MY FATHER'S BIBLE
I am attached to many possessions: a pair of cowboy boots I’ve owned for close to thirty years and resoled more times than I can remember, stones from places I have travelled, my collection of state plates, assembled from years of haunting New Hampshire yard sales and currently lacking only North Dakota and Delaware. I hold onto certain vinyl record albums from my teens (including—until one of my sons raided my collection—the original bannedversion of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today). But not so much books. And this is odd no doubt, given my line of work.
But maybe it’s because I’m a person for whom the words themselves, not the paper on which they’re printed or the covers that bind them, are what holds value, I am mostly unsentimental about possessing a particular copy of a book I love. When one edition of Pride and Prejudice gets worn out, I just pick up another in some used bookstore, same as I did when I couldn’t lay my hands on my originalWill You Please Be Quiet Please (though I bet it was a first edition) and (in a different mood) Blueberries for Sal.
In all my lifetime of reading, there may be only one book I have ever hungered to possess as a physical object. I don’t own this book, and I haven’t laid eyes on it for thirty years. Still I doubt it would be an exaggeration to say that at least once a week, the wish that I could hold this book in my hands and turn its pages comes over me, and when it does, I’m struck by a sharp wave of sadness and regret. The book is my father’s Bible.
I can think of no way of conveying what this book means to me without a few words of explanation first, concerning the Bible’s original owner. Twenty eight years after his death—having now lived longer without my father than I did with him—I find the images that remain of him have burned down to a small but powerful few. Laid out together, they form a portrait of the man as I knew him.
I see him standing on the edge of our town pool—the only father, the only person in our whole town most likely, to wear a suit of the old-fashioned style, a relic from his British youth, with a top covering his chest—instructing me in how to swim the crawl. In his fifties when I was born, my father remained a beautiful swimmer.
I see him on those Saturday mornings we went sketching together—walking side by side through the New Hampshire countryside, each of us brandishing a walking stick. His, he would raise to the sky now and then, a signal to freeze and cease all conversation as he instructed me to study the particular way the light hit a patch of grass, or a cloud formation, or a certain stand of trees
“Listen, Chum,” he whispered, in a manner that commanded reverence. He had detected the song of a warbler. Or a thrush. Possibly (though this was rare) a lark. He knew all their voices, and whistled back to them.
I see him in our living room , listening to a recording of Mozart Horn Concertos by Dennis Brain, scratched from much playing. He is conducting the music from the chair with wild, passionate gestures. His eyes are damp; Mozart has this effect on him, particularly when combined with vodka.
I see my father in his attic studio, palette knife in hand, surveying a piece of masonite on which he would be painting –-large, bold, beautiful but not remotely representational landscapes, inspired by the places we went on our walks and sketching trips. Making art was not how my father made his living, but the urgency for making art every single day burned at the center of his life. And every night.
I have no image of my father drinking, but many of him drunk. Lurching from one half-finished painting to another, moving pieces of construction paper on the board—should it go here, or here, what did I think? He was a man in love with color, with paint on canvas, lines on paper, forms, and the spaces between forms. His paintings consumed him, buthardly anybody in our town or anyplace else ever saw them besides our family--my mother, my sister and me. Mostly these viewings took place late nights in our attic. Mostly, under the influence of alcohol.
I have never known a person to love art more than my father did. For him, it was a religion.
There was a question he would ask of people who came to our house—possibly an old friend, but equally likely, a random acquaintance or, on one horrifying occasion, my sixteen-year-old boyfriend, come to pick me up for a night at the movies. My date was not yet through the threshold of our door before my father put the question to him:
“Tell me my good man,” my father said to the boy I hoped would be my boyfriend, in a voice whose timbre and inflection could have served him well on the stage, “what is the definition of Beauty?”
And then there is this one other image I hold of my father, all these long years since the last time I heard his voice. So many years later, in fact, that I am now, myself, close to the age he must have been when I first registered this picture of him.
It’s early morning, possibly not even six o’clock, but he is up and dressed--a heartbreakingly handsome man, who managed to look dapper even though his clothes tended to be a little shabby. He rises before the sun, and because I am his daughter, and I adore him, and I know he believes that when the sun gets up, so should I, I am coming down the stairs to start my day with him.
He is sitting at our dining room table already, eating his poached egg and toast, and there is a book beside him at the table. Two, actually.
