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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Sleep And The Birch Tree Clock

[Our Limelight Hydrangea.]

I look at the clock. It’s 4:35 am. I can’t sleep.

I begin another chapter in the book I’m reading. I go into the kitchen and eat a cracker. I sip some Tonic Water (it helps my leg cramps). I go back to bed. I can’t sleep. I take a little pill. Sleep isn’t coming to me tonight.

Sleep evades me almost every night. It’s been that way since I was a child. “What do you think your missing?” my mother would say. I had no answer.

I look out of our bedroom window and see our Limelight Hydrangea plant. In the pre-dawn light, it looks unearthly bright…like I left the car lights on. Or that small moons have dipped into our front yard. Or is it possible that I had indeed fallen asleep, slept through the rest of the summer…through fall and now I’m waking up to a new and substantial snowfall?

It’s dawn now and I still can’t sleep. Then I remember something. Two days ago, Mariam got me to open the door to the attic. Not so easy in this house. She wanted to do some gleaning of our stuff. We are trying to “de-thing” ourselves. She said she found a box of NYC books. I told her I didn’t want to go through those books right now. Who knows, we may move back to the City in the not-so-distant future. I might want those books then.

When she got back down from the pull-down ladder, she said there was plenty of my “stuff” up there in boxes.

I asked her what she saw. She said there was the tree clock. I asked her to repeat. She said: “You know, the clock that your father made from the tree”.

I’m still awake and now thinking about the clock that my father made…for me.

I grew up in Owego, New York. We were blessed with a large back-yard. There were enormous evergreen trees just beyond the lawn where my swing set was located. In between those two tall coniferous trees was a small Birch. Its trunk was only a few inches in diameter. One day, my father rounded up his four sons. He had us sit in front of the Birch tree. I’m on the right and look impish. Is that a sling-shot in my back pocket?

[The first of four Birch Tree photos. Early 1950’s]

Over the years, my brothers and I recreated our positions in front of the growing Birch. We were all growing up. The final posed photograph was taken on a lovely spring day in 1992. We were holding a wake for my mother who had passed away on Easter Sunday morning.

[The 1992 photo is the last one.]

Soon after that, the Birch caught a tree infection. It died. My father was left with no choice. It had to be chain-sawed down. I was in Owego that weekend. I asked him for a small section of the tree. He cut it down. He cut it up into sections. I wonder how he felt when he touched the chainsaw to the tree. It must have broken his heart. It breaks mine just contemplating it. He loved his sons so very much. Did he cry? He never would have shown it. But I would have been in tears hoping that my watery eyes could still keep the saw on track. I left for my own home without the tree section.

Six months later, my father presented me with the piece of the tree.  He had cut open one side and inserted a clock mechanism. On the other side, he attached the hands of a clock. He glued the hour numbers and attached a hook.

Since then I’ve moved many times. The clock always came with me, but over time, the numerals fell off.

That afternoon, after my sleepless night, I retrieved the clock from the attic.

I wondered what thoughts my father had when he cut the tree into pieces. So many decades have passed since he had his four boys take up a pose in front of the tree. I hold the clock in my hands. It’s all I have left of those four photo sessions. I run my fingers over the varnished clock face. I count the rings and calculate the ring that grew the year of the first photo.

Two of my brothers are gone now, as is my father.

I hold the Birch Clock in my hands.

These memories make me sad. I pray that I will sleep a dreamless sleep tonight.

 

The Empty Bedroom

MyChildhoodBedroom

This was once my bedroom.

There was a time when this room was packed full of the stuff of life…

From a crib made in the mid-1940’s, I would look out at the flowered wallpaper.  Maybe a mobile hung just out of my reach, and moved about when a breeze caught it from a partly opened window.  Maybe I held onto a teddy bear, tightly…oh, so tightly…to keep my young boy dreams from turning into night terrors.

In the early 1950’s, my crib found a new home in the attic where it stayed until my mother sold it to a neighbor.  I had a small single bed…a “Hollywood” bed, my mother would call it.  It remained in that room until someone bought it and dismantled it and walked away with it when my wife, my brother and I had the tag sale a year after my father died.  I could never fall asleep on that bed.  My mother tried everything.  She put in a little white AM radio and I would listen to Doris Day singing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” so often, I thought it was the only song that existed.  I would crawl from that bed and creep to the top of the stairs.  Below me, in a dark living room, the black and white TV flickered.  I would call quietly to my mother and tell her I couldn’t sleep.  She’d have me come down to the sofa and together we’d eat chives and cheese on saltines.

Eventually she’d send me to bed again.  There was a landing halfway up the stairs.  I would almost always linger and ask her whether the war was ever going to come to Owego.

“No,” she would say.  “Korea is a long way off.”

I would linger still.  I was fearful of something.  I knew there were no monsters under my bed…but I was afraid.

“Promise me you won’t die before me,” I would ask her every night.

“I promise,” she would replied.  She never kept her word on that.

In high school, I would lay on the bed, see it?  Below the sconce.  I read Macbeth during the summer (I wasn’t even required to do so).  It put me into a dark mood of evil and murder.  I should have been reading Romeo and Juliet instead.

I spent my final night in that bed the day before I went away to college.  A few months later, I sat on the same bed with my father during the Christmas holiday and cried.  I cried because my childhood girlfriend had broken up with me.  He sat and watched.  He didn’t know what to say to me.

He was like that.

Years later, the bed was against the left wall. The empty left wall. I was living at home because my marriage had fallen apart.  I was not a teacher in Connecticut anymore…I was working as a temp in IBM and living at my parent’s house.  It was the worst humiliation you can imagine.  But it was the same old bed in the same old room that had seen me grow up and become a man.

Just around the corner, there by the radiator, a doorway led into the hallway.  On the molding of the door sill, there were many pencil marks and dates.  I had kept track of my son’s growth.  How fast it all happens.  How fast they grow.  It’s all painted over now.

In 1992, I came to the bed at 8:00 am to try to sleep.  I had been up all night watching The Robe on TV.  It was Easter Sunday morning…what else would they be showing?  Behind me, on a hospice bed, my mother was dying.

I came to that bed and closed my eyes.  Not thirty minutes passed when my sister-in-law came and knocked.

“Pat, I think you should come downstairs.  Your mother is gone.”

Now, the bedroom is empty.  The family that bought the house, sold it not too many years later.

The photograph above was taken by a real estate agent.

It shows a bare room, a radiator, a sconce and two windows.  You can hardly see the trees that are bending over the front porch.

And, you can not see the stuff that used to be in that room.

Not unless you close your eyes and try to imagine a baby sleeping there and then, quick as blowing out a candle, you may be able to see the stuff that belongs to the ages of a man’s life.