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.

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23 Comments

  1. Jon

    Nice vignette! Did your dad ever smoke the pipes when you were a kid or were they there simply for decoration?
    .-= • Recent post by Jon: Earliest Influences =-.

  2. Les

    Hmmm, interesting… I like.
    .-= • Recent post by Les: The new studio =-.

  3. What a great little memory. Your dad sounds resourceful with his toys. Now if I could come up with just the right things to entertain my kiddos while I *try* to work. :)
    .-= • Recent post by M. Gray: An Emotional Response =-.

  4. Isn’t it weird to think of your parents as people, sometimes. They lived a whole different life before you, one you will probably never fully know. It’s amazing!

    Great memory. :)

  5. Very nicely done. I particularly like this image: “I talked to him through the the tables, pushing my little voice through the cracks where the tables met.”

    The giggling from under the table was also a good capture. My kids also think it’s hilarious to have conversations from behind chairs or under tables, although this is most funny when we pretend like we don’t know where their voices are coming from.

    I do wonder what you were implying when you wrote, “I stopped thinking the pipes were cool.” Was that because they represented a separation between you two (i.e. he’d had a life that didn’t include you) or just a politically correct “smoking is bad” attitude?

    This is some of the best writing of yours that I’ve read. Good job! :)
    .-= • Recent post by Sonja: In which I write for another blog =-.

  6. Sadly, I have a terrible memory. I think it’s pretty amazing that you can recall something like this so poignantly.
    .-= • Recent post by T.S. Bazelli: Short Story: Red =-.

  7. Jon-
    He smoked a few times a year when I was little, but I don’t think he has touched the pipes since I was maybe 7 or 8, and he may not even know where they are. :P

    Kimberly-
    Very, very weird. They were both very interesting and accomplished people, even by my current age (24).

    Sonja-
    Wow, thank you. Hehe, did you realize what the inspiration for this memory of mine was? ;)

    The “stopped thinking they were cool” line was about the separation, not PC-ness. I don’t think at that age (maybe 4 or 5) I was too aware of smoking or drinking or drugs.

    T.S.-
    What’s funny is, I didn’t remember (or at least, hadn’t thought about) this in a long time. But I read something that triggered it, and all the details (including many I left out) came flooding back.

  8. Yes, you mentioned in an email something about this piece. However, I thought it might be too pretentious (even for me) to leave a comment along the lines of, “I’m glad I could inspire you so.”

    But looky there! Now I have! I guess I am pretentious enough to leave such a comment. Huh!

    ;)
    .-= • Recent post by Sonja: In which I write for another blog =-.

  9. Trisha

    In my childhood, I recall spending hours picking out flavors of pipe tobacco. We’d go to the store, my mom, my sister and I. My mom would let us open the lids to all the jars of tobacco. Some were sweet, some smelled like flowers. Others smelled yummy or made me sneeze. We’d bring them home and wrap them up the way children do, with too much tape and a lopsided bow. We’d anticipate how happy and pleased our daddy would be with our present.

    Fast forward years later, I passed a man at a street fair smoking a pipe. The fragrance took me back to my childhood. I wondered if my dad still smoked his pipe. If he did, I wondered if his little girl and her mother picked out his pipe tobacco. You see, this man was not my father. He’d became someone else after me. There would always be a part of him I didn’t know, and the fragrance of 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. I try to reconcile in my head and in my heart, the father he was to me and father he became later. The one I didn’t know.

    Part 2: At 8 years old, I recall staying up until 2:00am on a school night, standing side by side with my dad. As usual, he’d waited until the last minute to complete a printing job. We had a little make shift office in our basement. I was better at developing prints than he was. Perhaps it was my youthful sight. Perhaps it was because I would do anything to avoid having to get the extra paper from the shelves tucked under the basement stairs. But this story is for another time….

  10. Love your writing, your voice. I can picture everything…thanks for sharing and giving us a chance to live in your little girl shoes for a moment.
    .-= • Recent post by Sarah: Just some random thoughts =-.

  11. I think it is very cool that your dad used to teach at Yale Kristan. And I love the detail about his smoking pipes.
    .-= • Recent post by Pseudo: Travel Tip Thursday: Favorite Beach Rerun =-.

  12. Trisha-
    “We’d bring them home and wrap them up the way children do, with too much tape and a lopsided bow.”

    Love that line.

    I was wondering how you would react to this. I love seeing your side of it too. I guess picking out tobacco for dad is something you and Susan can always have, because I know I never did.

    I’d love to hear the rest of Part 2. :)

  13. Trisha

    Teaching at Yale is also what made him grow a beard. So he’d look older than the college kids he was teaching. Did I share with you the picture from his dorm room wall? LOL! 1950s pin-ups. Quite the sight!

  14. I think I knew the beard thing, but LOL no you did not tell me about or show me the picture of his dorm room wall! Oh Dad.

  15. beautifully written! Love how you conjured up this memory through pipes.
    .-= • Recent post by floreta: Disillusionment =-.

  16. Sorry I’ve been absent! :( Been so busy. Reading in my reader but not clicking over to comment!

    This is beautiful…I love it because my dad used to smoke a pipe, too, and I also used to spend a ton of time at his feet in his office. Still would if I could fit.

    Love your writing, Kristan, I swear you get better every day.
    .-= • Recent post by krista: husband =-.

  17. Aww, thank you, Krista!

  18. Lua

    It’s funny how different objects can look to a child’s eyes… Those childhood memories always remain in my mind like some weird scene from an old movie.
    I really like your voice and how you wrote your stories, the scenes were very vivid, I could see the little girl drawing and pretending to be an architect underneath the table :)

  19. “Those childhood memories always remain in my mind like some weird scene from an old movie.”

    Most of my stories are like movies to me, while most of my memories are more like… candy. Something I can taste and swirl around in my mouth, but the flavor never lasts as long as I’d like.

    Thanks for your kind words! :)

  20. My grandad smoked a pipe when I was a kid. I have so many wonderful memories of that smell. Of being on his lap and feeling safe. That being said, I was thrilled when he stopped smoking. ;)
    .-= • Recent post by Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist: Tricks of the trade (writing and otherwise) =-.

  21. I always think about how I’d love to write short, distinct memories like this… if I could actually remember them haha. I love the details and the distinction, very nicely done. :)

  22. It’s a bizarre moment when we realize our parents existed before us. You captured it so beautifully!

  23. I really liked this, liked the way it ended. Makes me think of what will happen to my cigar hobby once I start having little ones of my own.

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