings, Montana learns, or Seattle or Tacoma or Tampa, and then it spreads into their network and suddenly this outpouring of more than a thousand people in the last week have contacted me and it saved me an enormous amount of postage stamps trying to figure out who's where and how do I get to them. It's amazing, but I'll tell you this. She had an impact. There's a famous John Donne quotation from one of his sermons. I wish I had it in memory. He says, your life matters. He said, don't live as if your hand went through a basin of water and came out the other side and had no effect on it, or except possibly to sully it a little. He said, you must not be the hand moving through the basin of water. You must do something that matters in the world, that in friendship and family, in love and religion, whatever it is — in your work — You must do something that means you took life seriously and you gave to some community outside of yourself something worth having. It's a painting for some people. It's winning a marathon and inspiring young women. It's teaching and telling people language matters and grammar matters and literature matters. It's the Thomas Jefferson Hour saying, this country is worth agonizing over. This country is better than we're being right now. This country has an important destiny which we are degrading, not just the president, but we as a people are degrading. You have to live as if something's at stake beyond pizza and beer and a jet ski. You have to live as if life matters and when you get to be our age and you see mortality, you think, okay, okay. If I had to measure myself today, what is the impact of my life? Have I made the world better or have I just used up some of the carbon? And I think that's a question that everybody needs to ask. You should ask it at 20. You don't. But if you don't ask it at 60 you're nuts, because Donne is right. There is no excuse from just being a consumer of resources and dying without having a positive impact on the world around you.
DS: 27:40 Thinking about our conversation today, I couldn't help but go to Jefferson a little bit.
CSJ: 27:40 He's our man.
DS: 27:45 Well, you're the one who exposed me to some of the incredible correspondence that occurred around the issue of death. There was a letter that Jefferson wrote to John Adams when Abigail died.
CSJ: 28:01 One of the greatest letters ever written.
DS: 28:03 I think I gave it to you. It's in front of you.
CSJ: 28:04 Yes I do. It's dated November 13th, 1818. This is such a great letter. And Adams wrote back and said this was one of the best letters ever written. Jefferson writes, and I am going to quote it in its entirety, 'The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding. Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction. Yours humbly. Thomas Jefferson.' What a great letter.
DS: 29:29 Yeah, I had to find that for this discussion and — but I wasn't — you said that Adams responded to this?
CSJ: 29:36 This is — 'you wrote the perfect letter Mr Jefferson.' And let me just look at it for a minute and don't mean to be snarky at all, but I doubt the Jefferson believed that there would be an ecstatic reunion in heaven. Jefferson was a materialist and he was a physicist, not a metaphysicist. He believed that the soul was corpuscular and probably when we died, that's it.
DS: 30:03 Well, you know, I — there's a popular song called "Walking in Memphis." I forget the artist. The scenario of the song is that this young man is walking in the footsteps of these great artists in Memphis and he ends up in a spiritual situation in a church with a choir that he is just moved by and the lyric is, the preacher says, 'Tell me son, are you a Christian?' And he says, 'Ma'am, I am tonight.' So I think for Jefferson, and it's kinda like, 'yes, ma'am, I am tonight.'
CSJ: 30:34 Jefferson was never quite certain. He was not an atheist. He was an agnostic, he was a deist. At times he seems to have thought there might be an afterlife. At other times he was skeptical. I think his reason was skeptical. His heart was more willing to believe, but whatever is the case, when you're writing a letter to one of your closest friends who's just lost their spouse, this is not a time to, you know, to quibble about metaphysics and about the afterlife, but Jefferson says, you know, time and silence, time and silence. That's all you have.
DS: 31:07 Again, Jefferson and death. You look at the story of when he lost his wife and he and Patsy became so close — there's some quotation about she was the only one who witnessed the depth of his sorrow.
CSJ: 31:23 Yeah. She said 50 years later, I can hardly think about it because it was so pronounced. His wife died on September 6th, 1782. Jefferson had effectively a breakdown. His daughter Patsy was nine, I think.
DS: 31:36 Well, it's reported that when she died he fainted dead away.
CSJ: 31:39 And they thought he might be dead for a time. Now, some of this is shandy and pose Jefferson was not above — I mean, this sounds so cruel, but he was not above a certain pose. Everyone does this in social life. It was a deeply affective breakdown. No, I'm not, I'm not doubting that, but, but whether he fainted and was thought to maybe have died, I think is probably pushing it a little. But whatever is the case —
DS: 32:12 That easily could be. He collapsed, it became that he fainted. That became —
CSJ: 32:16 Right — stories grow. But I'll tell you who's the hero of this story. I mean, there are two. One is Madison who then said, let's get him out of the country. Let's send him to France. Let's get him out of here because that's the only way he's going to recover. And he was right. Jefferson then spent five years in France, but the real hero is Martha Patsy. She's — she grew up that day and became Jefferson's companion in life.
DS: 32:44 I really suspected that. It's good to hear you reinforce that — that the gravity of the situation, she rose to it and said, 'I'm going to look out for my father.'
