Tertius Amanuensis: the preface, pt. 1

Screenshot 2015-04-11 16.00.14
My father, leaning in the foreground, as an extra in the 1994 TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

You don’t have to do this

The above was said with love by the two women closest to me and this project, my partner and my mother. They meant well – they would like to save me the taxing emotional work and efforts in time & energy that this project will cost. I’m choosing to do it anyway, based upon what I define as obligatory, believing obligations are not always dissimilar from the responsibilities incumbent upon us as members of a community, or a workplace, or a family. Sometimes they are different, and in that case, yes lover, and yes mother, they don’t have to be done. One can choose to accept it or not accept it. For good reason though, I feel that this project both is and is not my choice. It’s an obligation I have no choice about but also, a responsibility I choose to accept.

This project began after a few phone calls lead to a manila envelope of loose pages arriving in my mailbox in the late fall of 2019. It had six forever stamps in the top right corner, each bearing the word “CELEBRATE” among balloons that were brightly contrasted against its black rectangular background. After another, thicker, envelope arriving just before the unprecedented virus-related interruption of all our regular day-to-day activities and work lives, I am now continuing into the spring of 2020 after having completely transcribed the first envelope’s contents.

Compared to planning lessons for six sections of high school English, co-creating a presentation on the changing ELA standards in NY state, or attending multiple weekly team meetings, this is relatively simple work – being an amanuensis. I spend an hour here and there away from my life situation and those aforementioned responsibilities to sit at a desk, slowly turning over sheets from yellow legal pads numbered at the top left corner in a ragged scrawl, typing the deciphered script into a file on an aging laptop. This project holds no payment at the end – it’s not business, but personal. I’m working to transcribe my father’s memoir, a memoir he has entitled:

A Seemingly Wasted Life

My father has planned this project for at least the last decade, a decade in which his health has gradually worsened from strokes, heart attacks, sepsis, and amputations. Feeling the reality of his mortality, and following his 60th birthday last year, he began to speak seriously during our phone calls from his nursing home in Portland, Oregon about the memoir. This precipitated an exchange between us, and last week, a little over a year since he began writing, he’s said that writing has finished and he will send the third and final envelope soon. In fact, he sends me the only copies in existence of his story across the country to my current home in upstate New York, entrusting to the US Postal Service, and then to me. The story of his life figuratively and literally spans the continent – a story that as I read and transcribe will soon include his story of my childhood.

Knowing this complicates the role I’m playing as Tertius of Iconium to his Paul the Apostle. I am not writing down an epistle to the Romans, but also, Paul wasn’t Tertius’s father – at least not biologically – but nor is my father my biological one.

I should explain: I met my father when I was three or four, my brother was a toddler, and my mother was recently divorced. We were all living under the protection of her parents in her childhood home on Lake Ripple in Grafton, Massachusetts. My mother was depressed but seeking, seeking a father for her sons, seeking a love that would last. My grandparents in kind were looking for a new husband for their daughter, and the church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – had the same faith-based reason to search as my grandparents: families are forever, therefore if fractured they need to be made whole. When they married, both had had previous marriages, and so once they were wed they were committed to making their second one work.

My biological father was not a native New Englander, nor is my father. I remember my father as a man of stature and girth, a Texas Goliath of red hair and freckles, a loud man, a man of strong opinion, of sharp intelligence, and much more I didn’t perceive until I grew up and began to see him as an equal. I have no memory of my biological one, but I must have had some impression of the man who I had first beheld, coming out of the womb with eyes wide open. Perhaps a remnant of him was there when I met the man who was to become my father, who began to spend more time with us sitting in the pews at church, then at home at the dinner table. Before forging a relationship with my father as an adult, we had great difficulties as father and son, and I expect to see that reflected in his writing. However, I could also be surprised – the clarity of memories are often as a frosted glass: somewhat transparent and somewhat opaque.

Amanuensis

This word has Latin roots, Roman, meaning “within hand’s reach” – which I cannot be present for my father, except through his manuscripts, and by our connection maintained over the phone. He mentions the Romans and early Christians so much in his preface, it would be a mistake not to mention them here in my own, what I hope to be a record of this journey as his amanuensis, and a reflection on his faith, his memories, and his life. My next post will be a reflection on the preface, which has been completely transcribed, awaiting corrections and clarifications from Bob, my dad.

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