Longform

Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

Page 4 of 8

At the time, they both knew it wouldn't be their last child. Annette had made it very clear she wanted a big family, to replace the relatives she had lost in the Holocaust. Timber had agreed — "He was such a good sport about it!"

After all, how many more children could there be?


Was that a grand slam? It looks like five kids are running around the bases."

Kimber, 28, gazes quizzically in the warm summer dusk at the Little League game transpiring in fits and starts on this baseball diamond in Barnum Park in west Denver, then turns with mock annoyance to her sixteen-year-old sister, Mercina, who's sitting in the metal bleachers next to her. "You're getting peanuts in my purse!"

The Tillemann-Dick kids aren't the best at sports — among the abundant honors strewn about their house, there are fewer than a dozen athletic trophies — but they do excel at sideline enthusiasm. "I want a hot dog!" hollers eleven-year-old Zenith, sitting with his Little League teammates in the fenced-in dugout by the field. "With ketchup and mustard?" Shiloh, eighteen, bellows back from the bleachers as he rummages through the baskets they brought crammed with sodas and peanuts and Costco-sized condiments and Hostess cakes to find the homemade vegetarian hot dogs. Next to him, Gloriana is enjoying a Twinkie, the first the fourteen-year-old says she'd had in years, having for the moment put down her copy of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which she started last night after finishing a Dostoyevsky novel.

"That ball hit a kid in the head!" exclaims Kimber, giggling at the on-field antics as she gives husband David a shoulder massage with one hand and talks on her cell with her brother Levi, calling from Washington, D.C., on the other. "Ooh, I just want to coddle that poor little child," pipes in Liberty, before grimacing at a snarky comment made by her boyfriend, Gabriel, who's spending the summer singing opera at the Aspen Music Festival. "Oh," the twenty-year-old snaps at him, "go sing an aria!"

Because of Timber's death, there are fewer goings-on than usual, though the family is still operating under an agenda that's more befitting of a global conglomerate than a household. For the past few weeks, Annette's been in Israel and then Hungary to attend memorial events for her father. She just flew back, meeting Charity, Levi and Tomicah in D.C., to help prepare for Lantos's posthumous receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The rest of her children, other than the Beijing-based Corban, plan to meet her there.

And to think Annette was afraid of how the kids would turn out after she started home-schooling them in 1982. She made that decision partly because she knew school administrators were wrong when they told her Tomicah wasn't ready to enroll in kindergarten, and partly because she had an inkling that she and Timber could handle the task themselves. Annette, armed with her teacher's certificate, threw herself into the endeavor, turning baking into fraction lessons; installing blackboards around the house; speaking French, Spanish, Hebrew and Hungarian around the dinner table; and talking Dante after breakfast. But still, every now and then, she'd wake up fearfully in the middle of the night. "Honey, I've got to stop," she'd tell Timber. "I know they're not learning anything." She stopped worrying so much when her children started getting into Yale and Oxford and White House internship programs not long after they hit puberty.

While it certainly didn't hurt to have one grandparent in Congress and another in the Colorado lieutenant governor's office, even connections like that only took the kids so far. "Through no apparent organization whatsoever, we learned how to function in the real world," says Kimber. "And, kind of surprisingly, it all turned out all right."

While the tribe may be more knowledgeable of NPR than HBO and more comfortable at diplomatic cocktail parties than high-school keggers, they do okay for themselves when they head off into the world beyond the big white house. After all, for them childhood has been one big social hour. Remember the time there were 26 people staying in the house at one time, asks Mercina, thanks to foreign exchange students and miscellaneous guests? That's not even counting the salamander and bat and vole and albino rabbit that learned to use a litter box, points out Zenith.

At the head of it all was Timber. He ran the mandatory household meetings every morning, going over who needed to be picked up from chorale practice and what time the afternoon soccer game started. He helped Annette with lessons and, like her, encouraged each child to follow his or her bliss, whether that be astronomy or opera, the Air Force Academy or international politics. And, most notably, there were the pinewood derby cars many of the siblings would undertake. Under Timber's tutelage, the tiny cars became month-long scientific explorations of aerodynamics and wind resistance, wheel friction and center-of-gravity placement.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner