For two people who hated talking on the phone, my dad and I had a lot of phone conversations.
I think it’s because the point in our relationship where we really started to relate to each other was around the time I left for school. I was a quasi-adult with half a thought in my head, and we were interested in a lot of the same things, so we enjoyed talking about them. When I moved far enough away that we didn’t see each other on a regular basis, we kept the conversations going over the phone.
Once, after his own father died, my dad told me that he realized he counted so much on being able to ask his advice, even for trivial things, that he often felt lost without it.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to ask my dad for advice, or hear what he thought about a book we’d read, or a piece of classical music he’d been listening to. I still catch myself organizing my thoughts for those conversations in my head. I think about how to phrase the questions I’m going to ask him, and sometimes I still reach for the phone to call him.
One of the recurring topics over the years was work. My dad was a teacher, and also an author; he wrote forty books in his lifetime. We talked about the normal things, the everyday victories and frustrations of work, but we also talked about what we wanted out of the work that we did, and the kind of work we wanted to do. I was at the start of my career as a designer and he was getting close to the age when retirement might be an option, but I like to think we both had a perspective that the other appreciated.
I was lucky enough to have two jobs early in my career that I considered “dream jobs” at the time. I say that not because they didn’t turn out to be great jobs, but they did turn out to be real jobs. They were great experiences, but they were also difficult and frustrating to the extent that every job is. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I could see myself holding them out as some kind of perfect ideal: “this job sucks, but if I worked there it would be different.”
When my dad got sick, the tone of our conversations changed. Not right away, but when he started to talk about the book he was researching as his last book, a particular anxiety started to creep into those conversations. All the hours of research, poring over microfilm, the trips to the library or his office at the university that took so much of the energy he had left between chemo treatments.
Was this one worth it? Were any of them worth it? And the ultimate doubt for a lifelong historian—would anyone remember?
My dad always talked about some future book as the one he would be remembered for. I think it was sort of necessary to keep going, even in the beginning. To keep starting over with each new book, to believe that he had something left to say. Each book becomes practice, training for the next one, and the one after that.
Maybe if he’d had more time, if he’d retired and looked back over everything he’d written from a little distance, maybe he would have seen it differently. But he died in the middle of a book he never finished, that by the end he didn’t think was worth finishing.
The thing is, every book he wrote was a masterpiece. He only knew one way to write history: the right way. He put everything he had, and everything he knew into every single book. Even the ones he wrote on commission, corporate histories for companies commemorating an anniversary that were a reliable source of income but not such a reliable path to academic prestige.
Every time, he did the interviews, he dug up archives that nobody had touched since they locked them away, and he turned invisible corners of the past into stories that people actually wanted to read. His specialty was local and regional history, so most of what he wrote about was close to home. He gave people the story of their family, their ancestors, their home. He gave people their history.
There are no dream jobs. There is work that is worth your time, and work that isn’t. You’ll never be sure which is which, so there are only two ways to do the work in front of you: the right way or not at all.