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Friday, May 21, 2010

the oak book case

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If a person could be represented by an inanimate object, my father would be this oak book case. These stacked barristers that encase sets of Hemingway, George MacDonald, the Brontës, Miss Austen, Alcott, Dostoyevsky, Dickens and British mysteries, among others, in the corner of our family room, once held Bible concordances the size of shoe boxes and theology books on every Christian theme known to the Church, in my father's upstairs library: Gray & Adams' commentaries, Encyclopedias of Religious Knowledge and missionary histories, as well as his impressive hymnbook collection. The house was long and narrow, the upstairs hall reaching from front to back. Besides four ceiling-high stacks of barristers in two studies that book-ended the long hall, one in the front end's huge bay window where one of his two roll-top desks (without the roll-tops) window-faced Lincoln Street, and the other in the small bedroom at the back end of the long hall with a tiny balcony escape adjacent to the other desk without its roll-top, he had also built neat shelves lining one wall of the entire hallway floor to ceiling. Every hair's breadth of space on these shelves was perfectly fitted with books by theme, in various states of wear, each spine religiously aligned with the shelf's edge.

It wasn't only the books he loved with their millions of characters in thousands of pages that made up the tools of his trade communicating the word of God. He loved their shelves and book cases, too. He loved wood. He loved boards. My dad was gone before we moved to this farm, but we lived on another small farm for a short while twenty years ago, and my brother Bennett caught him on video walking into the soft filtered afternoon light of the tall barn as if into a sanctuary, then with his beautiful carpenter's hand (yes, like Jesus), stroking the 100-year-old boards as wide as the tree they were rough sawn from, a look of ecstasy on his face and a deep moan from his chest, while rays of light through the boards wrapped him in a celestial aura. Really. Just like that.

My mother came from fine mahogany stock, but Dad was of oak. Simple, steady, slow growing, common in those days (he told us he paid just $4 per oak barrister section in the 1940s), and strong. He lived an inner life with the windowed door closed six days a week, and on the 7th, the door opened, and he spoke. I remember him strolling the long hall on Saturday nights, rehearsing his Sunday sermon in quiet whispers, while I was downstairs watching a movie on television, occasionally hearing the floor creak under his pacing feet. He gathered inspiration from his forest of oak shelves and leaves of bookish testimony and carved an unaffected piece of clear prose.

At my family's cottage we have a large black and white etching Dad bought somewhere, some time of a teenage Jesus standing in his father Joseph's carpenter studio. There is light flooding in from the window, sawdust and pale curled shavings like fallen leaves on the floor, a plane, chisel and mallet covered in wood pollen, left hurriedly on the work table as if Joseph had just run to help his neighbor pry a sheep loose from stones. This young boyish Jesus contemplates the work of his earthly father, and the heavenly light from another Father pours in the window, melding in a marquetry of dark and light, air and wood, sun and earth. Infusion of the divine in the human and humble was my father's joy.
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65 comments:

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Ruth, so you come from a deep rich mahogany and oak stock. That explains a lot of things.

This is an extraordinarily beautiful and moving piece. More than that, it is a gift and I thank you. I am sure everyone of us who reads it will feel it is a personal gift to each and every one of us.

A post to be treasured and returned to ... again and again. I will reread this many times today, out loud when I'm alone (surrounded by my Ikea furniture, now rendered more unsatisfying than ever!).

João said...

I love the idea of Jesus as a carpenter.
His heavenly father is much praised, but I think perhaps we could all learn a lesson or two of His human father and his simple, humble but demanding craft.

kanmuri said...

This is such a beautiful portrait of your father. It made me want to meet the man. Beautiful!

Susan said...

Solid and quiet, oak trees don't say much, they don't rustle like the cottonwood, but you know you can depend on them being there and being strong and trustworthy, and they produce lovely little acorns. :)

This is a beautiful tribute to your dad, Ruthie.

Gwei Mui said...

