One evening last fall, I made a striking discovery (or, to be more accurate, a rediscovery of sorts) as I combed through one of my many bookcases looking for a cookbook. It was a dusty, faded binder that contained short stories, poetry, and critical essays my father had written while attending Quincy College (now Quincy University). It was dated 1960, and each piece contained the instructor’s original comments. I dimly remembered coming upon this folder when I was sifting through his belongings in my childhood home after his death, almost ten years ago. At the time, I was so overwhelmed by the consequences of his unexpected passing that I simply put it aside and made a mental note to read through its contents more carefully sometime in the future. Ten years slipped by, and the folder remained unopened.
Finally, after all these years, I decided to delve into the mysterious binder, and found that it was a veritable treasure trove of insight, a snapshot into my father’s mind and heart which spoke to me of his creativity, passion, and youthful enthusiasm. In his words I recognized the early seeds of the man I came to know after my birth. This artifact of my father’s past surprised and delighted me: I had no idea he had tried his hand at creative writing. Although he was an avid reader of classical literature, his work as an executive vice president of an educational nonprofit mostly drew upon his fundraising and strategic planning abilities; he dealt more with numbers than with words. Yet here he was, using a deluge of words to render his interpretations of reality. I was struck by how much his youthful literary efforts reminded me of students I teach in my short story roundtable class: there were tales of considerable imagination and power that contained hyperbole, almost impossible coincidences, and run-on sentences. It was somehow comforting for me to know that the foibles of those trying to master this genre have not changed much in over half a century.
As I plumbed its depths, I realized that this collection of writing was a time-capsule of sorts; it contained his responses to and commentary on the emerging political, social, and cultural mores of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His writing reflected his profound concern over the consequences of the growing acceptance of casual sex and drug and alcohol abuse on the American college campus; his poems, which lamented what he saw as the erosion of traditional values in the modern world, contained echoes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and foreshadowed his cultural conservatism which would become the core of his nature in later years.
On a more personal level, other pieces in the portfolio also gave me new insight into my own heritage; my father’s mother, my beloved grandmother Carmen, was half Spanish, and she and her family fled to Mexico to escape the revolution in Spain; one of his short stories, set in Madrid, described the painful aftermath of the bloody Spanish Civil War. His words fueled my imagination and curiosity about my Spanish ancestry. Because it reflected our family’s Spanish roots, this story was particularly comforting to me, especially since during his final few days, my father made a request that I find his mother’s ornately illustrated birth certificate, which he called a family treasure; it was supposed to be tucked inside a copy of Don Quixote in the library of our home, but my attempts to recover it were futile. At the time of his death, I focused on loss—his loss, and the loss of my grandmother’s birth certificate, which I had never seen. Yet this portfolio of writing was something unexpectedly found, a gift that illustrated the power of words to bridge the yawning chasm of time, space, and death.
Ultimately, after reading its contents, I viewed this collection as a reaffirmation of the efficacy of the written word—and particularly the word in print—to enlighten us and help us discover truths about ourselves and others. How different this experience would have been had I merely found a computer file, a flash drive. In this age of digital literacy, where words can seem more like abstractions than purveyors of concrete reality, the very physicality of this folder contributed to its significance: the wafer-thin watermark on the paper, its musty scent, the rust stains from the metal clips that bound it together—all helped to reinforce the weight of his words, to make them seem real and full of import.
If nothing else, this portfolio demonstrates the resilience of writing, and reminds me of all the times I have told students that when they write they create something that lasts forever—that writing enables them to put the contents of their minds into a tangible, enduring form. More than a half century after they were written, my father’s words still mean something, and will always do so. A decade after my father’s death, reading his writing helped me to appreciate and know him better; this process enriched my comprehension of his full humanity. More than anything, it helped me understand the vital role writing plays in the formation, preservation, and communication of one’s unique, irreplaceable identity.
Written by Dr. Catherine Hancock, Assistant Professor in English Department/First-Year Writing Program