CSJ: 32:53 And the bond that happened to them in the fall of 1782 carried him through the rest of his life. She became the number one person in his life to the, I think, to the detriment of her marriage in some ways. She was his deepest friend, his companion, his compatriot, his confessor, his daughter, and poor Maria, the second daughter, realized this — that it was Martha, and it was always going to be Martha. And this was, you know, this is the sibling — contests and rivalries are in every family. I'll tell you what, when my mother died, I turned to my daughter and I quoted Jefferson when his daughter Maria died, and he said in a letter to an old friend, he said, now the evening prospects of my life hanging on a single thread. And Catherine said, Jefferson, that's how it is. My daughter is now the single thread of the rest of my life because the other threads have all disappeared. And Catherine and understands that it's a burden. It's an important burden, but it's a burden and I want to make sure I don't burden her in a way I think Jefferson did with his daughter Patsy.
DS: 34:08 Patsy was asking for it though. She wanted to be in that position. Don't you think?
CSJ: 34:12 My mother would say, get over it. Get over it and get on with your life. No nonsense. We're not going to have it. We're not going to wallow in this. We're going to move on dot com. That's my mother.
DS: 34:12 And Mr Jefferson couldn't quite do that.
CSJ: 34:26 He was wired differently. I'm my mother's son of. She was a stoic. I'm a stoic. She was contemptuous of human frailty. I'm very skeptical of human frailty. She didn't waste a lot of time looking back, I spend more time than she did looking back, but not a lot. She said, shake yourself off, get back on the horse, move on. And appeared to be without sentiment and maybe without heart. That's not at all true, but her coping mechanism, let's get busy. When I moved her into her new house, the whole thing was just covered with boxes in every direction and she said, I'll be done by Friday, and she was. She was like in three days she put everything away, but it would have taken me weeks or months. She did it in three days and said, hey, that's how you do it.
DS: 35:15 We need to take a short break, Clay. We'll continue this conversation after that break. You are listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour and we'll be back in just a moment.
DS: 35:28 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with or about President Thomas Jefferson, but this week we're having a conversation about a very special woman, Mil Jenkinson, Clay's mother, and it's led to a couple of Jeffersonian things. Looking up some of the letters that you've presented to me over the years and then looking into Jefferson when he lost his wife and the reaction of his daughter. There's a great story about the book that the two of them were reading.
CSJ: 36:02 There's a novel by Laurence Sterne called Tristram Shandy. It's one of my favorite novels. That was Jefferson's favorite novel in English. He wasn't much of a of a lover of fiction and he and his wife had courted over it. They both admired it and I'm guessing that he persuaded her to like it as much as he did. It's an experimental novel and I tried to get some Jefferson Hour listeners to read it a couple of years ago and they gave up, so it's tough.
DS: 36:24 Me included in that, but I did get into it.
CSJ: 36:26 It's tough sledding, but there's a famous passage in it about time and what happened was that Jefferson stayed by his wife's side through the whole summer in which it was clear that she was dying. He actually set up a table next to her bedroom and was never out of earshot, but at some point he went off to do some errand in the fields or the gardens and when he came back, his wife had written out a part of this passage and it starts, 'time wastes too fast. Every letter that I trace with my pen reminds me with what rapidity life follows,' and so on, and it's about how time soars away from us and eats, eats everything, and she stopped writing because apparently she grew too tired or, or she passed out or something and Jefferson came in and then with his much firmer, exquisite handwriting, he finished the passage, 'and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.' And so we have this. It's in the rare books room at the University of Virginia Library Alderman Library. I've seen it. It's about a four by four inch piece of paper and you see her beautiful little frail handwriting on the top. And then Jefferson's just magnificent handwriting on the bottom and you know — in the secular world, this is a sacred relic. This is a relic of that moment in Jefferson's marriage, at the end when it was clear to both of them that she was going to die and she goes back to literature to the humanities and somehow that deepens this moment for them. And he saved this piece of paper. He kept a lock of her hair, a few other personal effects and this piece of paper and he put them in a secret cabinet in a desk. And after his death, this little cache, this relic cache was found and that now resides in the University of Virginia Library. I've taken cultural tours there, I'm going to be leading a cultural tour to Jefferson's France and I've taken them to Jefferson's Virginia, which we will do again. And we go in and we get to see that. And it is amazing. It takes your breath away because he was not a man who revealed much about his emotional life. He was very stoical and careful about all that. Very private. And so when you see these moments, you just have to think, well, this is the closest we're ever going to get to Jefferson's heart.
DS: 38:53 Was Jefferson at home? When she fell ill or —
CSJ: 38:53 Yes.
DS: 38:58 Wasn't it connected to childbirth?
CSJ: 39:00 Yes. So she was pregnant at least six and maybe more times. There were several miscarriages. She lost a little of her vitality almost with every birth. And by 1782 when she gave birth, I think in May, it was clear that she was not going to recover. And of course this had to produce feelings of guilt. Jefferson was still a very young man. She died at 33. It's amazing that he was able to really go on because he took his marriage so deeply, seriously.