This is such a rich and profound post Ruth. I have always been surrounded by books, they were my closest friends, heavy and leather bound some yellowing at the corners from age. Even now our little flat s crammed (literally) from floor to ceilng with books. The idea that your father as a grand old oak bookcase is a wonderful way of thinking. Thank you for sharing this.

♥ Kathy said...

That was truly beautiful Ruth!

deb said...

Ruth,
I am speechless.

I too will print this out and treasure it forever. You have written life words into me. What love.

I want to live inside this beauty you have created.

Deborah said...

Ruth, your quietly beautiful writing has created an indelible scene. I am very glad you wanted to share this memory of your father here - I could hear his footsteps too.

Vagabonde said...

This is a touching post about your father. These golden oak shelves go so well with old books. I have seen some at the Atlanta antique markets, but they are prohibitive now. Having books around is such a great comfort. If I go into a home and see no books it feels so cold. Your picture is very nice I can almost feel the softness and warmth of the oak. This is a lovely recollection that I think your father would have enjoyed.

RoSe said...

A beautifully crafted post Ruth, one of your best, there are so many, but I love this one in that it is woven with love, memories and divine inspiration.

California Girl said...

Ruth, such a nice way to describe your dad. I know what you mean. I was intrigued to hear he read George MacDonald. My husband introduced me to MacDonald vis a vis "Lilith" when we were in college, devouring fantasies like "Steppenwolf" and "Stranger in a Strange Land" etc. I was always re-reading my two "Alice" books so he tossed it to me one day and said something like,

"MacDonald was a great friend of Lewis Carroll."

I rarely hear about him and it is nice to see.

dutchbaby said...

I love the personification of these book cases, holding all the knowledge, poetry, and prose behind glass -- brought out by invitation only. You described your father's strong silent presence in a beautiful reverend fashion. He would be proud. You are a beautiful parquet of mahogany and oak, crafted in a pleasing, intricate pattern for the world to enjoy.

caroldiane said...

Ruth - your words are so artfully crafted - this is an extraordinary piece, such a loving portrait of your father! I love the analogy of the trees - I use it in my coaching. Thank you, just, thank you! xo

Helena said...

Wonderful text. And book case! Always wanted a book case like that.

My grandfather (who raised me) wasn't a priest but he often spoke at the church and I was amazed at how talented he was in writing stories and speeches. He never really spoke anything at home.

He was also a carpenter, and I still have many of his works. He was one of those quiet heros of this world. Fought in the second world war and took care of a large family, never complained.

Claudia said...

I'm a book person and I'm a wood person and for that alone I would like this post. But I also have a passion for my parents' beautifully bound old books in their oak and cherry wood bookcases. And during a troubled period in his life, my Dad used to spend hours in the attic working wood to distract himself - he made us complete sets of furniture for the dolls and even new, sturdy beds, one of which is still used by my youngest sister. For all of this and your mastery of prose, I absolutely love this post.

Pauline said...

you learned your own word craft at the hands of a master... this is a marvelous portrait, bringing your father to life in front of us with the same sort of reverence he felt for books and wood.

Shari Sunday said...

I don't think my previous comment worked. Beautiful tribute to your father. There is a feeling of completion to so perfectly describe a thought and preserve it. It seems to provide a certain closure. Interesting thought as to what inanimate object would best represent a human spirit. I am pondering that both for myself and other people in my life. Thank you.

Ruth said...

dear Lorenzo, your response to this touches me deeply. I so admire your writing and sensibilities that each word of praise is very gratifying.

As for Ikea, that company has a brilliant concept, and the designs are aesthetically very pleasing. But I know what you mean, I think. We are very eclectic here though, with beloved heirlooms fine and rough, and new inexpensive things that are efficient and just fine. Oh, and a few things that should probably be tossed, but I can't bear to.

Ruth said...

João, your good comment makes me wonder if books or movies have been made about Joseph. I'm thinking there must be, but I don't remember hearing about them. I also wondered if there is a difference between a carpenter and a woodworker. Like maybe a carpenter builds houses and big structures, and a woodworker builds furniture and small things?

