When Spring comes round nowadays, it brings a family melancholy with it. We remember my Dad in early May, celebrating his birthday and mourning his loss sixteen years ago. My brother’s birthday is sandwiched between those two days, now always a bittersweet celebration for him. And when the Spring aubretia blooms here in the Northwest, I am always reminded of my mother’s rocky mountain garden and the family home. Her aubretia made people stop their cars to take a closer look. Now I’m the one who will pull over the car so that I can take a closer, contemplative look at the aubretia in a stranger’s garden. The aubretia bloom doesn’t last long, but when it blossoms, I savor all those happy and melancholy Spring memories it triggers.
The last six weeks of the school year is always a mad rush to get everything done. There are units to finish teaching, assessments to give and correct, report cards to fill out, field trips, special school activities, and all the hundreds of little details of closing out your classroom before the summer break. Even after 23 years of teaching, it still all takes my breath away. That’s what I’ve been feeling this week: breathless.
So it was a miracle, and a pleasure, that I was even able to read a book this week. And no surprise that it was Alexander McCall Smith’s new book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. As anyone who loves his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series knows, these books are perfect antidotes to all the hustle, bustle, and stress of everyday life. I enjoyed it immensely. It reminded me to focus on what’s really important in life; it inspired me with wonderful little nuggets of wisdom and common sense; and it warmed my heart with it’s gentle kindness. And because this is a week of remembering my Dad (today would have been his 89th birthday), I was particularly touched by Mma Ramotswe’s memories of her own beloved father, who is also late.
She closed her eyes. She was standing next to her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, that great man, and he was handing her an ice cream. He was wearing his hat, his battered old hat that he wore until the day he went into hospital for the last time. And he smiled at her from underneath the brim of that old hat, and the sun was behind him, high in the sky, and the ice cream tasted sweeter and purer than anything else she had ever tasted in her life. She would give anything — anything — to have her father back with her, just for a day, so that she could tell him about how her life had been and how she owed everything to him and to his goodness to her.
It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since we lost my Dad. The years since that sad morning have been filled with a lifetime of “would-haves,” as I call them … Dad would have loved this or would have enjoyed that. We have a list a mile long by now! We still miss him, and this time of year is always bittersweet for the family.
He was an extraordinary man. His view of the world was formed by his first hour in combat in World War II, when he somehow cheated death. “If we only have assurance of life day-to-day, we should also have daily incentive to live well and appreciate deeply.” Out of the cauldron of war, his simple credo was:
Try for a little honesty, a little courage, and a little love.
He believed in the power of love and compassion. “I believe that the hope of the world rests in healthy individuals in supportive environments.” And he reminded us often that “The differences which divide mankind are inevitable and are relatively superficial compared to our similarites…”
It was very difficult to say goodbye to this courageous, gentle man fifteen years ago, and that empty space was and still is huge. But I keep in my mind the image of him wearing that hat, leading our family along the paths of Yellowstone… and along the paths of life with humor, pathos, and keen intelligence.
Teaching young people how to read is one thing, but sparking a passion for reading is another. As a teacher, I’m highly trained in how to teach children to read, but after 22 years of teaching, I think it’s my own passion for reading that is the most powerful tool I have as I try to ignite that spark in my students. I’ve wondered exactly where my passion came from, and I’ve been able to identify a couple of things that certainly fueled the flames. One was being lovingly read to by my parents. The other was a book experience I had when I was seven or eight years old.
My father, a university professor, asked me to go with him to visit an older, retired professor in town. Dad prepared me on the drive over to this man’s house, letting me know that he was an unusual person, old and always very grumpy with people, sort of a “hermit,” he said. What he didn’t tell me was that the man was a book person extraordinaire.
I don’t think I could ever adequately describe what this man’s house was like. I walked in the front door, my father introduced us, then I looked around. I had never seen so many books in all my life. Bookshelves were everywhere and overflowing with books. Books were piled up everywhere…and I mean everywhere! The living room was completely full of books, so there was no place to sit down. The kitchen was piled high with books — the stovetop and a small space next to the sink were the only places without piles of books. The chairs and table were piled high. There were stacks of books in the bathroom, towers of books in the bedroom. Books were piled high along the hallway. Then, he took us downstairs into his basement, which was also filled with books, except that those books were on rows and rows of bookshelves, just like in a library.
Old Professor Poulson must have recognized me as a fellow book person, even though I was only eight and he was over eighty, because he very proudly showed me his entire collection, was gentle and kind to me, and before I left he gave me a book. That book has always been my most treasured book. It was a very old, lovely volume of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems, called Voices of the Night. I still read it and treasure it.
I remember spending hours and hours reading those poems and looking at the beautiful art “plates.” I memorized his poem, “The Wreck of the Hersperus,” which fascinated me, and I can still recite it today. And when my father passed away, it was a stanza from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” that I chose to use during my remarks at his memorial service:
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
Looking back, I think my Dad knew exactly what he was doing by showing me this striking example of a person’s passion for reading. It had a tremendous impact on me at a very young age! So, in searching through memories to answer the question of where my passion for reading came from, I realize that, first, my dad and mom taught me to read … and then, in so many different ways, they taught me to love reading, passionately.