On one side of his plate is a heavy, oversized volume called The Loom of Art, filled with reproductions of paintings from the Louvre –from before the Italian Renaissance up through the Impressionists. Mornings like these, my father may study a single image for whole minutes. Possibly the entire meal. My father is always checking art books out of the library, but this one we own, and because we don’t own many, he knows every image as well as he knows my face.
The other book I see before him on the table—just as much a fixture as the first, more so probably—contains no illustrations. The print on the pages is impossibly small, even for my young eyes, and surely must strain his, except he is sufficiently familiar with the words he barely needs to read them. This book is the Bible—King James version, Old Testament and new. And though it has been decades since my father worshipped at a church, and longer since he would have spoken of himself as a believer—though he is married (problematically) to a Jewish woman-- it is this book he values more than any other in our household I think. (More than Milton, Elliot, Spenser, Yeats, or the poetry of William Blake, though in his deep, melodious voice he recites to me “Little Lamb Who Made Thee?” every night when he puts me to bed).
If—in our household filled with books—a fire were to threaten us, and there was only time to retrieve a single volume, I believe it would be his Bible my father would reach for. Though it is also the book that represents everything my father tried to leave behind him long ago when he left home—and never could. My father both loved the Bible, and , I think, despaired of its hold on him. And because I grew up the daughter of a man who was powerfully conflicted in his relationship to that book, I carried my own brand of ambivalence about that book.
“You know, Chum,”he says to me often, on these occasions. “You really need to read the Bible.”
Mmm, I might say, before turning back to my Nancy Drew.
My father was the son of British missionaries, born in India, in a little outpost somewhere in the south of that country, where his minister father and former Salvation Army follower mother had come, from England, to spread the word of the Lord. His parents had left the Salvation Army because its practices and creed had come to seem too liberal, and joined instead a sect known as the Plymouth Brethren who believed that a person needed one book and one only to get through this lifetime on earth, and that book was the Bible of course.
My father was a naturally curious person, hungry for the world and eager to experience what he called “the life of the senses “ that his own stern parents disdained and prohibited. Even as a child, I knew, he sought out music and literature, and most of all art, and was punished severely when he went against his father’s bidding and secretly purchased—with his life savings—a paintbox.
I cannot begin to fathom how it could be that the images an eight-year-old boy made in his sketchbook with a dime store box of paints could be viewed as the devil’s work –but I suppose any endeavor that took a person away from studying the Bible was an endeavor to avoid, in the world of the Plymouth Brethren. The paints were confiscated.
That story, more than any other of his childhood, captured my imagination during my own growing up years. No fairy tales for my father, or Greek mythology, or Norse fables. But he knew the Bible inside out, and could recite the Psalms, and long passages from the Old Testament. The irony is that though he left the church young—abandoned the teachings of his family and the tight constraints religion had placed on him, to become a modern artist—he never lost his love of the Bible. It was a book he studied all his life.
My father didn’t simply read his Bible. He remained engaged in a sixty-some year conversation with its authors. And so his Bible—the copy he took out every morning at breakfast—was not simply well-worn but heavily annotated. I doubt there was a page in that book on which he had not written some comment or observation. Generally many.
Along with that question—What is Beauty--there was a line he delivered to me at least a hundred times over the years of my growing up—two, actually.
He told me regularly that I needed to develop a good crawl stroke. He told me with even greater frequency that I needed to read the Bible.
I had better things to do of course. To a ten, or twelve, or fourteen-year-old girl—or a twenty-one-year-old, or a twenty-five-year-old—studying the Bible was as foreign an activity as learning to play bridge, or embarking on a course in embalming. Like most young people of my day, I sought out what was entertaining and diverting, or shocking, or popular. There was no place in my life for a book in which the characters were struck with boils or pestilence, where women were cast out by their husbands for the failure to conceive offspring, and goats were sacrificed.
The Old Testament was crazy and out of date, of course. The New Testament was tedious and irrelevant. I had rock and roll to occupy me. Clothes. Movies. Getting into college.
And then love. And then babies, and marriage. Earning a living. Figuring out who I was in the world. I wanted to explore the stuff of real life--not some dusty out- of-date story from long ago.
