What did I want?
I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and Lost Dauphin.
I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and to eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be the way they had promised me it was going to be, instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.
I had had one chance – for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be – and I had known it – and I had let it slip away. Maybe one chance is all you ever get.
– Oscar Gordon, “Glory Road” Robert A. Heinlein
My father died back in 1990. It’s taken us some time to sort out his stuff. Partly because Dad was a collector – a hunter/gatherer of the old school; and partly because he was a graduate of the 1930’s depression and his collector behaviours became reinforced. “You never know when it’ll come in handy.” And quite frequently that has been proven to be correct. The last few days have been a bit of a nightmare – we’ve (my sister, brother-in-law, and myself) been working through the tail end of the various collections – and there is a continuum of values – some things have sentimental value, some have commercial value, some have entertainment value, and some have recycle value. And some things are just valuable for helping balance the load on the way to the landfill.
I was unable to get leave from work so Friday night saw frantic grabbing of rental vans, scarfing down food (no pasta lest I go to sleep at the wheel), and then on the highway north to my old home town. I spent the last night in my childhood bed, and listened for the call of the poaka – the pied stilts. Their beeping call used to reassure me on empty nights, but on Friday night it was just the sounds of the wind. Saturday dawned cold – as if wanting us to get finished and get on with our lives. Dad used to say “Cold shoulder, hot tongue”, and it was bitter outside.
We packed and loaded, with laughter and tears, Dad’s prized books. I don’t have the room or really the interest for all of Dad’s books, and so some fairly heartrending decisions were made. When we were kids, if we got sick, we were allowed to get up and get a couple of Dad’s books to read. Dad’s collection was essentially about New Zealand history and culture, Māori culture, and in particular, New Zealand flora and fauna. Dad had a particularly soft spot for New Zealand birds.
I don’t recall that he had any exceptional favorites, but I have a happy memory of him showing us the Ruru – Ninox novaeseelandiae – the native owl (Moreporks) that used to sit on the post and wires when we lived on our farm. Later the adult ruru were joined by a clutch of juveniles – I can remember their eyes glowing with the reflected light from the house. Dad told us stories about how in some areas the ruru nested in tomo – like hakoke, the extinct laughing owl – in holes the ground instead of in trees, and how there was even a place named for their home – Putaruru. He said that in the Māori tradition, the ruru was the guardian, the watcher. I loved hearing their calls at night – some say the call is ‘mournful’ or ‘haunting’, but I have always found it friendly and reassuring – a clear sign that things are as they should be.
As I drove home on Saturday night, I got to thinking about reading – I guess the books in the back were talking about their new lives living with Marica and I. I read non-fiction voraciously, however I love it when an author can persuade me to get on a raft down the Mississippi, or some other adventure. I’d told Marcel that I planned spending time while driving plotting out a novel I’m working on. Instead, I spent the time thinking about how the books now in the back of the van had influenced my father – provided the education he’d hungered for but had never been able to achieve in a formal sense. As a result of his reading and learning he’d willing shared the ideas, information, and insights with me; and so, in a way, I was carrying not only my father’s collection, but in many respects my own collection. I didn’t have to bring it all, just the bits I wanted and needed; but no matter what, I couldn’t avoid bringing some of my heritage with me; now and where ever I go in the future.
I drove in our gate, flicked the van off, and stood outside in the still night air. The moon was exceptionally clear and the stars were bright. I could smell the fragrance from the night blossoms. It was good to be home. From somewhere very close, a ruru called. I felt uplifted – it was as Dad said – everything is as it should be.