It’s a small black bottle, banded with gold and closed tightly with a round black-and-gold stopper. Identical in design to the larger urn I helped to choose two weeks ago, it sits on my living room table, next to an icon of the Virgin Mary and a lilac-scented candle and a tiny vase filled with lavender. My father, always an imposing presence, here occupies a quiet, circumscribed space. If you didn’t know, you might think the bottle was some decorative accent piece. You would not think it contained the essence of memory. My share of my father’s ashes doesn’t take up much room. Only a lifetime.
I believe he would like to be here in the place where I read, where I start each day by lighting a candle and finding a psalm or a poem to give me courage. He would understand this room to which I return each evening with gratitude and relief, my books stacked high beside my chair. Books were my father’s métier. Reading, he taught me, is like breathing. It is something you do to sustain life.
My earliest memories of my father involve books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen. Long before the 12-inch black-and-white television set arrived at our house, he read to us every night, conjuring up talking mice and little match girls and prize pigs that seemed to leap off the page. In my father’s hands, books were more than ink and paper. They were passports to the world of ideas, the vast territory of the imagination. They were sustenance, comfort, challenge, necessity. In later years, I never set out on a journey without two questions from my father: Have you plenty of cash? Have you plenty to read?
In the evenings of my childhood, he would settle himself at his desk and unpack his briefcase, pulling out sheaves of galley proofs and the Black Hawk pencils he used for editing. He nearly always brought work home, but never complained about it. I am lucky enough to get up each day and go to a job I love, he told us over and over. What if you hated your work, if you were just marking time, counting the days until you could retire, or quit? I am lucky, and profoundly grateful.
We had a ritual. I would drift into the room as my father sat working, and he would look up and smile. How about an instant, he would say—his shorthand for an instant coffee—and I would go to the kitchen and set up a neat little tray, with milk and sugar and a cup and saucer from the best china, not the everyday. I would deliver it to his desk, and he would thank me, and put down his pencil, and we would chat for a minute. I would ask what the book was about, and if it was good, and if he had met the author.
He would give me a quick synopsis of whatever tome he was whittling down to size. He always had a story to tell, a glimpse of one writer’s quirky work habits, another’s long-winded prose. I would peer over his shoulder at the marked-up manuscript, the margin notes in my father’s emphatic, spiky handwriting. Clarity and economy were his watchwords. A connoisseur of language, he did not suffer rambling gladly. Once I sat beside him as we listened to a commencement speaker who was clearly in love with the sound of his own voice. Edit, my father whispered. Edit.
I pick up the black-and-gold bottle and hold it in my hand. Give sorrow words, Shakespeare wrote. I close my eyes and see my father at his desk. He puts down his pencil and smiles. Give sorrow words, he repeats. But not too many.