A book my Dad would love…

Dad retired young, before he hit 60, because of his health.

He had open heart surgery in the mid-1970’s; it was still a new process, and what the surgeons at Buffalo General could tell him was that they were confident this would give him another five healthy years.

Going from working a very active, heavy equipment-wrangling, outdoors type job to being a retired guy challenged Dad. For the first few weeks, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around as she did her daily chores; he went with her on every errand.

The doctor recommended taking up a hobby, quitting smoking, and reading.

My parents started junking, picking up poor neglected pieces of furniture at secondhand shops and turning them into gems. Dad did the woodwork, the sawing and pounding, and the sanding. My mother learned to upholster, stain, and paint. Although they collaborated, the work was individual, and as Dad got more engrossed, the intense togetherness relaxed a bit.

The smoking cessation–well that lasted a scant few days, but Dad had always been a reader. During his working life, he gravitated toward spy thrillers,–relaxing and easy reads.

I might mention that Dad was half a math credit shy of a high school diploma. He’d studied at a seminary as a boy, his education funded by a dowager who had some connection to the family. In Dad’s pre-war Catholic, blended family–which eventually numbered 14 kids–it was a mark of honor to have one of the boys turn out to be a priest. Dad, two or three slots from the eldest son, was smart as well as athletic and hardworking, and so he was chosen. He excelled at his schoolwork, but left the seminary in the last half of his senior year of high school.

His explanation was a little vague and flexible. Usually, he told us the dowager had died, and the money dried up, and he left to help support his family during the Great Depression. Somehow, though,–maybe through Dad’s ‘kid’ brother, my Uncle Bill, the knowledge trickled down to us that there’d been some kind of an issue with a priest. Whatever the issue, it was something Dad couldn’t live with, and he left the school abruptly.

He had a store of Latin, a love of history, and a passion for reading. (There were gaps in his math education, however. In his forties, Dad went to night school to try to get that half credit, just to have his high school diploma. Some of his co-workers from the electric plant went, too. The young teacher, maybe in the arrogance of youth, looked at them and saw louts. Dad found the instructor harsh and scathing; he was humiliated, and left the class. Years after Dad’s death, the government awarded GED certificates to those men who’d served in World War II at the expense of an education. I wish Dad had lived long enough to get that little piece of paper.)

It was not too long after Dad retired that I moved back home for about six months, saving some money before my first wedding.

I was working at the Book Nook at the time, and we were encouraged to read widely and talk intelligently about the books on the shelves. We could borrow books if we’d coddle them; we also got a hefty discount, and I took advantage of that to buy the books that were keepers. I was a book addict; I always had to have a book in progress, or I’d grow very, very nervous. So I had not only a book I was reading, but a book in waiting.

Turns out Dad and I had very similar taste in books.

It was the early 1980’s, an era of sweeping sagas. We re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We raced through The Thorn Birds. I had discovered Leon Uris’s work when I worked at the College library; I started reading him chronologically, buying the paperbacks.

Herman Wouk’s Winds of War (and later, War and Remembrance) captured both Dad and me. I would read it at night, compulsively, staying up until the birds chirped; Dad would read the same volume during the day, when I was at work. We were compelled by the Henry family and their story (Rhoda! What were you thinking???? Natalie! Get out of Italy!!!) The book had two bookmarks. If one of us put it down, the other snatched it up and ran away to hide and read.

We discovered, too, Ken Follett’s early books–The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. We agreed that Follett could tell a mean story and keep a reader thoroughly engrossed.

The reading season ended; I got married and life, on both sides, pulled hard in many directions. Dad and I still shared books, but more sedately,–maybe a once a month conversation with the passing of a tome. We each had our reading quirks–Dad would not read anything written in the first person. I went through a feminist period of only reading women authors. But we still found common ground.

Dad died in 1988, a year and a half and a day after my mother. I still miss my reading buddy.

So, when I came across Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth on a clearance rack–brand new, only a buck!–I did not pass it by. I discovered, during some Internet research, that this is the book of which Follett is most proud.

And Dad would enjoy it, too, I know, steeped as he was in Catholic worship and history, this story of the plans and machinations and personalities that went into the building of a cathedral circa 1100 AD. Dad spent some time in Father Baker’s orphanage as a boy; the orphanage was close to a basilica where Dad sometimes served Mass. It was a place we took pilgrimages to periodically when my brothers and I were kids…a special church with a special history.

Follett’s book is about a special church with a special history, too, and I am drawn into the story.


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