My father, Jim Burton, was not a reader. In truth, neither of my parents were bibliophiles. The bookshelves in our family room contained a complete set of Collier's Encyclopedias, a huge unabridged dictionary (both handy when we asked a question so my mother could point and say, "Look it up!"), a medical dictionary left over from Mom' s nursing days, and a literal handful of novels. After my siblings and I moved beyond the collection of Dr. Seuss, A Child's Book of Verses, and the complete Junior Classics, the only ever-expanding library in the house was mine.
Dad was an aeronautical engineer, and while reading and engineering aren't mutually exclusive, in our household the only reading material other than the newspaper Dad perused (in the bathroom, where the magazine rack was installed) was IEEE (an industry pub) and Popular Science. Therefore, when I began to write seriously, the process wasn't something we could discuss. Oh, he'd listen, with a smile and lots of vague encouragement, but the concepts like point of view, character development, and story arc were as Greek to his ears as propulsion, structural and control systems, aerodynamics, and avionics were to mine.
Equally foreign -- perhaps even more so -- to my dad's experience was what Chris did for a living. A butler? Without even the knowledge gained by reading, say, PD Wodehouse's "Jeeves" novels, my dad couldn't fathom Chris's chosen profession. As much as he liked my future husband, on our wedding day, my dad's parting shot to Chris was a half-joking "Now get a real job."
Fast forward nine years. Chris and I are now living in New York (because Chris accepted an estate manager job here). My first book, A Butler's Life: Scenes from the Other Side of the Silver Salver has just been published by Frederic C Beil. Dad, at my request, had done the drawings for two of the sidebars contained in the book, and he happens to be visiting from California when we have a book event scheduled at BookHampton. In the four or five days since his arrival, he's admired the look of the book but to my dismay, has made no attempt to do much more than glance through it. He can't know how badly this hurts me, because this book is my first born, and he is my only living parent.
Chris and I are both reading at the book signing: I'm reading the preface (which is the only part of the book in my voice), and Chris is reading an except from his time in Monaco. I'm watching the crowd as Chris reads, and I'm especially gratified to see my father laughing and enjoying the section. It's a very successful book signing; they sell out of all the copies they'd ordered (but after all, this is our home town).
Dad says on the way home, "You have more books at home, right? I'd like to buy some copies to take home. One for me, and others for gifts." I am almost teary as I sign him a copy. And shortly after we get home, to my complete astonishment, he takes his signed copy off to a comfy chair and starts to read. And he excuses himself after meals to go back to reading it. When he surfaces after finishing it the next day, there is a new appreciation in his eyes for what Chris does...and what I do.
Our inscripions on the flyleaf of Dad's copy were full of love and appreciation for the role model he was (and still is) in both of our lives. But Chris's inscription finished, "PS -- This IS a real job." :)
In the thirty months...only thirty months!...that followed before we lost him unexpectedly in the Spring of 1999, he and I still couldn't discuss story arc or conflict or plotting. But I knew from the day of that book event that he now had an idea of what went into writing and publishing a book, and that he was proud of me.
Dad has been gone fourteen years now, and both Chris and I miss him enormously. His copy of my book, of course, came back to me when we sold my childhood home.I'm sorry he didn't live to see any of my novels in print, though I'm sure they would have been a harder read for him; a memoir like A Butler's Life was a better fit for the immensely pragmatic engineer than novels of psychological suspense.
Happy Father's Day, Dad. I'll love and miss you forever.