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, Your father and mother lived an interesting life to say the least. To think of the sacrifice with all of the children and church work.
Our parents were made from a different mold, humble and filled with humility. None of this brash aggressive behavior of our current generation.
I miss that.
When my father passed away and we had his memorial service I was struck by humbleness of his life and his actions.
We can all learn from that. Religious or not...

Ruth said...

Kanmuri, thank you. I don't say this lightly, but it struck me when I read your words, I think he would have liked you too. There is some quality about you that would have drawn him to you.

Ruth said...

Susie sweet, yes. Thank you. And sometimes too many acorns! But eight is enough. :)

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, oh thank you. Books are the best furniture, and never ever do I think they are clutter. A house, a room, an apartment, any dwelling is heaven for me if there are stacks of books, neat or disheveled. Hallelujah, all praise to books!

Ruth said...

(not that yours are cluttered, Gwei Mui.)

Susan said...

Ruth, lovely lovely lovely.
And I so agree about books; I was lucky in that both my parents were mad for books. In the summer, my mom and I would spend hours in the cool of the library, walking out with stacks up to our chins which we would devour all week, then return for a new batch.
My dad had a massive collection of old science fiction, his guilty pleasure.
My biggest regret is letting some of them go at auction after they both died; it seemed like too much to carry, yet I miss them all like family now.

Ruth said...

Thank you, and welcome back, ♥ Kathy.

Ruth said...

Welcome to the world of my dad, Deb, at least through my head.

I am so happy after seeing your "checkin' in" post with the vintage image of you and your brother that I just want to go live in that world for a while. It's fun to share and trade memories, no?

Arti said...

For some reasons your post makes me think of that noble fictional character Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout. I don't think it's at all far-fetched to say I await your book one day, maybe a memoir or novel based on your growing up days. Ruth, this is a warmly filtered, luminous writing. My other thought is... have you read the book by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead? It's a MUST READ for you. I won't say more.

Ruth said...

Deborah, your appreciation is much appreciated. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Vagabonde. Yes, when we had these barristers appraised a number of years ago, they were $200 per section. There are different sizes, so you have to be careful to get the same size if you're going to stack them.

I think, though I'm not sure, that my father did not have as many books as you do.

Ruth said...

Oh that is so kind, RoSe. I'm finding that with just paying attention to my parents within the memories I have, I am learning more about them.

ds said...

Yes, I can see him. Just like that. A beautiful tribute; thanks so much for sharing your dad with us. Also, Arti is right--you should read Gilead, if you haven't already.

Terresa said...

I'm with Lorenzo...my Ikea furniture just doesn't emit the same resonating depth as oak, as this post.

I would have loved to have met your father. What a tribute to him in this piece.

Ruth said...

Thank you, California Girl, and yes, I deliberately wrote George MacDonald here to prick the ears of anyone who might have read him. He's on our book shelf, not my dad's. I doubt my dad would have approved: George MacDonald didn't believe in hell, and was ostracised by his fellows. Don and I read Sir Gibbie, The Princess and the Goblin, and Curdie, Donal Grant, and other novels out loud when we were first married, Scottish brogue and all. It was wonderful. He had a big influence on many authors in addition to C.S. Lewis, says wiki: W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle. He and Mark Twain were friends. He was a mentor to Lewis Carroll. I especially love his Father Christmas book he illustrated for his son, and At the Back of the North Wind. It's very cool that you know and read him.

She Writes said...

Lorenzo sent me over, and I ma so glad he did. This is a beautiful tribute to your father. I once had shelves lines with books like these.

rauf said...

Good that i wasn't there in the congregation. i am a trouble maker. i would have said 'please tell us something new Father, i've heard this story before'

Your dad had the most difficult job Ruth. He had to tell the people things they already knew, but with a difference. He had to create that difference like Homer did and make the same messages and stories more interesting and make them relevant to the present life. This requires imagination and inputs. Your dad had them both in his mind and in the oak book case.

