Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. He’s been gone for almost two years now, but I still feel like I should be able to pick up the phone and call him when I have a question about hanging a new ceiling fan in the bedroom. Dad was an electrician and skilled at working with his hands, but he was also extremely well read. I never found a word he didn’t know. (And when I found a word I didn’t know, he almost always helped me look it up myself instead of just telling me the definition.) Playing Scrabble with Dad was much different than playing with Mom. With Dad, no word was eligible unless you could also use it in a sentence. (No dictionary allowed, of course, except to settle a challenge.) For many years, Dad’s birthday was one of the two days each year that the whole family would get together and play softball, eat delicious food, and play games. My mom and some of my siblings spent yesterday evening together, but I live over 2,000 miles away these days, so I spent the evening thinking about Dad and the books that remind me of him.
The Giver by Lois Lowry could really be any number of books I read in school. Dad always read the books we were assigned to read. I remember feeling irritated the afternoon that he wanted to talk about The Giver. It was like having a second English class! Plus, Dad was always sure to bring up any assumptions the book made that he didn’t agree with, so I was forced to justify my opinions with concrete examples. As a parent myself, now, I admire the extra time and effort it took to stay connected with what we were learning in school. When the kids and I discussed the various merits of saving and spending money care of our current chapter of Farmer Boy, I thought of Dad.
Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader by (I kid you not) Bathroom Readers’ Institute. I don’t know who first gave Dad an Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, but many birthdays someone would give him the most recent edition. I spent quite a bit of my childhood reading trivia and special interest stories from whichever copy I could find lying around the house. I don’t know if Dad read them as thoroughly as the kids did, but I still can’t see one without thinking of him.
The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is a book I gave Dad for Christmas a few years ago, sure that he would be as interested in the OED as I was. More than once in my college classes I would think about Dad. Although he was one of the smartest people I know, he never finished college himself. Many class discussions left me thinking how much I had to be grateful for just to have the chance to be there at all. The Professor and the Madman is a great read, but it also represents so much more to me: my Dad, his love of learning, and the fascinating history of language.