Around the time I left home for college, my parents’ marriage had ended, when my father—now an advanced alcoholic, but still painting daily, and still a man in possession of devastating charm and a kind of wild and raging brilliance—took up with a student of his, forty five years younger than he. They moved to a house in the country and she became his sketching companion. They moved to England, but things did not go well. They moved back to New Hampshire and they parted, violently.
His life spun more and more out of control after that—with middle- of-the- night phone calls to me when things with her got impossible, when he was desperate. The girlfriend was going crazy. There was no money. His health was failing. The world was a mess. Where, where, where in all of this lay Beauty?
I saw him only a few times a year after that. He was thinner than me now, with every bone in his skull visible, though he still sported those jaunty ascots of his, and took walks with his sketching pad and stick, quoteing poetry and noting the songs of birds along the way. Another thing that never changed: my father still made art.
At the age of seventy three, he moved out to the west coast of Canada and was recognized at last as an artist in a small but significant way by first one gallery there and then others. He was celebrated with a one-man show. He joined AA, where his testimony was, I’m told, an unfailing inspiration to all who struggled for sobriety.
When I was twenty-seven, my father came down with pneumonia. He had been sober for a while at this point, but had a relapse, went on a bender, and it did him in. He died a few months shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving stacks of sketchbooks and several hundred beautiful paintings, a few art books, a half dozen natty ascots and fedoras, and drawers full of art supplies.
From three thousand miles away I came for the funeral, and to assist in what is known as putting the affairs in order—though how isa person to put in order a life that never was?
The paintings—after my sister and I made our personal selections—were consigned to a gallery. The clothing was given away. My father had been living, those last years, in a single room of an old person’s residence hotel. He owned almost nothing.
It took no more than a few hours to clean out his room. There was a twelve steps manual in his room, and an unfamiliar looking Bible l. But when I asked about his old Bible—the one I grew up with, in which he’d written all his life-- nobody could find it.
“I think he gave it to Susan years ago,” one of my father’s friends told me. Meaning the girlfriend.
So the book I’d watched my father reading and writing in for all the years of my growing up was gone. I registered the news with more shock than I would have ever guessed, and more than that, a terrible and crushing sense of loss.
All my life, my father had urged me to read the Bible. Knowing I had never done this, he had quoted from it as liberally as a lawyer might invoke the constitution. But in the end, it was not I, his well-loved younger daughter, but this strange interloper who had taken off with his most precious book. Maybe he’d given up on my ever opening it. Maybe he’d given up on the possibility that I’d ever know real wisdom or enlightenment, or even seek it out. Maybe he’d lost all hope somewhere along the line.
I could have purchased my own Bible of course. It is never difficult to find a copy of the King James edition. There’s been one in one in nearly every hotel room I’ve ever spent a night.
But it wasn’t simply the Bible I wanted. It was my father’s voice, speaking to me, his only Chum, from the pages of his Bible, and offering up his vision of what mattered in this life—as he had all those years when I’d taken his voice so for granted, and, too often, registered only impatience and annoyance with what he said.
And here I am. Close to three decades have passed since my father died, but he remains a daily presence, and only in part because the walls of the house I live in now are covered with the art he made.
In my fifties now, I wonder which were the psalms he loved, and what were the stories he underlined, and the comments he would have written beside them in the margins of that book, in his fine, elegant artist’s hand? Which of the disciples did he love best? What pages did he turn to in those most brutal times, for solace and comfort? Where are the words that might offer me guidance now?
It’s a thought that strikes me with a certain surprise, but I would like to feel my father’s hand on my shoulder, pointing my way. There is none.
It would please my father to know, I have a reasonable crawl stroke now. Not as strong or rhythmic as the stroke my father executed, cutting cleanly across the water of our town pool, half a century ago, when I was little, back whenhe taught me how to swim. Still, if there is a place of worship for me, it is probably the pool where I go, early mornings before the sun comes up, to swim my laps and meditate.
As for my father’s other wish for me: I have yet to read the Bible, and though it’s a poor excuse to say this is because I do not own the copy that I wish I did, it’s the excuse I give,because only reading his copy would I hear his voice speaking to me.
And then there is this:
It’s about that question, What is Beauty? Drunk or sober, my father asked that question all his life. It has only recently occurred to me, I never asked him what he believed the answer to be, and I am not sure I could guess the response he would have given.
I do think, oddly enough—and I say “oddly” because my father was a man who never in my memory set foot in a church—that the sentence he’d give to answer that question would probably contain the word God.