Your Mom and Dad are blessed with very sensible and understanding younger generation who don't consider old things as junk (you are included in younger generation Ruth) My younger generation says this is occupying huge space lets get rid of it, we need more space. What do you do with newly created space ? You bring in more things.

i love my putter table Ruth, i designed it myself. This table knows my state of mind.
oh, today he is cleaning up ! must be in good mood.

The oak book case is as alive as the members of the family. The whole furniture makes a family Ruth, even if a person is living alone.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Dutchbaby. You and your words mean a lot to me.

I realized after posting this piece that my avatar is a tree too. (But I don't know what kind; guess I'd better find out.)

Ruth said...

Thank you very much, Caroldiane. I feel that way about your post on the occasion of your daughter's birthday too. Heartfelt love.

Ruth said...

Helena, your grandfather was something. I think I remember photos of him you posted, from the war? Or was that someone else?

When I was 11 I was playing at a friend's house, who was in my dad's parish. My dad came for a pastoral visit while I was there, and I sat, stunned, on the couch while he talked with the family. I did not know he spoke anywhere but the pulpit.

Ruth said...

So, Claudia, you come from oak and cherry. I remember your gorgeous photo of your own reading corner with chair, books and lamp. Idyllic. You are one of my most well read friends, and I cherish your mind.

The image of your father woodworking in the attic through his difficulties is beautiful. Having heirlooms from his hands is a treasure beyond measure.

Your words here and at FB this week have touched me more than I can say. Hand on my heart.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pauline, I love hearing this from you, a wordsmith.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Shari, sweet woman. I was so tickled to see your post on the country goose after this. :)

Ruth said...

Cathy, you have made a profound observation comparing the generations this way.

I had an uncle who was more humble than my father. When I was flying to his funeral in Virginia, I was struck with how he was modest and self-deprecating, as you described your father, and how we - friends and family - were traveling from around the country to say our final good-byes, like spokes, and he was the center. I wrote a poem about it. It's a shame that we often wait until someone is gone to reflect on their impact. Maybe that's just how it works, but I think it would be nice to have "appreciation" services for people while they are still alive.

Marcie said...

Love the metaphor of your father being 'oak' - in all of its strength and luster..and understated elegance. Beautiful!!!

Ruth said...

Thank you, book-loving Susan. Oh we go through this too. Should we keep books we've already read? I've read every book in this oak book case, I think, and yet I love them sitting there, part of the furniture. And you're right, they're like family too.

Don't you love the smell of library books?

Ruth said...

Sweet Arti, ohhh my heart melted when I read your comment comparing my post with the, for me, nostalgic and warm Atticus Finch and Scout. I have not read Gilead, but thanks for the reminder to look for it, since I had heard about it years ago. I will follow your guidance and put it on my list for the library, and reading this summer.

I would love to write a memoir-ish book about my family memories. It's daunting, but maybe these posts are slivers from that big timber. You have to start somewhere, right? Someone even suggested a book just for the family, a collection of these posts, to cement the memories. With Blurb and other self publishing entities, it would not be so hard. Thank you for your encouragement, which means so very much from you, my literary friend.

Babs-beetle said...

Why does that one word continually come to mind when I read your posts?

Beautiful!

Ruth said...

Thank you, dear DS, for your comment, and the second to Arti's Gilead rec. I'll get it, read it, and tell you both my thoughts about it. Promise.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Terresa, sometimes I think it's what you put into that Ikea that matters, and into the oak, and the mahogany. There are some rich vessels that are not worthy of their contents.

Oh dear, you and my father. He too was a redhead, as bright as yours before my memory. And wavy and flowing, and longish when he was young. And the things of the spirit - I think you would have had a grand time with him. And he would have felt quite shy, sheepish, and gallant around someone as lovely as you.

Ruth said...

Hello, She Writes, I am glad Lorenzo sent you too, thank you. I sure enjoyed your piece on Friends.

