“Yet I confess that there is no stability in the things of this world and that everything changes.”
The Decameron-Giovanni Boccacio-Conclusion,1353
My father was a father long before I was a father. He was a son, too.
The first time we shook hands, it was for the camera. My Bar Mitzvah. Before the party started. As a kid, it felt like forever as the photographer staged the father and son shot. Black and white. Color was not an option.
I have the same color eyes as my father. My grandson has the same color eyes as me. An ever changing shade of greenish.
I wanted my dad to be a TV dad. Or the next-door-neighbor’s dad who loaded up his car on Saturday mornings with the other boys. Bats and balls. Sometimes, ice-skates. Bagged lunches and laughter.
My father never, maybe once, said “I love you.” My mother said it was generational. Men from that time didn’t hug or say those things. Too busy working to find the time to play catch or encourage. My next door neighbor’s dad worked six days a week. His son was in my class.
I watched my father. Play the accordion. The piano. Build furniture. Install a fish tank. Paint the kitchen. Plant a Japanese plum tree in the front yard. I watched him praise my mother. I watched him aggravate my sister. I watched him ignore me. I watched him bounce my daughters on his lap. Read them stories. He didn’t notice me watching
Years later, I watched him being sad long before I watched him being lowered into the ground. May 15th, 1993. Today is his birthday.
When she was ready, I helped my mom clean out the garage which meant me blazing a trail through my father’s hobbies. Thieves of what could have been my time with him. It was easier spending time with things that were just his instead of forced suggestions to “go sit in the living room with your father.” Or, the sustaining pain of time passing in a hospital room with no indication of whether I should stay or leave.
Stacks of record albums. Benny Goodman. Nina Simone. Dinah Washington. Tito Puente. Connie Francis. Pliers and hammers. Saws. Jars of screws and fasteners. Nails and tacks and hooks. The yellow wooden folding measuring stick, always in his hands when he measured spaces.
His bookshelf had no more room. Hebrew prayer books. Unread Book-of the Month automatic selections. Sets of books. Gardening. Building. On the top shelf, The World Book with decades of annual updates.
And two books below the top shelf, out of reach without standing on a chair. Both books old enough to have their bindings blurred. Thread coming out from the spines. One was grey-green. The other one, taller, dark-almost-black-brown. I remember those books always being visible in their own camoflouge. Wherever we lived. Wherever they lived. My mother kept these books outside of the garage in the den that was unchanged. Still waiting, it seemed.
My father once showed me the books, I think. Or, I imagined him telling me about them. He may have said, “This one is important to keep. It tells the story of something we can never forget. And this one tells the history of a very long time ago.” That’s all I knew about the books. They stayed on the shelf. Always next to each other. And then, on another shelf. And, another shelf. Long after I was on my own journey. With my own kids. In my own addresses. With my own book shelves. Those two books stayed in their place for so long, I stopped noticing them.
I took some of the record albums. At one point, I said to the stale air, “Gee, dad, we could have gone to concerts together. If we only knew.” I took both accordions. The Sea-Bees jacket. During my final walk-through before leaving, without thinking, I grabbed those the two books. My mother said, “It’s fine. I can put some artificial flowers up there. The tulips would look nice.” It just felt right to take these two books. More than a hundreds of other books that were almost boxed up. I left enough books, mostly for their colorful bindings, to keep the bookcase from being empty in the den where my mother spent most of her time.
These two books. Books that had no meaning to me. One without a title on the outside. The other, “Mein Kamph” in red letters pressed into its green binding with a chilling font. The other, by an Italian writer with a title I didn’t understand. I know this from looking at the title page which I never turned past. The binding and covers were faded, falling apart. I thought the one book with the unknown word title was something philosophical. Maybe a textbook from when my father was in high school or one that he got when he was in the South Pacific during WW2. Nah, too big, bulky, heavy.
I took these books because of the memory of thinking they were just-special-for-dad things. Like the few of my own things that I took with me after coming out. After my divorce. Four years after my dad died.
The accordions were sold at a garage sale. The record albums are warped and scratched in their covers standing on their sides in my shed. The Sea-Bees jacket is seventy-eight years old. I wear it on the bluff when it’s chilly. It keeps me warmer than last year’s Patagonia.
A few days ago I was looking for a photo of me and my grandmother for a recent post. A photo that was probably in my Bar Mitzvah album which was also in my writer’s shed.
The photo album was tightly packed in the middle of a row of other books that used to bring up memories. Yearbooks. Scrapbooks. Tourist shop books. Wedged in against the side of the bookshelf were dad’s books. I knew these books so well but nothing about them. I had to angle each one from their top to pull them out.
I thumbed through the photo album. There it was. Me and my grandmother dancing, smiling. Just after the staged photos. Me. My mom. My dad. Me and my mom. Me and my dad. Me and my mom and my dad. I took the photo album and the old books. Like everyone else in the world at this moment, I had time to look through them. Not able to go anywhere.
I grabbed the leash even though my dog knows to go right back up the hill and into the house. Living in a redwood forest, on a ridge-top, there’s always something ready to play follow-the-leader with a herding dog.
Later that night, I picked up Mein Kamph and glanced at a page or two. I was curious about why my father had this book. With no interest, I put it aside. With about as much interest, I picked up the other book. The hardcover fell off in two pieces. The pages were barely attached to the binding. Two floated down to the ground. I remember seeing the title page once with words I could not understand or pronounce. I never looked further inside.
The Decameron now held curiosity. During the pandemic, I read War and Peace, Middlemarch, The Inferno, and The Odyssey, again, along with Baldwin’s, Giovanni’s Room, Henry James, and Mavis Gallant. I knew nothing about The Decameron other than it was my fathers’ book that sat on a shelf next to Mein Kamph.
