a small positive quality

“It is the star to every wandering bark whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.” (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116)

Late in my father’s life (green-hazel eyes, light brown hair, a sturdy build, a temperament shadowed by melancholia: I have inherited the last two) he talked about reconciling numbers. I believe that he had a form of dementia and this was what he felt called to do, I suppose, though his relationships with his children suffered and could have used the same attention. He hadn’t used this term before, or at least not in my memory of him. But he’d been good at statistics and good at mental calculations. After he retired, he sat in a big armchair in one corner of his living room and taught himself celestial navigation. He had a book from Goodwill and a life-time of buried ability to learn, a mind that might have been nimble if it had been let free to roam and develop. And maybe it had always been free, maybe I never noticed.  Maybe it was freedom to sit in the big chair with columns of numbers, reconciling them – I have no idea where they came from and why he felt he needed to do this.He used a mechanical pencil, he always used one – for sums, for crosswords (“What’s a Greek letter used in math to mean a small positive quality?” I wouldn’t know so never answered. And he’d repeat the question, querulously. “A Greek letter used, oh never mind, I’ll look it up myself.”) It was the same chair where he sat fifteen years before, newly liberated from his job as a radar technician, and made himself simple tools — a cottage cheese lid cut into a circle and rigged with glass and a tiny mirror became a sextant; cardboard, string, a plastic straw, and a fishing weight became a quadrant. He had patience for this intricate work but I don’t believe he ever did anything beyond finding latitude in his back yard and filling paper with sums. Maybe on the long sea voyages that took him away from us for two or three months at a time – once, six – to the Orient, Australia, around South America, maybe he was the sailor who left his bunk and looked at stars at night and wanted to know how to find his way, though by day he worked with radar systems, repairing them, fine-tuning them so that the vessels were anything but dependent on celestial navigation. It would have made sense to have learned then, when he could perhaps have applied the knowledge to the dark skies near the Antipodes or approaching Madagascar. But he waited until the early 1980s, after retirement, to sit and work with angles, degrees. Which became, using the same notebook of graph paper and his mechanical pencil, reconciliatons. And I wish now that I’d asked him to show me what a disk of plastic fitted with mirrors could tell a person about where they were on the planet so I could imagine him now, at sea, finding horizon.


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