Ruth said...

rauf, I wonder if you would have been a trouble making elder. I heard only a few stories about my dad's career of troubles with church elders. One was when he told the story of the Good Samaritan with the Samaritan as a black man. This was in the South, and it didn't go over well. Another was a different congregation, when a good number of congregants threatened to leave the church because Dad believed Jesus would return to take his children home after the tribulation, not before. Such troubles just based on what people believe, what's in our heads. My mother told Dad every Sunday after the service: "Carl, that was the best sermon you ever preached."

I'm afraid we've gotten confused about things, rauf. We got used to acquiring so many things that the things themselves don't seem to have much meaning any more. It's good to have a few good things that get our attention, that we take care of, that we even meditate on. I think about the hands that touched these things!

You designed your whole space to your needs, customized. That's very special, and organic, like an extension of you.

Ruth said...

Marcie, you are perceptive, he was elegant. Thank you for your enthusiasm. :)

Ruth said...

Babs, I dunno, but I know that every time I read one of your posts one word comes to mind: hilarious.

:D

SwedeHart said...

I'm sad I was never allowed to explore the back study. It was like a secret fortress, but always locked and forbidden. On rare occasions I would be allowed to walk through it to get to the roof, but that was the extent of it.

I once had a dream that the world was collapsing around me, and I had to lead some people to safety. But G'pa (already dead a few years) called me into his study (yes, the whole upstairs) and pulled a huge book out. He gave it to me to take on the journey. It had the answers we would need to survive. It wasn't a Bible, though. I have always wondered what the book contains, and suspect someday I may find out.

Ruth said...

, I had no idea!

Did you go out to the roof to sunbathe, as I did? That black tar sure got HOT.

Hmm, the dream book. Rachel's book of dreams and life. Just for you, I think. You were very special to Grandpa.

N. Carl Hart said...

Aunt Ruth, your interest in his aesthetic matches my interest in the subject of his passion, that is, the gospel.

(BTW, I know you're interested in more than "just" his aesthetic.)

How can one figure shine so many lights? And cast so many shadows? I can still smell the dry air in his second floor study... That same spirit--no, Spirit--used to inhabit the red room at the cottage.

Jeanie said...

Oh, what a finely etched picture I have and how I love the idea of the oak bookcase and mahogany as metaphors -- no, analogies, I think -- for these special people.

Your gift for using words is indeed a beautiful one, finely honed. Yes, I can see it.

joanny said...

A rich inviting essay -- your father's soul is the time worn patina on the beautiful wooden bookcases and his essence is left between the pages of your favorite books.

Joanny

Lorenzo passed this lovely blog and short story on for those who love to read and write as a piece worth reading. So glad he did.

lovely you said...

I love this post so much. It reminds me of my grandfather who died before I was born. He was a carpenter, mostly a cabinetmaker. I wrote to my mom after reading this to ask her if she or my aunts have any of his work. My Aunt Ruby in Michigan wrote back to say that she has the very first piece he ever made and that I can have it. (She has a few other pieces she still uses.) I am so excited to know that his work is still around for our family to enjoy. I want to learn more about him. And, anyway, all this! because of your beautiful writing. I wanted you to know. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Nathan, yes, there was something palpable in the red room. Definitely spirit. It always frightened me. I guess it didn't help that I was reading Edgar Allen Poe at the time. :)

Ruth said...

Jeanie, I appreciate your kind words very much. It's good touching the book case too, knowing my dad touched it over and over, opening those doors.

Ruth said...

Dear Joanny, welcome, and thank you so much for reading and commenting. It is lovely to have you visit.

Ruth said...

Tracy! You have an aunt in Michigan!? And how are you going to get this piece your grandfather made from Michigan to Australia? Wish I could bring it over.

Thank you for your good words, always.

lovely you said...

Yes, my Aunt Ruby lives in Grayling. Jason will be done with the program here in August (and with law school!) so we will be headed home then. And once back stateside, I think a road trip to Michigan might be in order. I like road trips.

Ruth said...

Tracy, I hope hope hope.