While I was under strict orders from my wife to clean up the basement, I came upon a small metal box that contained my late father’s personal papers.
In the decade since he died, I never looked inside the box, which was buried beneath college textbooks, my daughter’s Barbie doll collection and Christmas decorations.
The lock was broken, and when I opened the box, I found his wallet, a leather folder with his Army discharge papers from World War II, a sheet of 20-cent stamps, a fountain pen and a few military patches.
I stopped working for a few minutes and sat on the basement floor and started rummaging through the contents, which also included several letters. One was a letter I wrote to my parents when I went to college in New York City and was away from home for the first time and had the startling realization that Mom and Dad weren’t as bad as I thought. In fact, they were pretty good compared to some of my roommates’ parents.
Of course, during the Vietnam era, all authority was suspect, especially parental authority.
Even though my parents weren’t as successful or well-educated as my roomates’, they were mine for better or for worse, flaws and all. I realize now that they did the best they could with the tools they’d been given.
They had hard lives growing up during the Great Depression. My mother never graduated from high school because she had to go to work in Kresge’s to help support her family, and my father enlisted in the Army after high school; and when he was discharged, he became an apprentice carpenter.
Nothing remarkable there. They were ordinary working people in an era before “ordinary” became a pejorative word.
As I sifted through the letters, I came upon one addressed to my father as “Joe (the carpenter)” from a woman in New York City. It had been mailed to Ferguson Library in Stamford, where he had been working on an addition to the building almost 35 years ago.
It must have been pretty important for him to save, so I stopped to read the handwritten note, which contained several photos of my father and some other carpenters on the project.
“You can imagine how delighted I am with the chair seats on which you did such a masterful job. For years, I held my breath, afraid someone would sit down on one of them and go right through. I could entertain elephants now, my chairs are so sturdy. It was just wonderful of you to do this. In all of New York City, I couldn’t find a place to have this done. In fact, I had no idea where to look. I’m from Kentucky and as a kid growing up I remember craftsmen who would have been able to do this, but even though New York City is a HUGE city, I never came across one person who could do this.
“So, Joe, you can see how grateful I am to you – and Jim – for helping me out. Jim says you won’t let me pay you, but please know that I am deeply indebted to you ... and hope from the bottom of my heart that someone does something as lovely for you someday. Thanks so VERY much.
Yes, my father was a good carpenter who could do masterful repairs and build anything he set his mind to. In retirement, he made hundreds of birdhouses in different shapes and designs – churches, Cape Cods and hotels – and gave them away to his friends and family.
Whenever someone got locked out of their house or car, he would help them ... and often refuse payment. I thought he was insane. He could have been rich. He could have had a big business, a big house, a big car, a lot of big things. But he was a simple man who got joy from helping others.
I realize now that for many reasons, I was meant to find that letter. You see, over the years I’ve known a number of rich and powerful men, men who exploited any occasion for their self-aggrandizement, men who padded bills, men who exploited someone’s problems, men who didn’t really need more money but were obsessively greedy.
When I was younger, I envied these men, who had all the trappings of worldly success: possessions, power and prestige. They were a stark contrast to my father, who was a simple and unassuming man.
I couldn’t forget that one line in the letter: “Jim says you won’t let me pay you ... and I hope from the bottom of my heart that someone does something as lovely for you someday.”
I once read that Jesus repays any generous act of ours a thousandfold because he won’t be outdone in generosity, so I’m pretty confident that in the end, my father was amply rewarded, rewarded beyond his dreams and rewarded infinitely more than the men who lived their lives as takers rather than givers.
One other thing. I’m grateful that when God was picking fathers, he found a simple, generous man for me instead of a powerful and prominent one.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.