The Smell of a Thesaurus
I inherited a handful of items from my dad, and they were all meaningful. He was a painter and a writer but just beginning to spread his wings.
Dad was the victim of a terminal illness that claimed him at the age of 47.
One astounding thing about him was he wrote his only book while suffering through horrible and debilitating symptoms. Cancer sapped him of his bodily strength but not of his spirit. The book – published by a Arlington House Publishers, a now-extant imprint – was subtitled “A political novel of the 70s”. It was published shortly before he died, so Dad had reached for the stars one last time and attained his lifelong dream.
The tools he used, and after all this was 1972, were commonplace for the times. He two-finger-tapped on a Royal typewriter, surrounded by all those great accoutrements that elicit a nostalgia for simpler times: carbon paper, Ko-Rec-Type (the precursor of Whiteout ™) and ribbons of black ink that smudged the fingers if you flew too close to the sun. It was an auditory joy. I loved hearing him press on the keys, the rrrrip of the paper when he pulled it through the roller, and the clear “ding” warning him to return the carriage and start a new line.
I own several of his unpublished manuscripts. There is fiction and non-fiction waiting to be re-discovered, and I will get to them. I also have a few of his paintings and pastel drawings. Surely I am luckier than most who have nothing of substance to remember their parents by.
The crown jewel was standing at attention on my mom’s bookshelf for years after he died. Finally I noticed it. Mom told me she had no use for it and did I want it?
It was the most supreme gift of all: Dad’s Roget’s Thesaurus.
It’s worn, torn and falling apart. The pages have seen better days. But there is no mistaking that delicious smell of brittle, decomposing paper.
What set this apart from any of the millions sold since 1911 (yes!) is that this book contains his notes and scribbles in the margins and wherever there was white space. Dad considered one adjective over another, assessing and evaluating his choices with great care as he built the story.
It’s a glimpse into how he thought about language, the sound of words and the weight of words. He wrote in a personal shorthand so I have no idea what most of his notes mean.
For example is this cryptic observation: “Try to apply same trick & method as used in Kate’s singing class.” I read the book and don’t recall such a dilemma of plot.
And he highlighted this snippet attributed to Francis Bacon:
“Writing maketh an exact man.”
I was too young and unfocused when he died to have discussed literature with him, let alone the path to becoming a writer. How I would have treasured such talks. But he speaks to me now through verbs, nouns and little squiggles in the margins.
(c) 2017 Debbie Burke