No. 18

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But none of his children remembers seeing him angry with anyone but himself, for even the best of reasons. If they disappointed him, his sorrow was punishment enough. He was president of the town council during a strike at the town’s big factory. A striker, in the crowd at the gates, threw a stone which caught his temple.

“It was quite a hard stone too,” he said rubbing the bruise, “but I don’t believe it was meant for me. There isn’t such a good shot in town.”

When his father in-law had to give up the rectory because of his age, No. 18 built a house of his own and took him along to it. There the venerable clergyman died at eighty-three. Those of his grandchildren who are old enough still remember his daily cold plunge, and the smell of tobacco and theologies in his room, and the photostat of Shakespeare’s epitaph over the door, whereby he warned broom-wielders to keep out:

Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear /To dig the dust encloased here.

The couple had six children, spaced over twenty-three years. Every Christmas No. 18’s present to his wife was sweetened by a poem or a drawing, or both. When the first grandchild appeared, for instance, he made up a necklace of artificial pearls, strung among six wooden beads. The beads stood for the children. A red wooden heart—the grandson—closed the necklace at the bottom, and there hung from it a single pearl—a real one. In his beautiful calligraphy he illuminated this parody on a sheet of cardboard, and sang Nevin’s famous melody to her, with gestures, before the Christmas tree:

The bairns you’ve borne to me, Dear Heart, /Are as a string of pearls to me; /I count them over, every one apart, /My Rosary. /Each boy a pearl, each daughter fair, /To cheer my heart, expand my lung; /I tell each bead unto the end, and there /A grandson’s hung. /Oh Memories that bless, not burn! /Oh boundless gain, though fiscal loss! /I kiss each bairn and grandson in his turn /Though old and cross, /Sweetheart, /Though old and cross.

In that same year a friend of his marvelled, “How you can carry on your profession, and Mary can run a taxi service and an antique shop, and the two of you run the Library and almost run the church, and still look after six children, from a grown man down to a baby, I don’t know.”

“I d-d-do have a varied life,” he conceded. “Before I go to bed I’ve got to see that my youngest son gets his bottle, and my oldest d-d-doesn’t get his.”

His youthfulness! He ate lunch at a businessmen’s club in the city. His tablemates looked on him as a firebrand radical, more dangerous with each passing year, though he was senior to them all. He believed in the goodness, and the irresponsibility, and the immortality of the common man.

As the years glided past, his descendants multiplied. He could hardly remember the names of all, still less their birthdays. On his own, then, he would send each of his six children a check. The amounts were for the number of their children and grandchildren—that figure he proudly kept track of—multiplied by two dollars.

His self-sufficiency was part of his happiness. When his wife died, a few years after their golden wedding anniversary, his oldest son stayed a week with him in the empty house. Mostly he stared out at the harbor, saying little, but when he drove his son to the train, and kissed him good-bye, he blurted out, scolding himself again, “O-d-damn it, I don’t miss your mother yet.” He designed a double gravestone, such as you sometimes see in ancient cemeteries, with his wife’s dates, and the day of their marriage, and the names of both sets of parents all cut on it, and the date of his own birth on his side.

“We hope you don’t feel gloomy,” his children told him, “to see the stone waiting for one more date.” “On the contrary,” he answered, “it gives me a sense of S-s-social Security.”

He addressed his last parody to his own photograph (and it is rare to see two, nine decades apart, of the same face):

Speak, speak, thou fearful pest, /In rumpled bathrobe dressed, /Who, with thy shrunken breast, /Comest to daunt me: /Under the old pajams, Nestle thy withered palms, /Stretched as if asking alms: /Why dost thou haunt me?