Watching Jeopardy Without My Dad

January 6, 2020

I’ll have such mixed emotions this week as I settle in for Jeopardy’s million-dollar challenge.

No one was more excited about seeing Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer face off than my dad. He didn’t quite make it.

It was lost on none of my siblings how much Dad had in common with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. Like Trebek, he was unpretentiously erudite, breathtakingly well-versed in too many topics to name. Like Trebek, he was gentlemanly, mannerly and elegant in a modest, understated way. Like Trebek, he was effortlessly charismatic, effervescent and funny. And like Trebek, he was the picture of health . . . until he wasn’t.

Dad was 98 when he died this past November, but his mind never lost its razor-sharp edge. He had no formal education beyond high school, but he was the most prodigiously self-taught person I’ve ever known. He read several newspapers daily and was always in the middle of a book — often several simultaneously. He devoured everything he could get his hands on regarding history, philosophy, religion, sociology, politics, economics, poetry, sports. . .  the list went on and on.

Oh, the things he knew! — everything from the intricacies of the Second Punic War to the year Bill Tilden achieved his still-unrivaled match win streak. He knew Rogers Hornsby’s batting average and the lyrics to virtually every Irving Berlin song ever written. He loved to invent trivia questions of his own, such as a word that includes every vowel in order, or the names of American universities that include two u’s, not counting “university.” (He loved that he stumped so many people on the two-u college that was practically in his own back yard: Auburn.) All this from a man who never used a computer in his life and therefore never had access to Google. Up until mere days before his death, he was challenging his family, friends and McDonald’s breakfast buddies with his trivia questions.

What a loss to the world, and particularly to those who loved him, is that beautiful mind. I can’t quite wrap my head around the breadth and depth of knowledge that disappeared — poof! — the instant he drew his last breath. Of course, even more devastating has been the disappearance of his merry laughter, his wise and tender counsel, his Irish-tenor singing voice, his rollicking ragtime piano, his endless supply of love. . . As was true of my precious mom before him, words totally fail me in trying to convey how remarkable he was.

But his love of trivia was so familiar to everyone who knew him that this facet of his personality is somehow easier for me to articulate than others. As for his more subtle and nuanced characteristics? As for the memories that are specific to me, my siblings, our family? I can’t go there yet without tumbling into an abyss of grief. But trivia: That makes me smile.

Except for maybe this week, as Jeopardy’s greatest-ever players face off. Dad would have loved it so much.

I’ll just have to love it enough for both of us.

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© 2020 Christine Hurley Deriso