Writer’s Workshop: Dad’s Books

When I was growing up, we had a modest book collection, many of which were ones that Dad had read. I always had the impression that I wasn’t to touch them. I don’t know why; I guess it was the idea that they were his books, and that, if he wanted me to read them, he’d let me know it was okay. He died before he got around to that.

So, anyway, the books sat on the shelves in the living room, and I would look at them sitting there, but never had the nerve to pull them down off the shelf and read them. I didn’t think I was supposed to. So I would see the books like Moss Hart’s Act One, John Gunther’s Inside Russia Today, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Elick Moll’s Seidman & Son, Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference, and one whose name I was sure was Bright Ieaf, because that was what was on the spine. I had no idea what an “Ieaf” was. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it.

One day, I screwed up the courage to pull that one off the shelf, and discovered that the book was Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons. The gold leaf had worn off the horizontal stroke on the L, I guess.

Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons, the edition my father had.

Fitz-Simmons was a dancer by profession, and taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deep in the heart of Tobacco Road. Bright Leaf was his one major work as an author (maybe even his only work as an author). It was loosely based on the life of the Duke family, who were big in the tobacco industry. They put up the funding of what became Duke University in Durham, NC. It was made into a movie in 1950 which starred Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. Once I learned the real name of the book, I quickly put it back on the shelf. I didn’t want to get caught reading Dad’s books, as though they had a curse on them. Actually, I was scared that I’d get in trouble. I remembered the summer that Mom read Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which had been turned into a movie that year. I asked her if I could read it after her, and she was emphatic. “No, you my not! It’s an adult book!” Naturally, I thought that extended to all the books in the house except for the ones that we were specifically told we could read, or that were assigned to us at school.

The books made the move from Chicago to Northfield with us, where they were placed in the bookshelves in the living room. And they sat there as well. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an issue to read them by then, but I was never sure wth Mom.

A couple of years before she died, I was in Chicago for business, and Mom said “Do you want any of your Dad’s books?”

I was dumbfounded. She had never said anything about them. “Really?”

“Of course. Why?”

“Well, I’ve looked at them all my life, but I thought reading them was off limits.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! I wish you had read them. Your Dad loved them, and he would have been thrilled to know you wanted to read them. Take a few home with you, and read them, and when you’re done, pass them on. They’re just things.”

I picked a bunch of them, but Bright Leaf wasn’t one of them. And I read them, then donated them to the library. They were definitely a product of the times in which they were written, but were still good reads.

The moral of the story: make sure your kids know it’s okay to read the books you do as soon as they’re ready for them. In fact, put the books in their hands.