I’ve realized that all these essays I’m writing are about dead people or their stuff, or both. My family is full of dead people, and they owned an awful lot of stuff, much of which, despite recent winnowing, is still around. From a writing perspective that’s good news — I won’t run out of material. From a reading perspective it may be less so — how many essays about cancelled checks and tobacco pipes and bourbon decanters do you really want to read? Will this be a history of my life in 52 objects? I thought of that as a conceit and may use it, but I don’t promise to stick to the plan.
The pipes showed up a little while ago, unearthed from somewhere in my mother’s basement. I hope she’s pitched them by now, because if I see them, I’ll want to keep them, and I have no earthly purpose for keeping pipes. I don’t smoke and don’t plan to start, and they aren’t for the most part fancy pipes of the sort one might display handsomely if one had an overly large house and a pipe rack and were fond of dusting.
I have a small house and no such rack and hate dusting, so I would be much better off without them. They are no substitute for my father, and he is long gone.
My father always smoked a pipe. He did keep his pipes on a rack, but in my memories of him he always has one in his mouth or in his hand. I’ve known other pipe smokers since, and pipe smoking is surely the fidgetiest hobby known to man — so much cleaning and tamping and lighting it’s a wonder anyone ever actually smokes from them.
But my father did, no matter where he was. He smoked a pipe while teaching, back in the days where one could do such a thing in a college classroom, and he smoked while playing doubles tennis on the college courts. You got to those courts by going through our backyard and through another yard and then you were there, red and green courts with a few bleachers where I’d sit with my yellow plastic mug, and the tennis players would give me water from their thermoses. This was Iowa in the summers long ago, and it was hot, and they kept this ice cold water in thermoses that they all brought along to the courts.
I was quite young then, three or four years old at most, and I can’t quite imagine that my father simply left me sitting in the bleachers for an entire game, but that’s how I remember it, by myself with only incidental grown ups milling around.
I never became a tennis player despite those early years at the courts. I went to camp for a million summers after that, and one year I spent every evening after dinner trying to learn to serve a ball over the net and failing every time. No one much tried to teach me, but I may have been unteachable. I did not want to play tennis; I only wanted to pass the tennis part of my camp honors without failing miserably and being an embarrassment to myself and to tradition. I never did learn, though, and they let me do my serves from the service line instead of the baseline, so I was half way to the net and had only to get the ball over a few yards. That I could do, sort of.
I can’t imagine how much I was left to myself as a child. My own child, at five, seems hardly older than a baby, though I register him for kindergarten tomorrow. But there I was, watching the balls fly over the net and later, after my father died, trying to hit them myself with his heavy old racket. That racket is long gone, too, and I don’t miss it, nor will I ever play tennis again. But I still remember my father, long pants, button down shirt, pipe perched in the corner of his mouth, hitting the balls over and over again.