Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371
Notes from Old LymeOctober 24, 2008
The Death of My Father, Forty Years On
“Forty years on, when afar and asunder
Parted are those who are singing today,
When you look back, and forgetfully wonder
What you were like in your work and your play,
Then, it may be, there will often come o’er you,
Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song –
Visions of boyhood shall float them before you,
Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.”
Words from the song, “Forty Years On”
Edward Ernest Brown & John Farmer, 1872
It is sitting at the dining room table that I remember him best. Dishes have been cleared. My brother, Frank, is usually there. One of us is generally sitting atop the wood stove, which provides heat to this room and the living room, the warmest spot in the house on cold winter days. In age, we are between ten and fourteen. It is our conversation that stays with me. My brother and I argue with our father, in a Socratic manner, with adolescent fervor searching for explanations and answers. Papa, pipe always at hand, responds calmly and with humor, a well-thumbed dictionary within easy reach. It is the way we learn. He supplements his arguments with stories from fiction and his childhood and we learn colorful stories from our family’s past. Once I left for school, college, marriage and then work the scene repeats, as my younger siblings submit themselves to this didactic process.
My father, who would have turned ninety eight this past August, died forty years ago this December 2 at far too young an age. He had been a smoker his entire life, giving up cigarettes only a few years before his death. The cancer in his lungs metastasized to his brain where it first manifested itself. A dropped glass on the kitchen floor was the first inkling that all was not well. He died ten months later.
Being twenty-seven when he died, I was one of the fortunate ones. My youngest sibling, George, was only thirteen and so missed much of the wisdom and comfort he offered to me as a boy and as a young father.
He grew up in circumstances very different from the life he lived, as I knew him, on a small, rocky farm in New Hampshire where he raised, with my mother, nine children and lived the life of an impecunious artist. He was brought up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in the house in which his mother had been born in 1875. Her grandfather had been a merchant banker in Paris, then returned to Boston about 1850 and became a successful investor in the newly industrialized United States. My great-great grandfather had enormous love for his expanding family and built homes, and beautiful gardens, on abutting properties for his children. It was in one of those houses, a classic Victorian, that was home to my father throughout his childhood and until he was married. His parents also owned a summer place – a farm on several hundred acres – in Peterborough, New Hampshire and it was there that my father’s love and imagination was truly captivated. During vacations friends from the Belmont Hill School and, later, Harvard would come to visit. On the New Hampshire property was a second house, about a mile, by way of a woods road, from that of my grandparents. The smaller house, known locally as the Dodge Place (named after a family who lived there around the start of the twentieth century and who manufactured mercury based thermometers) was the house that became my parents home when they married in late spring of 1938.
The Country was mired in Depression when my parents married in New Haven, Connecticut. They moved to New Hampshire, to a house on a dirt road, four miles from the village, to a house heated by wood with no insulation (other than in the two bathrooms). A barn housed a couple of horses, a few goats and several chickens. An out-building was converted to a studio, as both my parents were artists, who met while studying sculpture in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
However, that was all before my time. When I was three, and shortly before my sister, Betsy, was born, my father, in April 1944, was drafted into the army. He served with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, winning a Bronze Star for meritorious service in combat in the Italian Apennines. By November 1945 the War was over and he was home for good.
As an artist, my father’s days were spent at home. He would be up early, light the stove, put on the oatmeal, check the coal-fired hot water furnace and head to the barn. At some point toward the mid 1950s, my mother, never much for housekeeping, assumed the barn chores, but in the early post-war years that was his province. Early morning involved feeding and milking the goats, feeding the chickens, gathering any eggs and feeding and putting out to pasture the horses. The barn was built of weather-beaten, unpainted boards. It was large, with pens for the goats, a chicken coop and horse stalls; it had a hayloft above and manure pit below and exuded an odorous, but warm and comfortable feeling. My father had been a life-long Republican who had disliked President Franklin Roosevelt. I recall, once, coming home from school – a young wise-assed kid – going to the barn where my father was in the midst of milking some unfortunate goat. My teacher had read to us of Roosevelt and the packing of the Supreme Court. I suggested to my father that it sounded like a sensible move, given the problem his administration was having at that time with the courts. The goat bleated and jumped about, the innocent victim of my father’s anger, as her teats were yanked impulsively by my father.
He was a genial man. In appearance he had a slight build – about my size – standing about 5’9’’. He was lean and muscular and proud of his strength and his physical well being – not from working out, but because of constant physical work. His normal dress was blue jeans with a blue work shirt in the summer and a green and black plaid woolen shirt in colder weather. I never remember seeing him in shorts or polo-type shirts. His hands were calloused, as he rarely wore gloves, and his hair, graying at the temples, was cut short by my mother. He was quiet, shy and polite in an old fashioned way. My wife recalls his standing when she first met him. He had a good sense of humor, but never liked ethnic and off-color jokes. Other than when he was in the service, he rarely wrote letters and he was never comfortable on the telephone. Not being able to see the person to whom he was speaking made conversation difficult for him. I remember long silences, periodically interrupted, by a harrumph and a puff on his pipe.
He had little respect for convention, so had no trouble taking us out of school if a big snow storm had blown through. Of course, as an artist, it made little difference to him whether he worked on Tuesday or Sunday. We might, on a week day, jump into the car and drive to Sunapee. While morning chores would have to be done, my mother was left at home to care for the younger children and deal with the animals. He loved to ski and to ski fast. Having learned to ski in the late 1920s he stood straight – riding down the hill on captured German skis wearing captured German ski boots, both of which he had brought home from Italy. While he never wore the insignia of the 10th Mountain Division, we often ran into other veterans and he always spoke to them. I remember being embarrassed by his old fashioned dress and dated skis and boots and welcomed the time at Stowe, around 1953, when he fell on the Nose Dive and, tearing the upper boot from its sole, was forced to buy new boots. But he also gave in to us, his children, more than he should. Once, in Stowe, at about the same time, we had the opportunity to hear the Von Trapp family. He put the decision to a vote and we chose to see a movie. He should have over-riden us. He didn’t.
An annual expedition on Christmas Eve was a trip into the woods to cut down a tree. He would hitch ‘Judy’ to a sledge and off we would go – never very far, perhaps a half mile at the most – bringing home a tree, which he decorated with real candles, a bucket of water within easy reach. That evening, before the annual reading of The Night before Christmas, as we hung our stockings, he would bring ‘Mitzi’, our Shetland pony, into the house, so that she could hang her ‘shoe’ over the fireplace. During the night Santa would have left an apple tied to her shoe and, in the morning, ‘Mitzi’ would return to the living room, my father beside her, to accept the gift.
Vignettes stay in my mind – picturing him outside on a spring day chopping wood, his shirt off; mowing the grass on a summer afternoon with the quiet clicking of the hand mower; gathering leaves, in late autumn, to press against the house’s foundation as a means to provide natural (and insufficient) insulation; replacing steel edges at the end of winter’s day of skiing. Hundreds of these visions remain in my mind, available for instant recall; the passage of time having neither diminished their number nor faded their clarity.
After my maternal grandfather died in 1947 my grandmother admonished me to remember him often, for when you do, she said, he will come alive. It took me a few years to realize the wisdom of that simple advice. She was right. People do come alive when we recall them, if only in our own memories, but that is sufficient. Forty year on I still miss my father and often think of him; Robert Service’s lines from his poem, The Spell of the Yukon, come to mind, “It’s the beauty that thrills with words, / It’s the stillness that fills with peace.” I feel better.