Ready for another classic, I started to read. What struck me immediately was the first illustration. A full page of color and whimsical movement opposite a weathered page with black and white words in a a dark font. I fanned the pages and stopped an so many other brilliant illustrations unaffected by the wear and tear of the written pages. I never knew those amazing images, telling stories themselves, were in this book.
The page after the title page:
Here begins the book called the Decameron, also entitled Prince Galeotto, containing one hundred tales, told in ten days by seven ladies and three young men.
This was intriguing. It’s actually a collection of tales.
I went to “THE FIRST DAY.”
“ I know that in your judgement this work will seem to have a painful and sad origin. For it brings to mind the unhappy recollection of that late dreadful plague, so pernicious to all who saw or heard of it. But I would not have to frighten you from reading further, as though you were to pass through nothing but sighs and tears in your reading. This dreary opening will be like climbing a steep mountain side to a mostly beautiful and delightful valley, which appears the more pleasant in proportion to the difficulty of the ascent …“
“The end of happiness is pain, and in like manner misery ends in unexpected happiness.“
“In the year 1348 after a fruitful incarnation of the Son of of G-d, the most beautiful of Italian cities, noble Florence, was attacked by a deadly plague“
Wait! This book is about what? I went to wikipedia.
“The book (The Decameron) is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men; they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353.”
I glanced through the book. Read a few things but could not focus. I felt hypnotized. Fixed in my seat. Eyes on the window out to a dark night. Questions upon questions far beyond what The Decameron was about echoed through each other in my head.
“And the plague gathered strength as it was transmitted from the sick to the healthy through normal intercourse, just as fire catches on to any dry or greasy object placed too close to it. Nor did it stop there: not only did the healthy incur the disease and with it the prevailing mortality by talking to or keeping company with the sick–they had only to touch the clothing or anything else that had come into contact with or been used by the sick and the plague evidently was passed to the one who handled those things.” ― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
November, 2020. The ninth month of stay put orders. I was looking for a new classic to read. One that I had never read before. One I was unfamiliar with. One that would captivate me. Teach me. Astound me. One I didn’t need a book club for. A recommendation from someone who knew I would enjoy it, should read it. One more ‘big book’ I could live with for the next month of shelter-in-place. The Illiad. The Aneid. Infinite Jest. A sci-fi trilogy. Anna Karenina. Ovid. Proust. Reading that would challenge me during a time ripe for challenges
My father never, well maybe once, said, “I love you” to my face. More than I may have said “Thank you” to him. He had presence and absence at the same time in our shared space during my life. I can’t remember any gifts he gave me other than what I took after he died.
I’ve forgiven my father many times the way you’re supposed to in order to let things go. Mostly with help from others. I realized I learned about being a dad from him by watching what he didn’t do. What he didn’t say. I’ve missed him from time to time. Or I’ve missed the imagination of him. I think of his own hardships and journeys more than him as my dad. When people tell me I look just like him as I age, I shrug it off in discomfort.
He did love my kids. He read to them. He giggled with them. He told them stories and jokes. That was important to me, but also painful.
My father never read stories to me until now as I turn the pages slowly. Handling each one with care and attention to its fragility. At times I feel my father turning the page, sitting next to me. Pointing to the drawings. Helping me sound out a word. He is present and absent, again, at the same time. It’s different now.
It may take me a long time to read The Decameron. The stories are simple. The drawings are beautiful. The coincidence of the book. The waiting for it to be read. The words in the blank space on each page, between each sentence, between each word deserves slowness. The stories I hear while turning one page to another. Yes, it will take a long time to read this book. Longer than it took me to read, War and Peace. Even when the ‘now’ changes back to whatever will be. Que, sera,m sera, my mother used to sing to me.
When I can travel to see my children. When I can see and touch and hug and experience in three dimensional. When I can cook with my older daughter as we ramble in the kitchen. When I can take off my mask. When I can put my grandson up on my shoulders and hop around the room. Take him and my younger daughter, his mom, for ice-cream and talk about our favorite flavors. Taste new ones. When I can read to him. Maybe create stories about the illustrations in The Decameron. Sitting next to each other. Tell him stories of my father and his grandfather. The three of us with the same color eyes.
When this plague is over. When we can go beyond our borders.
“Dad, thank you for the book. I don’t know why I saved it. It was just one of your things. I wonder if you read it. It doesn’t matter. As I read it now, I know you are right by me. And, I know, somehow that you saved it just for me. To have during this time. When I feel that this is the book you wanted me to read at the right time. A few pages a day, dad, as each day more uncertain than the one before passes by into another week, another month.
Dad, while I read this book, alone, I hear myself whispering as if I am reading it to you, or is it you reading it to me? Did you know about all those beautiful drawings? I think there are twenty-seven of them. They brighten up the room. It doesn’t matter, dad. This is our book. The one we read together. Our time together.
I love you, dad. Thank you! For the book. For being with me during this very difficult time. I know you know I found the book just when you would have wanted me to. When I’m done, I’ll show Harrison the illustrations and tell him all about how special the book is. And one day, like you, like me, he will read the book by himself through the same eyes that we did, dad.
P.S. Remember this, dad? It is a drawing of a very old photo from when we were at the bungalow colony for the summer. When you would come up for the weekends after work. I waited by the fence to see your headlights. This picture hangs above my desk. In many places, I have lived. Where I live now. It has even more meaning. Like the book. You see, dad, we are not allowed to hug these days because of the pandemic. Yet, I really do feel this hug just as I hear you reading to me. Thanks, daddy.
“To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others. ” ― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron