If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way. Seamus Heaney
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the birthdays of two out of three of my favorite men fall in its wake. One belongs to our son, Duncan, the other to my late father, Henry. I think of Henry and his footprint in our era of belligerence and deliberate ignorance where men like him are scarce. My son reminds me of him — they both share a love of people and conversation. Both share similar eccentricities.
My father’s quirkiness lay just beneath a polished surface. His attention to dress stopped just short of dandyism, and he had conservative taste in music, clothes and pop culture. My father’s popular musical taste stopped at Peter, Paul and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot and the Everly brothers. I never once heard him praise the Beatles, and he made fun of all the fuss around famous musicians. He followed the rules of the road and thought the trends of newer generations suspect. But then his peculiarities would inevitably bubble up.
He loved language and believed in the power of a well placed word or the magic in a particular turn of phrase. He memorized Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, pored over the dictionary and would mark each word he looked up with a small dot. Years after his death, I found one of his old dictionaries in a consignment shop with his careful dots marching through the pages.
He longed for better manners, more civility, tossed around a vocabulary that few could grasp and made Spanish words like chimichanga and miércoles into swear words because he thought they had more zest and flair than the traditional stand-bys. His favorite invective was calling someone a cretan whenever poor behavior was on display, like bumping his bumper, using vulgar language in public or not letting ladies go first through the door. He was invariably astonished when his insult missed the mark. He was a curious blend of cluelessness and competence.
He tackled pursuit of order by keeping all of his appointments and lists in a little black book that was always on his person. Post It notes were proof of divine intervention, a brilliant coup against the mayhem of modern life. He planted those squares everywhere in his house and office–on his mirror, his cereal box, his eye glass case, the toilet seat, the rumps of their four dogs –reminding him to take care of the quotidian, or prompting him to memorize interesting words, facts or quotes. Or he would use them to capture bits of poetry. He had Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias scrawled on post-it notes clinging to his vanity mirror when he died.
So it was no surprise when he came up with his own corollaries to the Ten Commandments. He felt the first ten were strong, but there was room for expansion. Surely an adherence to some his suggestions would ensure an easier life.
I was the youngest of four, and when my father drove me up for my freshman year at Williams College he didn’t hide his feelings. He was weepy when we unpacked my things and retreated hastily to his accommodations when I left for orientation. The morning after our arrival he showed up at 6:45am, briskly rapping at my door and singing a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” utterly oblivious that the entire dorm entry was asleep. He delivered a letter, an extension cord, a hammer, dental floss, a dictionary, index cards, ballpoint pens and a kiss on the forehead before he drove back south to Virginia. He climbed in the car and pointed the beat up Ford Fairmont out of campus. We launched a voluminous correspondence to close the gap and wrote almost weekly from the time I left for college to the time I had children. His note to me that day read:
These are the corollaries to the Ten Commandments. I think my corollaries will serve you well in college, and in the great beyond. Do honor the original ten. Remember the wisdom of everything in moderation. (When we arrived he noticed shirtless boys playing ultimate frisbee on campus and remarked that in his day, the gentlemen of Williams wore clothes in public, especially on the first day of school.)
1. Never pass up an opportunity to pee.
2. Be on time. Chronic tardiness signals to the world that you are entirely self consumed.
3. Put the cap back on the dispenser, and screw it back on.
4. Return things to their original location.
5. Always, always thank people, preferably with a note. You will be surprised at how important this is
7. Stick to the truth.
8. When you get angry, you lose.
9. Don’t curse. It’s a lazy use of language. Be creative.
10. Do what you say you are going to do.
11. Nothing good gets accomplished after midnight.
12. When all else fails, read the instructions.
13. You could do worse than to read the dictionary.
14. You don’t know as much as you think you do. Listen and ask questions.
15. It is deadly to take yourself too seriously. Especially to those who have to put up with it.
16. Maintain your sense of humor. Always.
….and remember that your Daddy loves you.
He was particularly fond of 1, 2 and 11 and I find 16 especially useful in our surreal world. And Dad, I remember, I do.