My Father’s Books

The 1950’s & 1960’s

On Sunday nights, in the house at 420 Front Street in Owego, NY, there was usually an empty chair in our living room. My mother and three older brothers would gather around an oversized wooden console that housed a Black & White TV. The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on the air. The diagonal screen measurement was probably about 20″, but I wouldn’t swear by that. Some memories dim with time…others stay fresh. It’s odd though. I sat and stared at this TV for years and couldn’t tell you what color the cabinet was.

But, the empty chair? Who was missing?

It was my father. Only on rare occasions did he join us for a TV show ( think he was present when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show). So where was he? The answer was simple. He was upstairs. He was reading. This was not just a Sunday night activity for him…he was always upstairs (in whatever bedroom he had chosen that year for his ‘study’)…reading.

Our house was full of books. Upstairs and down, there were bookcases lined with a wide assortment of fiction and non-fiction. And almost all of it belonged to my father.

Today

We have a wonderful barrister bookcase that I brought from my family home after it was sold in 2005. It has glass windows. One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I went on the prowl for something to read. I decided to look into the bookcase at the books that we brought from my father’s library. Now I began to understand what his favorite reads were…back in the days while the rest of the family watched TV and he would retire to his comfy chair in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I began to piece together his changing tastes in literature. I determined that the oldest books dated to the 1940’s. (He bought 420 Front St. in 1945). I discovered a veritable treasure trove of pulp crime novels, early one’s written by Raymond Carver and John Dickinson Carr. There was Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. It was next to Double Indemnity by James Cain. There were scores of these fine old pulps (even more in our bookcase downstairs).

I pulled out a copy of 5 Murderers by Raymond Chandler. I checked out the back cover. The book cost an astounding twenty-five cents! The highest price I saw on these books was fifty cents. Now, when I lived in Manhattan in the 1990’s, I used to see book vendors on the sidewalk in front of Zabar’s on Broadway. They would sell these very pulps, sealed nicely in a zip-lock baggie, for $5.00 or more. Quick math calculation: that’s a 2,000% increase. I am sitting on a goldmine!

I moved to hardcovers. There was E.M. Forester, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson and so many more. Most of these were inexpensive book club editions, many had notices on the back cover to purchase war bonds.

In the upper right corner of the bookcase was a small collection of my own Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books that gave me so much joy in my pre-teen years

As my father aged, his taste in books changed. I used to see him sitting next to a stack of six or seven novels from the new releases section of the Coburn Free Library. The titles of these books, I can not recall, but I remember thinking at the time (1960’s) that this is what adults read. I wonder who the authors were. This was the days before Stephen King and John Grisham. I don’t think he’d like that genre.

My father passed away before I published my own novel. He never got to see his son’s modest success, but I’m sure he’d be proud. He tried to write a family history, but never got very far. He admitted that writing a long piece was a task beyond him.

But he sure could devour the writer’s he loved.

And he passed down his love of reading and books to all of his sons. He never pushed anything. He taught by example. I have done the same for my children. Erin and Brian are both avid readers. (Brian has been working on The Guns of August for a few years now. He has it on his Kindle. He told me once that there are about 900+ pages using the normal font. When he changes the font to a larger size, he is suddenly facing a 13,000 page book about the origins of WWI).

An indelible memory, a central, strong and clear memory of my dad is of him sitting and reading…until it was his bedtime.

He passed away at the age of 90. I’m sure he was reading when he was five or six. That’s 85 years of books. A lot of books, a lot of words and a lot of worlds to explore…for anyone.

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Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]