They’re on my bookshelf now, these books that my parents once read. The ones that belonged to my father are an imposing presence, with titles like “The Quest for Consciousness,” “The Quantum Universe,” “On Intelligence” and “Who’s Afraid of SchrÃ¶dinger’s Cat?” There are books about Einstein and about the digital age by Walter Isaacson, and elegant tomes on cybernetics, the brain and nervous system, free will and the history of optical character recognition. Their pages — hell, even their covers — taunt and challenge me. It’s as though each one is pompously inquiring, “Are you clever enough to understand even the first page of me?” I don’t know. Am I?
Dad was a smart guy. That’s putting it mildly. At the Bronx High School of Science in 1946, he was a member of the physics squad, which sounds like boot camp for the mind (and it probably was). He graduated from City College as an electrical engineer and went to work for the Burroughs Corporation, and then G.C. Dewey Corp., researching the earliest computers. In the ’60s, he did contract work for the defense department. He migrated to working in medical technology, became a key researcher and then moved to Connecticut with Mom and I in tow to start his own company, developing ultrasound and light scanning devices to detect breast and prostate cancers. He then worked on improving medical equipment for other companies.
I realized the true significance and reach of his work when I was at the Lahey Outpatient clinic in Danvers, having a mammography done. I saw the machine and casually mentioned that my dad was involved in its development. I told the lead technician his name, and she said she knew of him. She asked me to thank him for his work on equipment that had become the diagnostic standard for the early detection of breast cancer. He helped save lives. I knew what he did, but somehow never realized how important it was, or how well-known he was to those in the field. My father had none of the airs that so many in the medical profession boldly parade around with.
So, the books. I initially went through them in their Connecticut home, deciding which to take and which to sell. Nothing sold, as it happened. That privileged suburban West Hartford crowd didn’t know what to make of them, I’m sure. A colleague of Dad’s ended up claiming many of them. I had a method. If I opened to a random page, and all I saw were equations, I would give it a hard pass. If instead my eyes set upon a paragraph of prose, even if it was cryptic, I would add it to my “take” carton. Though, as it happened, I did take one of the “equation books,” just as a souvenir.
I will read them all someday.
Mom’s books are far more approachable. She wasn’t a big reader, but there are memoirs of Vernon Jordan and Albert Schweitzer, two books about the Desiderata (Mom was a huge fan and gave out framed prints to everyone she met). On a related note, the poems of Max Ehrmann sit next to them on the shelf. There’s “The Power to Heal,” about healing modalities around the world, and “The Essential Norman Rockwell,” her favorite artist. “The Golden Children of Hawaii” was probably a gift from her brother Ray, who lived there for many years.
“The American National Red Cross First Aid Manual,” 1966 edition, brings to mind her nursing days. There’s our old Flushing, Queens address and telephone number on an inside page, along with the request, please contact if found.”
I was so caught up in various psychodramas throughout my life. I am far more contemplative now. In addition, I feel rather melancholy, missing them both terribly, so these books, which bring them so readily to mind, are a great comfort. They are like old, familiar friends, gathered around in a disparate yet tight-knit group, cradling cups of herbal tea and reminiscing.
Vintage, venerable, comfortably worn lives well-lived.