It’s another foggy fall morning…just right for reading and listening to music. My Sunday mornings have always been full of books and music. My dad used to listen to Beethoven on Sunday mornings, and I would read my books while the music played, so I have very fond connections between stories and some of the family’s favorite music. One of my very earliest memories is of my mother braiding my hair while reciting a favorite poem to me. The poem was Eugene Field‘s “Little Boy Blue,” a sad poem in which the little boy lines up all his toys at night before he goes to bed, but he dies during the night so never returns to them. The hair braiding, the poetry, and Ravel‘s “Pavane Pour une infante defante” (which also was played a lot on Sunday mornings!) are all mixed together in my memory. Sunday mornings full of books, poetry, and music…no wonder I love to read!
Something lovely and magical happened to me as I read Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace (my second book for Maggie’s Southern Reading Challenge). There were two stories going on in my head as I read…the story in the book about a father and his son coming to terms with the father’s impending death, and trying to understand each other and their relationship…And the story of my own experience with my father’s death and dying, and the processing of that all-important relationship in my life. I guess that’s what really good books do–they touch something deep inside us and trigger a whole new understanding of ourselves and our experiences. And that’s what myth does, also. It helps us understand more about being human. So this little book of stories, humor, and exaggeration, has the perfect subtitle: “A Novel of Mythic Proportions.”
I’ll have to read the book again, because this first time through ended up being all about my own dad. There were so many things that reminded me of him, and yet this book was not our story. But still…my Dad had a wicked sense of humor, even on his deathbed…my Dad was a Big Fish in that he touched so many lives and meant so much to so many people…my Dad was a wonderful storyteller and his stories became the fabric of the family mythology… And I struggled, too, to understand the man behind the humor and the stories, to come to terms with being his daughter, and to understand the gifts and the foibles he passed along to me.
“Remembering a man’s stories makes him immortal, did you know that?”
Big Fish, by Daniel Wallace, is a short little book with a huge heart, and is a poignant gift to all of us who have lost a beloved parent.
Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 87 years old, but we lost him thirteen years ago, way too young. Almost all my family migrated to Seattle this weekend to be together to celebrate his birthday (May 7th), my brother’s birthday (May 6th), and to mark the day my Dad passed away (May 5th). It’s always a tenderhearted three days, but we had birthday cake, laughed a lot, and shared many memories. The sun shone, the temperature was perfect, the flowers all around were gorgeous, and it was a lovely family weekend. Dad would have loved it.
He was a gentle soul, with a wicked sense of humor. A much-loved college professor for 39 years, with a degree in English and Literature, and an advanced degree in Sociology (but a librarian at heart), he was always immersed in reading and writing projects of one sort or another. His study/library was the heart of our home. When my mother decided it was time to give up the family home a few years ago and move to a retirement home, the most difficult parting for me was with Dad’s study.His most precious project was our “Family History.” Being that passionate librarian/historian/keen-observer-of-the-human-race person, he became the ultimate “scrapbooker.” His project eventually filled over 40 binders with photographs, letters, and a written narrative of our family. He set our family’s story into the historical context of the times, and included local, national, and international events along with the daily happenings of his growing family. The volumes are now housed in the University Library, but before they were archived, my son and daughter-in-law (with help from my brother and his wife) scanned each volume so that we all have access to this family treasure.
As I sit here trying to think of ways to describe him, to give you a glimpse of this gifted, wonderful human being, I chuckle remembering that he loved to enter 25-Words-Or-Less contests. Keeping it short, simple, and right to the point, you will just have to take my word for it that he was a very special person who touched the hearts of many people and left some mighty big footprints on the sands of time. We really miss him.
On Tuesday morning, I awoke early, fixed myself a cup of coffee, and turned on the TV to watch some mindless morning news. The channel was already set on a PBS station, and one of those early morning Annenberg classes was on–a literature class focusing on the works of Isak Dinesen. She was being interviewed. I was immediately riveted to the television, entranced by her presence and by everything she was saying. I’ve been fascinated with Isak Dinesen for a long time. I read her Seven Gothic Tales many years ago, and loved the movie version of Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep, which I have seen many times. But I’ve never read the book, although it’s been sitting on my shelf for years and years. So that’s what I’m reading now–Out of Africa.
There are a lot of books on that “To Be Read” shelf. The most ambitious and the most daunting is the 11-volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization. My Dad gave it to me for Christmas many years ago, and I’ve read parts of it, using it as a reference for things I needed to know at different times, but I’ve never read the entire series. And then there’s a whole potpourri of other books that I would like to read but haven’t chosen to do so yet. They all sit waiting patiently for me, many of them for years and years.
One winter afternoon, a long time ago, I was reading Anna Karenina when my Dad walked by. He stopped briefly just to tell me something I’ve never forgotten. He told me that I would never be lonely because I had such good friends in books. He was right. I seldom feel lonely, although I miss loved ones and friends when we are away from each other. But my quiet times are filled with book friends, constant and loyal. New friends are welcomed with delight, and old friends are revisited at different ages and stages of my life. I always learn something new about myself through my book friends. We are fellow travelers. They are my guides.
This statement is mostly true about the impact of people friendships in my life. But it is very true about my book friends.
I just finished reading Frederick Manfred: A Daughter Remembers, by Freya Manfred. It was a book I enjoyed on many levels–because I’m a fan of Frederick Manfred’s stories, because I love to read literary memoirs, and because I am the daughter of a writing/thinking father so I was curious about her experiences as daughter of such a man. What a delight to discover Freya herself–a sensitive, poetic, wonderfully honest artist/storyteller!
In an interview published in the Summer, 2001 issue of South Dakota Review, Freya was asked about what type of reaction she wanted from her own readers. Her response was “I want them to hear my heart.” When I read this book about growing up with her artist father and becoming an artist herself, I heard her heart. A lovely book!