More than small talk

By

When I was in elementary school my father and I used to play school together. He was the student and I was his teacher. After dinner we would set up the easel blackboard in our small kitchen, and my father would make himself comfortable as I drilled him in grammar and spelling. He was always an attentive student who willingly submitted to the quizzes I gave. My father had immigrated to America from Italy at the age of twenty-five. He was forty-five when I was born. His thick accent and his lack of formal education always embarrassed him. However, he was among the most intelligent and sensitive men I have ever known. He instilled in me a thirst for learning, not through example, but through supportive encouragement.

On Thursday evenings we would walk to the tiny dilapidated fire station that served as our neighborhood library. He would sit and read the newspapers as I wallowed through the musty shelves. He never looked at the books I checked out, nor did he ask what I was reading. He simply carried the books with pride. On the way home we would stop in a small novelty-confectionery shop where, for five cents, he would buy me a week's supply of colored chalk - five magical, slippery pieces of yellow, pink, green, violet, blue. During the week the colors embellished the sidewalk, the stoop, the blackboard, the garden trellis, the cellar door, until the words I wrote wore off or were washed away by the rain.

My father never attended open school nights, nor was he involved in the PTA. When I was in high school he would look at my report cards for a long time, question different things, and then ask, ''How did I ever get such a smart girl?'' He never pressed me to excel. He did urge me to go to college, even though he was of the generation who believed young women should marry and settle down to life and children. He understood that I wanted more than that.

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And so he was confused when I told him that I was dropping out of college after the first semester. He wearily rubbed his hands on his knees and tried to disguise his disappointment. He listened carefully as I stumbled through my explanations - I was in love - to a student. I had found a job and would work until my husband's schooling was completed - I would go to school part time - at night, someday - maybe - I would get an English degree. He nodded his head. ''It's good to finish what you start.'' It was then that I realized how important my completing an English degree was to him. Perhaps it would symbolize his complete naturalization; perhaps it was his way of finishing what he had started. I'm not sure. However, he made it clear that he had not lost faith in me or my choices. ''You do what you think is best.'' Nothing changed between us.

A few years later he responded in an equally characteristic way when I told him about my plans to return to college. He stopped to weigh my words as we picked mulberries in my yard. ''I think that's a good thing, but don't lose what you already have.'' He was concerned that I balance my life as wife and mother with that of student. It was sage advice. As proud as he would be for me to be ''educated,'' he was convinced that over the years I had acquired something more valuable than a ''school'' education. I had settled down to life and children; I was tending my corner of the world. However, he could not hide his pleasure about my decision. ''I think you can do it all.'' His faith spurred me on.

He shone when I received a BA in English three years ago, and when I recently completed a master's in English literature. We both finished what we had started. Each week he calls from New York to ask about my husband and children and to hear about my Virginia garden. We small-talk. As his voice fills me with memories of colored chalk and musty books, it seems significant that I have had to come this far in my ''education'' to understand that the lessons I learned from him are the ones that are the most sustaining.

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