Tales My Father Never Told
Walter D. Edmonds
Walter D. Edmonds, winner of both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal for children's literature, is best known for the historical novel Drums Along the Mohawk, published in 1936. Now, nearly 60 years later, the author looks back on his childhood with Tales My Father Never Told, a deeply personal memoir of his father and their sometimes discordant relationship.
"Memoirs should be celebrations of greatness," Edmonds writes, "of great men and women whose lives have affected human history, of great love, of scientific discovery, of wisdom that enabled society to improve the quality of life. Let my readers, if any, be warned. There is nothing of that in these pages. My father and I were fifty-three years apart and understanding was not easy to come by. The episodes, per force, are told from my point of view. But if we did not often understand each other then, in the end I was able to see that love had existed, existed on both sides, and perhaps that disclosure is justification for this small book."
The warning is hardly necessary. Edmonds' graceful prose and vivid story-telling are more than enough justification for this or any book. The author has previously sketched a fictionalized portrait of his father in a book called The South African Quirt, but this new book is better balanced and more satisfying.
Edmonds constructs his memoir from interlocked vignettes, each illuminating a fresh aspect of his father's character. In one chapter, reminiscent of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (SMITHSONIAN, September 1992), a shared passion for fly-fishing awakens a subtle rivalry between father and son. In another, young "Watty" attempts to apply one of his father's dinner-table lectures on public drunkenness to a neighborhood chipmunk, which has grown stuporous on fermented cherries.
Easily the funniest episode finds the 11-year-old Watty laboring for months in the solitary fastness of his room, learning to forge his father's signature. "Christmas came and went," he recalls. "My entire being was dedicated to my illicit purpose. When at New Year's dinner I refused to eat creamed celery, which I despised, and was sent up to my room 'to think things over,' I lost not a moment in assembling my paraphernalia and going to work on the forgery." When at last the young Edmonds has mastered his father's elaborate script, he uses the newly acquired skill to forge a check for $1,000 made out to himself. "I didn't want to cash it," he tells his father when the counterfeit is discovered, "I just wanted to forge your signature."
Many of Edmonds' previous books have been set in upstate New York, most often along the Erie Canal. Here, the setting alternates between the family's home in New York City, where the elder Edmonds had a law practice, and a farmhouse to the north, scene of the author's happiest memories. Edmonds makes good use of both settings: "Motor coaches were beginning to supplant the horse-drawn omnibuses," he writes of a walk along Fifth Avenue with his father in 1914. "From time to time a private automobile stuttered by. Even a motorized hearse appeared and I started to remove my cap and stand at attention as Father had taught my brother and me to do, rapping our heads sharply with his cane if we were slow to bare them. But to my surprise he paid no attention to the motor hearse and the thought flitted through my head that it was the netted horses and plumed vehicle that he respected more than the sad body on its final drive. As the years went by, also, it became obvious to us all that Father's affinity for the internal combustion engine was almost nonexistent."
Walter Edmonds, who was born in 1903, recognizes that the everyday particulars of his childhood will be unfamiliar to many readers. In presenting these seemingly humdrum details for a modern audience, he reveals much about his father's iron rule: "Mother smiled at me. Her quick ears had caught the rumble of the dumbwaiter in its swift ascent from the basement kitchen. That meant Father's poached egg was on its way. To most people, serving a poached egg for a man's breakfast would seem a simple procedure. In the Edmonds household it was not. Father's specifications for his egg were relentlessly precise. The egg on its toast must have been cooked just long enough to be runny at the first touch of the fork; the yoke perfectly round and yellow; the white white, no trace of transparency was countenanced; the toast a moderate brown and perfectly flat, with the crust left on but, because of sensitive teeth, the crust must be softened by a trickle of hot water from the kettle; a trickle mind you; too much water would reduce the toast to 'quag.' And the finished artifact had to be rushed the length of the kitchen to the dumbwaiter, where the cook slapped the lift rope and the waitress on the floor above pulled on the rope with such abandon as to set the pulleys squealing. Her quick steps pattered through the pantry, into the dining room, down the length of the table, and, pink-cheeked and breathless, she put the egg in front of Father.
"After an interminable moment he picked up his fork and touched it to the yoke. It ran. A quiet sigh escaped my mother's lips, and the waitress, even pinker-cheeked than before, vanished without a sound. This was a good day."
Not surprisingly, the elder Edmonds emerges as a prickly, distant figure whose entrenched habits left him ill-prepared for the children who came late in life. He was a man better suited to fishing than fatherhood: "His eight-and-a-quarter-pound brook trout was, for many years, the largest caught in the Murray River in Quebec. And when my mother introduced him to his first born child, my brother John, proclaiming with tremulous pride that he weighed eight pounds and three ounces, Father reminded her that his trout was bigger."
For all of that, there is no trace of bitterness or recrimination in this book, and Edmonds looks back across the years with warmth and humor. He is an engaging and generous storyteller, and Tales My Father Never Told may well bring him a new generation of readers.
Toward the end of Tales, as the young Edmonds begins to publish stories, his father writes to offer a characteristic assessment: "I urge you to give up all thought of writing. Apply yourself with redoubled concentration to your studies. Our world needs people who will contribute to the values of life."
It is difficult to say what the elder Edmonds would have thought of the present volume, but the general reader can be in no doubt. The author has made a wholly agreeable contribution to the values of life.
Daniel Stashower is a novelist living and writing in London.