Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking with Jack Ryan

My father loved words, and he loved books.
Whenever he found one he didn’t know he looked it up in the dictionary, then pulled out encyclopedias, and even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 
He was a well-read man.  In his early years he had high hopes and big dreams for someone who was Boston Irish and whose father was a milkman, delivering to many of the ramshackle neighborhoods of Boston in a horse drawn carriage.  But that humble beginning was not about to hold my father back. He dreamed of being a Harvard man, or, at the least, a Boston College graduate. 
He was neither.
After the war, he went to school at Northeastern but never received a degree. He and my mother were busy pumping out children, and he needed to work.  He took a job with Bell Telephone and stayed with them for more than thirty years.  He climbed the corporate ladder, about as far as anyone could who started out as a pole climber without a degree.  Then his back went out.  After that, he was retired in his fifties.
As he aged he continued to read, and I can remember him sitting in his recliner with a pile of library books nearby.  He no longer read the classics.  Or even much literature.  Mostly it was mysteries in the years I knew him.  He was a Robert Parker fan.    
One day I came home from school, and he had tacked something on the small bulletin board in our kitchen/dining room. It was a typed piece of paper with the names of various flocks of birds.  He was thrilled to have discovered that a flock of crows was called a “murder." 
It’s ironic that as much as he loved to read, I hated the idea of it. It reminded me too much of him.  With his temper and its ability to erupt at the slightest provocation, I wanted something more.  Something not Jack Ryan.  Here I am at fifty-three, a few years younger than he was when he was forced to retire, bemoaning that I picked up reading as late as I did in life, and hoping I’ll grow old so I can continue to read as much as I want. 
I was thirty when I thought myself dumb and uncultured so I decided I would read a classic a week.  Moby Dick was the first on my list. I finished three months later and had to force myself to do so.  Reading became easier after that, and more enjoyable.  From the classics I discovered the likes of Richard Bach, John Irving, and Tom Robbins.  I was off and reading!
Yesterday morning, while Atticus and I wove through the warming woods along a path carpeted with red pine needles, through a glen of cathedral pines, I first heard and then saw a great commotion in the branches ahead of us and up above. The largest flock of blue jays I’d ever seen were calling out to each other to announce our trespassing.  They’d hop from branch to branch, took short flights to other trees in the lofty neighborhood, sometimes swooping down into the air and then rising into a higher location on another tree.  They made their various calls to each other.
Atticus and I stopped for a moment. He sat, and I squatted and soon the blue jays returned to what they were doing before they arrived, all the while keeping their eyes on us. 
Were my father still alive and in the woods with us he would have whispered to me, “They’re called a ‘party’ or a ‘band’ of blue jays.” I would have acted like I didn’t know, like I’d never read the thumbtacked piece of paper he posted in our old nicotine-stained kitchen. 
“That’s neat,” I’d say.
He would be pleased with himself for teaching me something new.  And as we talked in hushed whispers Atticus would have turned his head back and forth between us, following the conversation as if it were a tennis ball in a match. 
I think of Jack quite often, but I don’t miss him.  How can I when I carry the best parts with me and act many of them out on a daily basis?
I’m not oblivious to the distant father, the one who beat us, who berated and demeaned us at his worst.  Nor do I care to invest much in the man who seemed to wish he didn’t have children as he aged in the years after my mother died.  I’m aware of that man, but choose to see the other parts of him, the better parts.  These are the portions of him he lost along the way – the dreamer, adventurer, the bright man with the capacity for wonder.  These are the parts I prefer to live with.
He would love this life we’re leading.
At first he would have been ticked off by our taking in Will, but eventually he would have recognized that in their old age, battered, disappointed, and frustrated by what life could have been, he and Will were indeed confederates. 
Although we always had dogs and cats, gerbils and parakeets, rabbits, and rats, he never warmed to them. They were simply there and something else to take care of.
But I can remember when I brought home Max and one of my nieces, who was somewhat hyperactive at the time, kept getting in his face. She finally cornered him beneath the table cloth during one holiday and came out crying because Max had bitten her in the head. It wasn’t a bad wound. She was more frightened than anything else. When the report came to my father, I’m sure he hurt my sister’s feelings when he said, “Max bit her? Good!  She deserved it.” 
From that moment on he looked at Max more kindly.  (By the way, it was the only time Max ever bit anyone in the year and a half he lived with me.)
By the time, Atticus came around, and we’d visit my dad during Red Sox or Patriots’ games, Jack would look at Atticus, his thoughtful and quiet ways of following our conversations – during commercials only, because that’s when we’d talk – and he’d say, “He’s different. So quiet. He acts like he’s listening to us.
Just after Atticus came into my life, one of my brothers bought a puppy.  My father wasn’t much of a fan of “Duggan.”  He’d mutter about him, turn to Atticus and say, “Thank you.”  In response Atticus would sit silently raising a single eyebrow to Jack. 
“For what?” I asked him. 
“For being Atticus." 
This visit had taken place right after another visit from Duggan.  One the day Duggan was there, Jack grunted and rose with great effort out of his worn recliner on his way to the bathroom, and another can of iced tea, only to find Duggan standing on the kitchen table.  My father was not a gentle man, especially to repeat offenders.  He told me that Duggan “learned to fly that day.”    
Here in Jackson, Jack would love the crows that visit in the early morning. He’d drink his tea with them and watch the finches come and go.  (And he’d say, “They’re called a “charm” of finches.”  And I would say, “I didn’t know that.”)  He’d be stunned by the bears.  First at the wonder of them, then their ease.  He would include them in his letters to wartime friends, his brothers and sisters, and my sister-in-law, Yvette, his favorite pen pal.
Like us, he would have no use for the heat of summer, and he’d drink his iced tea throughout the hottest months. 
When I think of him when we are walking on the trails, he is my age and doesn’t seem so much like a father, but more a friend.  He was not a huge hiker.  With up to nine kids in tow, depending on the year and our ages, we mostly did the White Mountain tourist loop. He was a windshield tourist, but we always made time to walk small trails and sit by the crystal streams.
I think that was his idea of heaven.  Sitting by a stream, watching the sun bounce diamonds off the current as it flowed over the rocks.
After he had died, I became close to his last remaining sister, Marijane.  She lived in Arizona, and we emailed and spoke very often. We became great friends.  She taught me a lot I didn’t know about father.  I returned the favor by teaching her a great deal she didn’t know about her brother. 

