My Father’s Office

A guest blog entry by Beth.

My father died unexpectedly earlier this month. There is so much to say about his life and the complex feelings that his death brings that it is impossible to say it. My brother’s eulogy was just about right: He wasn’t the best dad and he wasn’t the worst dad. He was our dad. We will miss him.

My father and his work were somewhat inseparable. He practiced law with the same firm for over 40 years. He would bring home stacks of used paper so we could draw on the blank sides. Sometimes he’d bring home his Dictaphone with its state-of-the-art cassette tape technology and let my brother and me record our voices. It was awesome when he did that.

When I arrived in my home town after learning of dad’s death, I had a strong urge to see his office. He’d sometimes take my brother or me in with him on a Saturday when we were young and I loved going there. I hadn’t been there for ages. I finally had time to go the day after the memorial service.

The law library, with its smell of old books and tobacco, was now a conference room but otherwise not much about the building had changed. Dad’s actual office space had moved a few times over the years, from an upstairs room to the first floor then closer to the front of the building. One of his law partners showed us into his office, which was filled with the things you’d expect to see if someone left work thinking they’d be back the next day – a table piled with files and maps of a local mine he was working with, a jacket draped over a chair, umbrellas in the closet.

There were two things there I was particularly glad to see. The first was a letter opener, shaped like a sword, that rested in a crystalline glass base, Excalibur-like. I was fascinated by it as a child, watching dad as he sliced open the mail we had picked up from the firm’s post office box, thinking it sharp and dangerous and, perhaps, a little magical.

The other item was a clock, an odd clock, really, though it had never seemed odd to me. It was made of a square wooden plaque with coins embedded in it to mark the hours. The coins were from 1964, two years before I was born and the last year that U.S. dimes, quarters and half dollars were made primarily of silver.

My brother and I spent several hours in dad’s office that afternoon as his colleague went through my father’s personal effects so we could decide what to do with them. He’d gone to law school with dad and was instrumental in bringing him to the firm. I think it was hard for him to believe that my father was suddenly no longer there.

Some things we looked at were mundane, like car repair receipts for vehicles dad hadn’t owned for years. Some came with great stories, like the certificate of admission to the bar of the Supreme Court that he had obtained early in his career when he had a conscientious objector case that might have gone that far (though it ultimately didn’t). Some were mysterious, like the dozens of empty cigarette lighters that he kept in drawers at the office and at the house. They were bits and pieces of my dad’s life but, like my words, the picture they create is incomplete.

Dad’s clock is now in my office. My kids will see it there when they come in with me on a snow day or a weekend. It’s not always easy or convenient to bring them to work with me. But when they ask, I often say yes, remembering how special it felt whenever I got a glimpse of my dad’s work world, where he spent so many hours, with his clock of silver and the sword in the stone.