DS: 39:37 But at that time it was the duty of couples to produce children. It was, I mean, it was expected. It was —
CSJ: 39:44 Plus, there was no effective birth control except abstinence. His wife wanted to have children, wanted to produce him a male heir. She never did. And he wanted male heirs. He wanted children. And so of their six children, the only boy died at 17 days. Unnamed. Four of his six children died in their young life before their seventh birthday. And then his younger of the two surviving daughters, Maria "Polly" died at the age of 24. And then Martha, his eldest daughter, Patsy, was the only one who survived him. So he knew death and there's a famous letter he wrote to Adams and he says, 'I can accept life. I like life. I'm an optimist. I steer my bark with hope ahead fear astern.' He said, 'I can accept everything about the economy of life except what is the use of grief?' He says, 'tell me what is the use of grief? I have lost virtually everything that I was born to love. What is the use of grief?' And of course Adams had no answer except Calvinist nonsense. But Jefferson, it was a spasm of agony that he had buried his best friend Dabney Carr when he was 34. He had buried his favorite sister, Jane when she was 24. He had buried his wife at 33, four of his six children, the fifth as a young adult. He had, he had seen death. He said, 'it's like an army.' Just the havoc of just a private life and today every one of those people would live to be a longterm adult.
DS: 41:19 The Jefferson Hour, then and now — they had to face things that we just take for granted.
CSJ: 41:22 You know, one of his daughters died of whooping cough and worms. Today, everyone would survive that in the first world. Today we have penicillin, we have antibiotics, we have antisepsis. In his time, they didn't really even know to wash their hands before they did things. It was just a completely different era, primitive, medieval, even pre medieval in medicine. It was just in the next generation after Jefferson's death, medicine made more advances than it had for the whole of human history and now of course people survive their first, their second, their third major health scare, and my mother probably would have survived her major health scare had she gone in a day earlier and insisted on an MRI. She didn't because she was such a stoic. We now know that she had a Hematoma. There was pressure on her brain. Had she insisted on an MRI, they would have given her one and they probably could have released that pressure, but her view was, 'hey, here I am. It's a headache. Get over it.' No heroic. She had a do not resuscitate will. Everything about my mother was, we're not going to mess around with this thing.
DS: 42:28 You know, one thing I didn't ask you is how did she feel about living in North Dakota?
CSJ: 42:33 I have this theory, I think I may have said it to you previously, but I believe there are two types of people. There are accidental North Dakotans and there are naturalized North Dakotans. Everyone's born somewhere. I was born in Minot, North Dakota. She was born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Everyone's born somewhere. It's an accident. You could be born anywhere. She came to North Dakota as a young woman. My father was a banker who was transferred here from Minnesota. He was born in Detroit lakes, a resort town in Minnesota. He never liked North Dakota. He didn't dislike it, but he never left asphalt. He never traveled on gravel. He never camped out. He never fished. He never hiked it, you know, he was the opposite of what I take to be my own character. He was a very protective man, cautious, and he didn't like the outdoors much and he didn't ever bond with North Dakota. I was lucky. As a young man, my great mentor, Mike Jacobs, of the Dickinson Press, used to take me out of school. I was a photographer and I would go with him all over western North Dakota to photograph things and meet ranchers and to hike and he would tell me different types of grass in the grasslands and all the wild flowers. He really, as Jefferson would say, set the destinies of my life. Well, my mother was a high school teacher and she was discontented and she said she loved cowboys, she loved Westerns, she loved Louis L'amour. She loved the Virginian, she loved all Westerns, beginning with Fenimore Cooper. And she applied for a grant to do a slide tape program, back when that was a form, on cowboys and ranchers and she got it. To her utter surprise. And so I took her around for two summers to all of these ranches in the little Missouri Valley. We camped. She didn't like that very much, but she did it and we made this stew I call remarkable stew. And we talked about life and God and relationships and my father and everything under the stars. Listened to coyotes. She became no longer an accidental North Dakotan but a naturalized North Dakotan. And she, if she were here, she would say, 'that thing, doing that program with my son was the single greatest experience of my life,' because it changed her from someone who happened to live in North Dakota to someone who embraced North Dakota. She was my cheerleader for my own life as a hiker and a camper and someone who wanders out in thunderstorms, and all the things that I love to do with the Little Missouri — the Missouri, the prolonged hikes and so on. My father would say, 'are you nuts? Five thousand years of civilization and you want to sleep in a tent?' But my mother would say, 'you do that, you do that,'' and she wouldn't fret too much, although she always said, how will I find you when you die out there?' She was pretty certain that I was going to get struck by something — the butt of a rifle or a lightning strike or the teeth of a mountain lion, but her view was, 'grab it, be a North Dakotan, trust yourself.' And so that was really, really, really important to her.
DS: 45:40 With that sir, it is now time for this week's Jefferson Watch.