A Pen by the Phone

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.

My father was one of the few truly content people I have ever
known. He had the same basic needs we all have — food, shelter,
love — but few wants. He required only a space to himself,
intellectual stimulation, entertainment — and he got these in such
a gentle way. The rest of us, living our busy, full, often
disappointing and sometimes devastating lives required so much
more. Or felt that we did.

Looking back on all this, I wonder if I might be able to live
more as my father did. He has been gone now seven years, and we all
miss him, his presence, his wisdom, his stacks of incomprehensible
books and magazines next to the couch. I learned from watching him
that we need not search for serenity, that peace comes unbidden if
we prepare a small space and a little time to receive it. Perhaps
now I will be able not just to appreciate the way he lived his life
but also to follow his example, to find my own precious and quiet
bliss in the life I already have. To read and read and read on my
couch at home and to wish only for a simple pen by the phone.

Reprinted from Redwood Coast Review (Fall 2004), a
nonprofit literary review edited by poet Stephen Kessler and
published by the Friends of Coast Community Library in cooperation
with the Independent Coast Observer. Subscriptions: $20/yr. (4
issues) from Coast Community Library, Box 808, Point Arena, CA

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