Scenes from a childhood

In my parents’ office, there were four tables pushed together to make a single large one. I remember sitting underneath those tables while my dad worked. I was out of school, for the day or for the summer, and I needed to be entertained. My dad gave me an old toolbox filled with china markers and colored pencils. For several minutes I drew squares and triangles on blank sheets of paper and pretended to be an architect, like him.

I remember sitting in front of his shoes, close enough to touch but far enough not to get in his way. I looked up at the underside of the table and tried to imagine the schematic he was working on just above my head. A house? A school? A bank? I talked to him through the the tables, pushing my little voice through the cracks where the tables met. I giggled when he answered, even though he wasn’t intending to be funny.

I remember his pipes. He kept four or five of them on a stand on the other side of the room. I thought they were cool, and grownup, like him. But he almost never smoked them. He had only picked up the habit, he said, because back when he taught at Yale, that was what all the professors did.

I remember how he reached for one of the pipes. Held the bowl in his hand, ran a finger along the stem. I crawled out from under the tables to watch.

My dad took the mouthpiece between his lips, sat back, and closed his eyes. As he savored the taste of years long since passed, I could see that he was not my father. He had been someone else before me. There would always be a part of him I didn’t know, and those pipes would never let me — or him — forget it.

I stopped thinking the pipes were cool.

Now, decades later, the pipes sit on a shelf, untouched and unremembered. He hasn’t smoked them in years. He has been my father.