As a gift to him, even though he was dead, I flew Marijane out to travel a few stops on the Following Atticus book tour with Atticus and me when the hardcover was launched.  We talked mostly about Jack, how he would have loved every bit of this journey. 

He and I are so very different.  In other ways, in the ways of reading and nature we are very similar.  In our love of words and books we are twins, except I am so far behind in my reading I don’t spend much time with mysteries.  I read literature and the classics.  I still read poetry, something he stopped when he was young, but never stopped appreciating. 

A couple of years before he died, right after a Red Sox game ended and Atticus and I were heading back to Newburyport, eighty miles away, he said, “You’ll do alright.”

“With what?”

“When I die.  Out of all my kids you’ll do the best.  I’ve always made fun of the way you are expressive, sentimental, and all that.  But you’ll do well because you don’t hold back. You won’t have the regrets.”

And Jack is right.  I don’t.  There are things he could have done better, and things I could have handled in a different manner.  But I don’t miss him.  I love him and carry him with me. 

I don’t mourn death.  Perhaps that’s a byproduct of my mother dying when I was seven.  I don’t know.  I used to struggle with goodbyes, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.  Since I have chosen a simpler life, I do my best to pay attention to what’s here and what’s now.  And who is here. 

In many ways, Jack’s still here, as we walk through the woods and up mountains and along streams.  The White Mountains were vacationland for him, and he’d love every bit of it.  Something he’d like even more – although he wouldn’t admit to it – is that I’m telling you about him now.


Unknown said...

Tom... you are a kind and loving son who keeps your father alive in your heart... your most generous and giving heart that chooses to focus on the good and the blessings... and for all of that, we, your followers and friends are grateful. Yes, Jack Ryan would be humbled (maybe even a little ticked off...), but very proud.

Patrice Simon said...

This is lovely beyond words.

Sandy said...

Your father was right. Your love of reading, your expressiveness, your sentimentality have influenced many people. I don"t want to start my day until I read a blog or post from you. Your spirituality infuses my state of being. By camiocamthe way, Moby Dick is one of my favorite books. I spent 3 months discussing its symbolism.with a book group. But I will have my contemporary lit class read Following Atticus this fall. My previous class loved it. One question: there is a flock of cardinals outside my bedroom window. Would they be called a convocation?

