When is something passed down from our ancestors more than just an antique? Can an idea be an heirloom? These questions come to mind because I’m writing this story on…
When is something passed down from our ancestors more than just an antique? Can an idea be an heirloom?
These questions come to mind because I’m writing this story on the desk that belonged to my great-grandfather. When my father inherited it, he used it as his personal desk at home in his “inner sanctum,” an office on the top floor of our house outside Boston, the place where he did his deepest thinking.
As a kid I would sometimes sit at this desk and look at the note cards dad had pinned on the wall. He’d created a compendium of wisdom gleaned from his voracious reading, one profound statement per card written in his neat all-capital lettering. The idea that stayed in my mind is a quote from George Washington Carver, the most prominent African-American scientist of the early 20th century. “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.”
I love this desk. I love it so much it has given up its greatest secrets, which I will share with you.
This matte black 19th century antique is solid as an icebreaker, with drawers painted inside in the particular red of British phone booths. Its lines are simple and angular, unadorned by flourishes. This is a desk for work.
Its family origins date back to the Civil War. My great-great grandfather, Albert Kidder Page, served with a Massachusetts regiment. In July of 1863—the same month as the epic battle at Gettysburg—Albert was fighting his way through North Carolina when he contracted a severe case of malaria. When Albert’s father, Luke, learned that his son was extremely ill, he traveled by train from Boston to retrieve him from the army hospital and bring him home. Albert’s wife, Maria, was nine months pregnant. No doubt the family held out hope that Albert would recover and live to see his child born. But it was not to be. On July 3rd, Albert passed away in Maria’s arms. Three days later, she gave birth to their son. She named him Albert Kidder Page (curiously, he was not a ‘jr’).
Albert grew up, studied hard, and became a doctor. The desk was his.
Boston, at the time, was a destination for Chinese immigrants and Albert would accept them as patients regardless of their ability to pay. He often received china in lieu of money. I’m guessing Dr. Page was right-handed because there’s a small spot on the top right of the desk where the paint is worn away due to repeated pressure from a writing instrument — his hand filling out prescriptions for all those in need of care.
The china Dr. Page received from patients is still in the family, its value not measured in dollars.
Nearly one hundred years after the Civil War, when the desk was in my dad’s office, he flew to California to attend a scientific conference. On his trip back to Boston, on June 30th, 1956, an unknown woman approached him at the ticket counter at LAX and said, “Excuse me, I was wondering if you’re on the earlier flight. It’s urgent that I get home to my family faster and I was hoping you’d consider switching flights with me.” My dad was unfailingly kind and considerate of others, and he never seemed to be in a hurry, so it’s no surprise to me that he agreed. She took his seat on the earlier TWA flight.
That plane collided with another over the Grand Canyon. All lives were lost. It was the worse civil air disaster that had ever occurred in the United States.
My dad arrived home safely and went back to work, continuing to read voraciously and write down new nuggets of wisdom to pin on the wall, including a new one: Life is a gift. Whenever my dad told the story of the switched flights, he’d finish by saying, “And the moral of the story is, if someone asks you for a favor, do it!”
I was born three years later.
The only reason I’m here, the reason why I’ve been able to live, to raise children, to know my grandkids and to write stories on this old desk, is because of pure chance, and kindness. The gift of life that a total stranger gave my father—and by extension to me—must be somehow repaid (I did try to track down the identity of the woman who switched seats so I could contact her surviving family members, but it was not possible).
Life went on. The desk was put to good use by my dad over the following decades, with countless letters written, scientific papers perused and annotated, wisdom captured.
An underlying current of all my dad’s thinking was the need to promote world peace.
Having lived through the horrors of Okinawa, he believed all war was incredibly stupid. We could do better. The imperative for peace was infused into our family life in myriad ways, such as hosting exchange students. Building bridges of understanding with people from many countries would, in his view, create a more loving family of mankind.
This is how a young student from Kenya came to live with us in the mid-1960s. His name was James Odhiambo.
While James spent time with us five boys—expanding our world view in the process—it was really my dad that he bonded with. The full extent of that bond didn’t become fully clear until recently. A month ago, one of my brothers discovered a letter written to my father from James’ wife in 1983. In my mind’s eye, I picture dad opening the letter as he sat at this desk. Below is verbatim what she wrote:
Mrs. Dinah Odhiambo
P.O. Box 30101
Dear Mr. Page,
It is a really long time since you read from us and also read from you. I remember, the last time was, I sent you our family photo, you never mentioned whether it reached you or not.
I thank God who has given me this chance to remember you. The [?] had come because of ups and downs, and thereafter, to give you a surprising news, I got my fifth baby. This one came after 7 years and I had not planned. God gave me a baby boy and my husband named him you, thus William-Page Odiwuor. Odiwuor means from midnight up to 3am and my baby arrived at 12:45am at night on 28-2-83. So, this means my husband together with me have not forgotten you.
I have been troubled every now and then that I have you in our family, but I have never let you know. I don’t know how you will take it but my husband insisted we must name you in our family, and I think that is why I got this one after many years.
I’m sure your wife is doing well together with the rest of the family. Please pass my warmest regards to all and may God bless you.
Later in the 80s we heard that James had died of AIDS.
My dad likely sat here when he wrote a check to help pay for William-Page Odiwuor’s college education. Since my dad was, like his grandfather, right-handed, the scratched paint on the desk was partly due to the tip of his pen bearing down as he wrote the check for young William, as dad did for so many other people and the causes he cared about.
So, here I am today, writing here at this old desk. It’s the nature of the publishing business that books are sold, not given away. But it’s not possible for me to write this and not think of those who wrote here before me. The prescriptions. The wisdom. The checks. Every fiber of this wood is imbued with the kindness of my ancestors and the gifts of strangers. I feel their presence as I sit here and type. To honor them, and simply to do the right thing, when my book is published a donation will be made to a non-profit that benefits children across the globe.
I’m fortunate to know the secrets of this desk, passed down to me by spoken word and a letter found by chance. Through this book, the stories will be available to my children, my grandchildren, and hopefully everyone else. Heirlooms are nice things to receive. They are even better to give.