As a humor columnist who’s made a bountiful career mining the rich terrain of marriage, fatherhood and life in La Cañada Flintridge, Chris Erskine has always had a darn good “daditude.” Even now, in the most trying of times, the local writer keeps smiling, and keeps giving others reason to do the same.
For nearly two decades, his self-deprecating, wisecracking weekly chronicle of family life has resonated with L.A. Times readers, including Prospect Park Books publisher Colleen Dunn Bates.
Last year, the Altadena-based publisher invited the columnist to The Proper for a drink and a discussion about putting out a compilation. Long a fan, she said she found Erskine to be a genuine guy who was, foremost, a dedicated dad.
“That’s really him. Being a father means everything to him,” she said. “The theme wasn’t initially fatherhood, but it was just so obvious that’s the driving passion in his life. It had to be about fatherhood.”
Copies of “Daditude” were sitting in a warehouse ready to go when Erskine’s older son Christopher was killed March 4 in a four-vehicle crash on the 215 Freeway in San Bernardino. A delivery driver for nursing homes and elder-care facilities around Southern California, he was returning from work when the collision occurred.
“When they lost Christopher, I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to continue,” said Dunn Bates, who said she would have understood if Chris Erskine wanted to delay the book’s release. “I told him, ‘We’ll do whatever you want.’ He felt that it was a good way to honor Christopher’s memory.
“I can see that really has been true for him.”
Christopher, of course, is a principal character in “Daditude,” which — as the book’s subtitle states — revels in “the joys and absurdities of modern fatherhood.”
The book is divvied into themed chapters, including one dedicated to columns on “Fathers & Sons.” That section includes a couple of entries about outdoor excursions with Christopher, known early on to readers as “the boy.”
One column, poignant already when it was originally published Jan. 25, 2014, focused on the evolution of Erskine’s relationship with Christopher.
“We got along lousy for a while,” wrote Erskine of Christopher, then 28. “Now we get along better, and, eventually, we will get along great.”
Erskine wrote about joining Christopher on another “grinding hike” in the Sierra National Forest and how meaningful that excursion was: “It was perfect.”
And, thanks to the postscripts following each column (coined “tailpieces” by the author), readers learn how much that climb, and how much Erskine, meant to Christopher: “Taking a trip like that with the man who instilled a passion in me for all things outdoors is something I will truly remember forever. It’s with good reason that climbing a mountain is a metaphor for all other endeavors in life.”
Erskine has dutifully, enthusiastically promoted “Daditude,” acknowledging that the book signings and readings around Southern California have required navigating some emotionally tricky territory.
At each stop, he’s been met with overflowing crowds of readers, many of whom feel as though they, too, knew Christopher.
Erskine gets that. In the column that broke the awful news on March 15, he wrote: “Christopher grew up on these pages — my first columns featured him when he was an 11-year-old second baseman with some serious major league aspirations.”
That heart-wrenching public announcement and the columns following it have inspired an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike. Erskine says he’s received a stack of cards at the L.A. Times office that’s 2 feet tall and growing, not to mention all the emails stuffing his inbox.
Much of that correspondence has included stories of struggle, readers responding to his suffering by sharing accounts of their own.
“Sometimes it’s great to know, ‘Oh my gosh, you went through that,’” said Erskine, who’s also written about his wife, Cathy (a.k.a. “Posh”), and her bout with cancer.
“Hearing from other parents who’ve lost kids is really tough; it gives you strength and it wears on you all at once because you realize it’s not that rare. It’s been very comforting, but it’s also trying on a certain level, because you go, ‘Boy, the world really is a crappy place.’”
Erskine credits the community of LCF, which has served as something of a character in his columns over the years, with helping to keep him from curling up in a ball for the rest of the year.
“The payoff for having been in this community so long is this great circle of friends,” said Erskine over coffee last week in LCF, where friends passing by all stopped to say hello.
“I can’t even put into words how amazing they’ve been. Whether it’s food and heartfelt notes and tributes, to planting a tree in the yard to remember Christopher, to all the stuff they do for Cathy and what she’s going through, I can’t imagine being in a better place.”
His columns have helped, too, providing Erskine a healthy outlet, said Jessica Erskine, known to readers as his “lovely and patient older daughter.”
“It’s therapeutic,” Jessica said. “It’s his art and his outlet. He has that talent that allows him to express himself and bring people into the fold and open up. A lot of people don’t have that ability, but it comes naturally to him, and it’s proven to be a really valuable skill set in this time.
“I went and watched him [at an event], and how he was greeted by fans and friends was amazing. To see how [Christopher’s death] has affected them was a reminder of what my dad has done to touch people, and that’s really incredible.
“He’s been quite brave,” she added. “He’s been really strong.”
“It’s a difficult time to be promoting the book,” Chris Erskine said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of a nice way to pay tribute to not just the family, but especially to Christopher. His voice is in there, and I love that about it.”