Our annual holiday letter



Dolores and I drove to Waukee on Friday morning with heavy hearts and anxiety over the impending funeral of Jim Benson, 70, who farmed and raised turkeys near Marathon for many years. Jim died on Sunday, Dec. 9 from complications arising from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Jim was my font of wisdom on all things.

We walked into church and greeted Jim’s wife, Terry. I told her she looked beautiful. “I look like a bucket of …” she said, and we laughed like always.

Then I walked into the nave where a woman played piano for a few praying souls while the Buena Vista and Pocahontas county delegations mingled in the lobby over precious old photos. She was singing some old-time Gospel. It was Iris Dement, the national recording artist. In the wings was her husband, Greg Brown of Iowa City, who is Iowa’s musician laureate (Iowa Waltz, Early). Lucas Benson, Jim’s son, and Constance Brown, Greg’s daughter, found each other along the Iowa River. Greg Brown sang “Going Home.” Iris and Greg launched into “Amazing Grace” with the Lind Family Singers scattered to the winds from Laurens. Father Paul Kelly serenaded with his trumpet, and Terry’s lovely voice was piped in at the end so that I made a blubbering mess of the pew.

It was the quintessential Iowa moment — turkey and pork sandwiches with cheesy potatoes and cold milk — that was so essentially Jim Benson. You walk up to the nice lady singing and ask her where she is from, and Greg Brown is just about the friendliest sort of minstrel you ever will meet.

And after you are done blowing your nose on the way home you think about how lucky you are to be driving under that railroad bridge at Lake View on County Road M68.

You were blessed enough to know and sit with the Buddha, Jim Benson. You just met Greg Brown and Iris Dement. Dolores is riding shotgun and doesn’t mind (that much) if you sing along to the New Riders of the Purple Sage on the satellite radio.

You think that there is a God, and that he sent us Iris Dement.

Not that I always think that, turning on the TV and seeing Donald Trump or Steve King.

But you get a phone call from son Joe, and he is alive and playing with a band in New Orleans. He is friends with Melvin Neville, who put out the word in the Ninth Ward to leave the kid alone.

Clare has a job at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. She is laying out Page One now, and she has a boyfriend with a job — he’s an architect whose parents have a hardware store in Grinnell. Sound like good people.

Kieran is a scribe to a doctor — soon he will be promoted to Pharisee — and is saving lives in Marshall County as an EMT.

Kieran’s mirror twin Tom is our ace reporter and helped me win a Pulitzer Prize in April for editorials on the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. I will repay him with a hamburger on Tuesday.

Mabel the Newshound had a good year, and remains angry only with rabbits. She bagged a few but not Nibbles safely imprisoned in the kitchen.

I roped Brother John back into being a working man while I have been writing a book. He has more horse sense than a horse, which is irreplaceable, and can lay out pages twice as fast as I even in his advanced dotage. We have no money to fight over, which is unfortunate.

Which goes by way of saying our family probably is as dysfunctional as yours, that I am not working that hard (and neither is John, in my opinion), I am able to muster two square meals a day because I am too lazy to make or pay for a third, the family is all well and on their own, our staff works with good cheer and low pay, and those Bensons and Linds are the loveliest people in the world.

And I just met Greg Brown and Iris Dement, and they are just like you and me except they have real talent. There are a lot of people in Iowa like that. Jim Benson was one of them. Those people can remind you that out here in the middle of no place in particular is the one someplace you belong, where every now and again you can hear the angels sing.