My sister Selma tells a wonderful story about the profound, lengthy and beautifully philosophical letters that our father sent her when she was attending the University of Michigan. Whenever one of them arrived, she called her friends to her room and read the treasured epistle out loud. Her first fall semester, they were the envy of every girl in the dorm. Not only because they arrived with predictable regularity, but also because of their lyrical, lovely, earnest, wise and worldly sentiments. How could any daughter resist:
…Making verses well is an agreeable talent, which I hope you will be possessed of; for, as it more difficult to express one’s thoughts in verse than in prose, the being capable of doing it is more glorious.
…If you improve and grow learned, everyone will be fond of you, and desirous of your company; whereas ignorant people are shunned and despised.
…It is a saying, that idleness is the mother of all vice. At least, it is certain that laziness is the inheritance of fools; and nothing is so despicable as a sluggard.
…My long and frequent letters which I sent you, in great doubt of their success, put me in mind of certain papers which you have very lately, and I formerly, sent up to kites, along the string, which we called messengers; some of them the wind used to blow away, others were torn by the string, and but few of them got up and stuck to the kite. But I will content myself, as I did then, if some of my present messengers do but stick to you.
Not only did the messengers my father sent stick to my sister, they also adhered to any number of dreamy-eyed college girls who, at that age and in that era, cared as much about wisdom as they did about men. So it was that, proud of her father and proud of her friends for having the perspicacity to appreciate him, Selma packed her bags for her very first visit home.
There is a kind of homecoming experienced only by the bird who has just recently left the nest. It combines desperate enthusiasm with poignant tenderness and pathetic urgency. As we approach the enormous house in which we spent the glorious and tumultuous years of our childhood, we realize that it isn’t really all that big. Nor, we later discover, was the walk from the front door, through the park, to the little store that sold pickles in a barrel and wax lips, anywhere near as long as we thought it was.
Surely when we left, Mom’s hair can’t have been that gray. And no way can Daddy have been that bald!
Suddenly, all of the old familiar things that were so much a part of us are seen through jaundiced eyes. The Steinway piano is out of tune. The brocade cushion on the piano bench is faded. The oil painting over the fireplace refuses to hang straight. There is a crack in the marble-topped coffee table in front of the sofa. And one of the books on the lowest shelf of the bookcase in the living room is upside down. Here. Let’s turn it around. That’s better. Now, we’ll have a look. Which book is it?
LORD CHESTERFIELD’S LETTERS TO HIS SON
Edited, with Occasional Elucidatory Notes,
Translations of all the Latin, French and Italian Quotations
Intrigued, Selma opened the first page of Lord Chesterfield’s elegant epistles. She continued to turn page after page. She smiled here. She nodded there. And…wait a second. A recognizable phrase. A familiar word. A comfortable tone. Some familiar expressions of wise counsel and sage advice. Advice similar to…to…
If you changed all of the “he” pronouns to “she” and all of the “him” pronouns to “her”, it instantly became obvious that Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son were Samuel Reuben’s letters to his daughter!
Plagiary! Word-jacking! Perfidiousness!
When Selma confronted our father with this gentle bit of larceny, he was more amused than disconcerted. After all, hadn’t Lord Chesterfield quoted others in his letters to his son? Didn’t the title of Lord Chesterfield’s book proudly announce, “Translation of all the Latin, French and Italian Quotations”? Why, then, couldn’t he (Sam) interject quotations into his letters too?
The only difference, and it was a modest one, is that Lord Chesterfield attributed all of his quotes.
Any sissy could do that.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben