When my father died in 1996, I acquired all sorts of his belongings. Many I didn’t know what to do with and tucked away in closets and on shelves. At that time I was newly separated and headed for divorce. My main concern was reorganizing my life to take care of my eight year old son. My dad’s stuff would have to wait. Then I forgot about it.
Today that difficult period is long behind me. My son is grown and married. I am happily remarried. Recently, in a closet in my office, I ran across his briefcase. I had vague memories that it contained an ancient manuscript of a novel he had written that I had skimmed but hadn’t read. Could that manuscript be revised and published? I decided to check it out.
I set the briefcase on the coffee table. It’s brown leather, about four inches deep, closed with metal clasps with locks that were fortunately unlocked. Inside, I found slots in the top with papers protruding and a lower compartment with a cover almost the size of the briefcase closed with two metal fasteners. When I opened the lower compartment, I found no novel manuscript but folders and loose paper, some held together by paper clips, some not. One folder was labeled ‘clean copies.’ I began to read.
There was a letter “to my dear grandson,” a biography that went on for ten typed pages. There was no way to tell when it was written or to which of two grandsons it was addressed. The first five or so pages were single-spaced and the last pages, double-spaced, were clearly addressed to my son as they had references to me as his mother. His first grandson died as an adult in 1993. Perhaps after that sad time, he added pages and shifted the addressee. I’m guessing.
Many parts of his life described in these pages were new to me. In high school in Decatur, Georgia in the 1920s, he and a friend started a school newspaper called “The Weakly Bawl” where the beginnings of his journalism career began. I didn’t know that he’d always loved to write, but learning this tells me where my love of writing comes from.
There was something longer, bound and divided into chapters, entitled “Those Halcyon Days in the Country.” What a delight to read about his first years living on the family farm in Walton County, Georgia from his birth in 1909 until 1920 when his father retired. He and his parents with maybe five of his older siblings still at home (out of a total of eight girls and two boys) had 90 acres, farmed 20 and rented out the rest. As a small child, he followed his father into the fields for plowing and planting. Being a “man” meant being able to plow all day, a status my father achieved at age ten. They had hogs and chickens, one horse and one cow, grew their own food in the kitchen garden, and lived well off the proceeds from twenty acres planted in cotton. Once he entered school, he got an annual allowance to pay for clothes and school supplies: a bale of cotton which sold for $200 and whose proceeds had to last all year. His memories of Christmas on the farm were joyful. The holiday consisted of many traditional cakes, always on the sideboard for everyone to eat whenever they chose, lots of visiting with friends and family and singing hymns around the piano. As to presents, they each had a box to open Christmas morning that might contain an orange, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts. Such a contrast to today’s consumer-oriented present-giving.
Now I better understand my father’s purchase of five acres in Fairfax County, Virginia when I was seven so he could have a big garden. With the help of a neighbor, he planted 100 tomato plants, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, squash and more variety of vegetables than I can remember. He generously gave the excess away up and down our road. He made his own “chili” sauce which we used on just about everything.
Inside the briefcase were also stories from my childhood and one about a bluebird family that I vaguely recall hearing about. Growing up, I had often thought of my father as a workaholic, often away on business trips. We had lots of family time of course, vacations and trips, but these stories reveal to me in a new way his devotion as a father and his deep love of his children.
Reading them, I began to consider what stories of my life I want to write for my son and for whatever grandchildren may be born in the future. I’ve kept a journal since I was thirteen. I’m now on volume 163. Old journals sit in boxes on shelves and in closets. Fifteen or so years ago I took a memoir writing workshop and have a few pieces I wrote then. When in clinical practice as a psychotherapist, I occasionally came out of an especially challenging session and wrote out it, part ventilation, part analysis. I have notebooks full of poetry I have written over the years, some published, most not.
I cherish having my father’s writing. Reading it makes him come alive for me. He had a story that only he could tell that would be lost if he hadn’t recorded it. A way of life that is now gone but that remains alive in his pages.