CW Leavitt said...

funny the moments we carry our parents with us…and yes…it is up to us which parts we choose to embrace in our memories. I was blessed for longer with mine, but my Dad is gone now for almost 20 years and my Mom for 2 next week. I was blessed to walk both of their final weeks with them in their home…and so much was shared…an amazing time of grace.My father too, loved words, both reading and writing, and I think of him often when I read or hear a well turned phrase. he too had his more challenging bits, especially after serving inVietnam, but they made the rest even more acute. My Mother was truly a blessing to the very large "family" she continued to acquire, right up to her hospice nurse in her final days. During the celebration of her life she was repeatedly described as a lighthouse….beautifully accurate <3 I am glad you had a walk with your Dad, and that you found your words and reading. I am also deeply grateful for the thoughts you share that provoke me to dwell on things I love that I might otherwise forget to notice in the bustle of my days. Thank you. Best regards, C

Susan said...

"You don't miss him, you carry him with you." Like that a lot.

Carter W Rae said...

Some time back I said that we carry our parents with us in life and it was a bit of an emotional risk in sharing .. I am glad that you chose to share with us today .. What a great affirmation of your father spirit and life.. He too was a survivor and even more he gave his all to his family A choice gift by any standard Thanks so much as always for letting us see the dynamics of your life It continues to be this wonderful island in a very difficult world Thank you from us

Sandy Zerbinopoulos said...

Lovely afternoon reading for me on this rainy day - I too lost my father 8 years ago, but have not yet gotten to the peaceful place where you are - "I don’t miss him. How can I when I carry the best parts with me." - your words are pointing to a quiet evening of good long reflection on that process for me. Thank you.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Another beautiful, touching story. Thank you so much for sharing. Like you, I carry my father with me -- in my heart. I am able to overlook his cruelty, bitterness on life, along with the dreams he had but never lived. Thank you for sharing another wonderful adventure.

Unknown said...

Its true we do take them with us, my father died when I was only 33, but still after all these years I think of him, he was a blunt kind honest man who hated cruelty of any kind, I have had 2 rescue whippet greyhounds during my life and I really took to them, found out only recently he had them when he was a young man, and he loved them to, sorry I am waffling on, it seems you are living the life your Father would have loved.

Adair said...

To, you have such a beautiful heart. This post has special meaning to me as I have struggled with my father, his death and who he was. He could be a mean spirited person and his treatment of me through the years has had a negative impact on me. However, I feel that I need to let some of the negative part of my father go and make peace with it. You have inspired me. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I love so much about this blog I do not know where to start.....your writing is so vivid, like I am walking there with you on the trails or sitting there watching your father studying Atticus.

As someone who loves to connect with others through words, I hope someday my readers will think highly of me as I do of you.

Lastly, I also struggle with goodbyes..... as simple as it sounds it cripples me. I am glad to know someone who has succeeded......

Anonymous said...

I loved loved loved this. Thank you from someone who loves dogs (I have a miniature schnauzer) and someone who also does not miss her Italian father...I carry him everywhere I go.

Annie Criscitiello said...

So inspiring Tom, as always you bring it all home in the most personal and generous way.
Thanks for reminding us to pay attention to what's here and now! I realized just this a.m. that I dream of my father ( who has passed 17 years now) almost every night - and he is just always there ....I guess I carry him with me too.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article Tom. I didn't know my father well enough to do the same but it is a wonderful way to both understand others, and one's self.


Unknown said...

Tom, you really touched my heart with your adventures with Atticus. I - we listened to your story ever so often. The largest difficulty was arriving at our destination when we had to stop the disc. You two are so heartwarming. What a pleasure!
Thank you for documenting such a wonderful life.

Best regards, Scotty and Phillis Watterworth and our dog "Andus"

mlaiuppa said...

I would never have taken you for a "late" reader. Your command of words and your turn of phrase just seems to naturally assume you've read all your life, from a very early age.

As a teacher it may be ironic that I am so against "assigned" reading, book reports, analysis and all that. I think to encourage reading it should all be for pleasure and should all be valued, whether it be a pulp bodice ripper or something some PhD has deemed high literature. Let the reader decide, not the teacher.

I commend you for reading Moby Dick. I am shocked you chose it as your first book and weren't deterred to continue reading. It speaks highly of your strong character and determination.

I totally get the murder of crows thing. My Mother said a group of crows came down in the loquat tree and an hour later there were not more loquats. They had murdered all of the fruit by consumption. Yeah, murder is what a lot of farmers probably want to do to crows.

I think pack is a lovely word. I am so glad dogs are a pack. I love being part of mine.

You have 20 years head start on your reading compared to your Dad's. You'll have time yet, even if it's for Robert Parker.

(I'm reading Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie Mystery Paw and Order right now and enjoying it. I like to lighten up during the summer when the weather gets hot and oppressive.)