I must have been in college when I first discovered that being scared of clowns was a thing. Spiders, snakes, and heights I understood. Clowns? I was flabbergasted. From a very early age, clowns made me happy. There was a driftwood painting of a clown in my room, Bozo (love him!), and my Uncle Ryan as Harry the Clown (love him more!). Yes, yes, there’s John Wayne Gacy and that character in Steven King’s novel IT, but I had never been given any cause to fear clowns. They were always playful and fun to me. In the case of Uncle Ryan, a clown was someone who cared about me and whom I admired as well.
Uncle Ryan was the oldest of the four Dodde brothers. After him came Randy, Robert (my Dad), and Rex. As a kid I had a lot of fun playing with them all. We met with the Dodde side of the family for Christmas Eve and it was always so hard to wait for Dad to get home from work that day so we could drive either to drive to the party. It wasn’t just the presents, but the time having fun with my cousins and my aunts and uncles. We had a great time whenever we got together. It usually became a time to get a little crazy with the uncles. They gave as good as they got, so some of my first lessons learned from my uncles concerned my own personal limits in tickling, teasing, and horseplay. The Uncle Ryan I knew translated very well to his clown persona. His eyes flashed in delight while making other people happy and it was something he did very well.
Uncle Ryan was also kind. One summer, while visiting Grandma and Grandpa at their place in Ludington, all the uncles and cousins were swimming near the marina. For whatever reason, I had Uncle Ryan’s car keys. I don’t remember why. I also don’t recall just why I thought it would be a good idea to toss those keys up in the air and try to catch them waist deep in a public swimming area (the last time I remember swimming there we came out with leaches if that gives you any idea of how clear that water was). It proved not to be one of my brightest ideas only I didn’t realize it until those keys slipped out of my hands and quickly sank out of my sight. I was certain I was a dead girl standing there in that water. While I’m sure I caught a good lecture and I know he wasn’t happy with me at the time, the way his mercy washed over me (and the fact that they were able to find his keys) is what I remember most distinctly. Note to me as a parent: mercy goes much further than any punishment ever could.
As I grew older, I enjoyed going to his house for other reasons. Uncle Ryan had hung up Harry the Clown’s hat and shoes. I’d grown to old for horsing around, but he was just as much fun as I matured. I always loved the way Uncle Ryan and Aunt Luci decorated their house. Had I still lived in Grand Rapids when they sold their house on Leffingwell, I would have done anything necessary to buy it and keep it in the family. It was beautiful. I loved their Cupie Doll collection and those oh-so-80s prints that reminded me of the models in Robert Palmer videos. At that time Uncle Ryan and Aunt Luci traveled a lot for his job. They spent a great deal of time in China and I enjoyed hearing his stories from his time there. That’s probably why, on a summer evening before my Freshman year of college when my friend Sarah and I were bored that it occurred to me to stop by Uncle Ryan and Aunt Luci’s house. We had no idea if they were home or busy. In our youth we weren’t even considerate enough to think to stop by a pay phone and call ahead.
When we got there I had no idea that anything significant in any way would take place. Thankfully they weren’t busy and they were happy (I hope!) to see us. We sat in their kitchen, a room I loved so much because it always felt so warm and inviting. They had a cork board against one wall full of family pictures that I just love. Often looking at those led to stories, too. I can’t remember if we looked at those that night or not. We talked about whatever for awhile and eventually the conversation turned to talk of our future. He asked us if we knew the difference between right and wrong. Sarah and I were good kids. We had our moments, but we weren’t the sort who got into (much) trouble. We gave some kind of catechetical response as was befitting of our Catholic Central education, but he disagreed. Uncle Ryan said, “The difference between right and wrong is that right is something you can tell your parents.”
A deep, fundamental part of who I am some 25 years later is because this man, this eldest Dodde brother, this former clown, this world traveler, this beloved uncle took the time to sit down with an unexpected niece on the brink of adulthood and talk with her about things that matter. While I can’t say that I’ve always chosen right over wrong since that evening, I can say that I have always been well aware of what I was choosing when I didn’t. Because of those simple words I have been able to live my life with my eyes wide open to my own motivations. That conversation will always be priceless to me.
On December 30th, Uncle Ryan passed from this life into the next. After a long illness that took him much too soon he is finally free to give his parents a hug and maybe even throw a giant celestial jar of peanut butter jar back at Uncle Randy. Tomorrow I am going to be flying home to celebrate Uncle Ryan’s life with his family and others who knew and loved him. This may not be like those Christmas Eves of my childhood, yet I am impatient to leave work and get back home. I am blessed to have shared part of my life with him and will attend his memorial service with a heart filled with gratitude. In so many ways, this opportunity to be together with my family is one last gift from him.
I love you and will miss you, Uncle Ryan. Your clown shoes will be hard to fill. I will hold you in my heart always. I hope to meet up with you again on the other side. I can’t tell you how much I’d love it if Harry the Clown was one of the first people to greet me.