A Pen by the Phone

It was all my father ever wanted

| March / April 2005

My father was an avid reader. And a quiet person. But not an especially solitary soul. And he was a fairly large man. So, through much of my youth, there was this comforting sight: Dad reading. Lying flat on his back on the family couch, a book or folded-back magazine held straight over his head by an arm bent 30 degrees at the elbow, his belly a small hill against the tapestry landscape. Noise and commotion did not faze him. He read science books mostly, books about the planets or earthquakes or nutrition, Psychology Today and Scientific American (though we'd tried a couple of times, my sister Lisa and I could not understand a single world of that publication; the pictures weren't even all that interesting -- yet it could absorb Dad's attention for hours). That's how he read the evening newspaper and Newsweek, too. That was where he felt comfortable, reading amidst the mild chaos of his family.

There's a family story about Dad's reading. Though I don't remember it happening, I do play a key role in the story. My sister Beth is 13 years older than I am. One night she was at her part-time job as an usher at a movie theater. I was at home playing with, presumably, my stuffed animals and dolls. Dad was, of course, reading. I guess at some point I decided it would be fun to brush his hair. I got a brush and some of my little plastic barrettes, green, pink, yellow. I brushed and styled Dad's hair. He continued reading. Mom (as the story goes) came in and reminded him that he needed to pick Beth up at work. So he left to go get her. Poor Beth. Sixteen years old and completely mortified when her father drove up with a rainbow of barrettes covering his tangled hair.

This story is told, as such stories are, because it contains that humorous central image: a grown man wearing little girl hair accessories. But the central part of it is, I think, not that Dad had gone out in public like that but that he didn't even realize what he looked like. That he was so unselfconscious, so satisfied with each moment he was living that he could become absolutely absorbed in an article about telescopes or moon rockets -- and not even notice a 3-year-old pulling on his hair, snapping barrettes into place, patting her handiwork into perfection. My yanking on his hair didn't bother him because he was completely content in that place at that time. He was there, I was there, his reading lamp was on, the house was warm, and all was right with the universe. (It's too bad, I suppose, that Beth wasn't able to have quite the same perspective on things that night.)

My father did have one request in life. All he ever wanted was a pen by the phone. A simple demand, as demands of patriarchs go, yes -- but one we couldn't seem to honor. It would even cause him to raise his voice. He'd answer the phone in the kitchen; it would be for someone else and he'd want to take a message. Yet this quick task, this basic courtesy was impossible for him to perform. For there was No Pen By the Phone! Never a pen, right there by the phone. He would complain of this, loudly.

He'd pick up a bag of one dozen pens the next time he was at the drugstore buying aspirin, staples, chocolate bars. He'd put several of the pens in a cup by the phone. And, slowly or quickly, they'd disappear. We, his children and his wife, would take them. We weren't intentional thieves, just thoughtless kleptomaniacs. Frankly, though I do remember his harangues about the incredible and constant dearth of pens-by-the-phone, I have no recollection of ever having taken one. No memory of that whatsoever. Perhaps they got up and walked off on their own? Or perhaps I was too busy with the million other things I was doing at the moment to notice that I was also stealing the Pen that should stay By the Phone. And that I was not honoring the one clear and uncomplicated plea he had, a basic plan that would have made life better for all of us.

My father taught me simplicity, to live well in the ordinary moments of life -- but he didn't know he taught me this. He taught this lesson purely by example, not by design, and so I learned it better than most lessons I've learned. He read and looked so serene, so at home with the time and space he was inhabiting. It didn't take much: a soft sofa, a monthly magazine.

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