Monday, February 13, 2012

February 13, 2012 – Link to My Past

I’ve been recovering at home for the past week, following last Monday’s surgery for benign enlargement of the prostate.  Everything went well, as predicted, and I’m on track for a full recovery.  Tomorrow I’ll venture back over to the church office, and see how things go.

Today, though, I’m thinking about an object that came into my possession recently.  A few days before my surgery, I did a Google search for the name of my father’s old business, a high-end men’s clothing store called Wilton & Woolley.  It was located on Main Street in my hometown of Toms River, New Jersey.  (The “Woolley” name belonged to a silent partner, a haberdasher from another town who had fronted him some money to start the place.)  My father, Carlos E. Wilton, Sr., operated the store for a decade or so in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before getting out of the business in the nick of time, just before Toms River’s once-vibrant Main Street was bled dry by a new shopping mall on what was then the outskirts of town.  Dad used to tell my brother Jim and me that Wilton & Woolley was our family business, that we all owned it together and that one day maybe we kids would have it for our own.

I can’t imagine being a retail merchant, myself – even if an old-fashioned haberdashery like his could have survived to be a going concern today.  Yet, that’s the way my father used to think when we were kids, and who were we to disabuse him of the idea?

I was looking the other day for a photo of the Wilton & Woolley storefront to put on my Facebook timeline, and never did find one.  Google led me, instead, to an eBay page, where somebody was selling an old printer’s block with the Wilton & Woolley name on it.

It was a strange feeling to run across that item.  It felt vaguely wrong to see it there, like it was a piece of my family heritage on the auction block.

In fact, this hunk of wood and metal had never been owned by anyone in my family.  Back before the days of computer graphics, print shops would create metal plates they would insert into a rack beside similar blocks, along with a whole lot of the moveable type that was then their stock in trade.  Then, they would slather ink onto the whole assemblage, and run as many copies of the letterhead, handbill or brochure as might be needed.  Once the job was finished, printers would save blocks like this one to reuse in the future.  In fact, on the bottom of the piece of wood is the name and address of the long-shuttered print shop – evidently one my father patronized for advertising.  The store name appears in the jaunty, 1950s typeface he always used, the closest thing Wilton & Woolley ever had to a logo.

I felt like I had to have the thing, without knowing exactly why.  I’ve got no place to display it, no real use for it.  God knows we’ve already got way too much bric-a-brac in the house.  Yet, for 15 bucks I figured I could afford to free it from the auction block, so I did.

It arrived in the mail just after I got home from the hospital.  With its wood-block backing, it’s about 5 inches long. It’s hefty, substantial, reassuring to hold.  The wood still bears an ancient smear of black ink. To me, it feels like a link to my past.

I’ve got a few small items associated with my father, but not much.  Sadly, his life contracted in his later years, as he fell victim to years of substance abuse – alcohol and tobacco, the drugs of choice of his generation – and what was, very likely, undiagnosed clinical depression. After selling the store, he hit the road as a traveling salesman, first selling school library books for major publishers and, later, law books.  When he was motivated, Dad won all the sales awards.  Yet, inevitably, he’d grow tired of the grind.  He would slack off on the sales calls, get into some kind of argument with the bosses and they would part ways.   He jumped from one publisher to another in that way, every few years.  After he and my mother divorced, he switched to selling life insurance.  Abruptly, Dad moved clear across the country to the Central Valley of California, where he’d grown up, intending to start afresh in the life-insurance business out there.

My father ended his working life as a night clerk in a convenience store called the “Git-n-Go” (photo is not of his store).  By that stage of his life, he amiably settled for enough money to pay the rent and keep him in booze and cigarettes.  It didn’t seem to faze him when the store was robbed, twice, on his shift – once at knifepoint, giving him a little scar on his neck where the knife-tip had broken the skin.  He never even told us when these things happened.  We learned about them only years later.  Not a big one for communication, was my Dad.

After he almost died from a dissecting aortic aneurysm – that led to an air-ambulance helicopter flight to Stanford University Hospital for herculean surgery to give him a new aorta – he moved back east to Newton, Massachusetts, to an apartment down the street from my brother, Jim.  Dad had finally quit smoking by then – a month in ICU on a ventilator will do that to you – and there he lived the last year or so of his life, subsisting on two or three six-packs of Budweiser a day, because he figured it was better for him than the Canadian whiskey (and, later, vodka) he’d formerly favored.

Nothing of what my father did in his working life left any sort of legacy.  He always had the misfortune to find himself on the downward slope of major economic change, but did manage to bail out in time before the wave crashed.  First, the 1960s blue-jeans era reduced the market for “Mad Men” tailored suits and fedora hats.  Then, the advent of the shopping mall did away with most Main Street family businesses of any kind.  Dad did well in the book business for a few years, but was fortunate to jump ship before the Internet changed that world forever.  By then, I suppose he was feeling burned-out as a salesman, but it was all he knew how to do.  Life insurance was never a good fit for him.

I’ve only seen Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” once in my life, but I know I could never bring myself to do so again.  That grim drama’s just too close to home.

The printer’s block in my hand feels like a sort of legacy.  It’s solid and substantial, concrete evidence of a nearly-forgotten family business my father hoped and dreamed would outlast him.  Maybe he imagined that, in time, he would buy Mr. Woolley out, and he’d rename it “Wilton & Sons.”

At age 55, I’ve reached the stage of life where I’m thinking about my own legacy.  A couple of cancer experiences have pressed such ruminations upon me a bit earlier than most, and this recent surgery and slow recovery have reminded me once again that, as that spoilsport Isaiah puts it, “all people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40:6)

Myself included, of course.  Parish ministry is notorious, even in the best of times, for its abstract, hard-to-categorize results.  In this profoundly confused era, we who pastor mainline Protestant churches are all too often reminded that we’re serving a shrinking, aging market.  I’ve grown quite tired of reading articles in professional journals that include the familiar Cassandra-words: “If present trends continue...”

What will my children hold in their hands, one day, that reminds them of me, of my years of toil in the vineyard of the Lord?  A Bible, a calling card, a tarnished home-communion set, a disintegrating copy of one of the pulpit-helps books I’ve written?  As my books go out of print, much of what I’ve created, in the form of writings, lives now on the Internet: sermons once voiced in their time, but which now persist only as ghostly electrical impulses, mere droplets in a vast and ever-expanding sea.  As the church continues to lurch through rapid societal change, I wonder: will my grandchildren yet unborn even know what a sermon is – homely, spoken words of testimony, unadorned by electronic finery?

Ultimately, I suppose, my legacy is my children – as my brothers Jim, Dave and I are my father’s legacy.  After more than 20 years of ministry in one church, and 6 years before that of guiding others into ministry as a seminary assistant dean and admissions director, there’s also another group of people that are my legacy.  Those, of course, are the other lives out there I’ve touched, and – I hope, on my best days – influenced for the better.  Sure, a great many of the babies I’ve held in my arms at the baptismal font have drifted away from the church in adulthood, but not all.  In a time of convalescence such as I’m now going through, the many cards, emails and other caring communications I’ve received remind me that what I do continues to be appreciated.

“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!  For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth...” (Job 19:23-25).  For any of us, our true legacy is no block of wood with lead type fixed upon it.  It’s flesh and blood.  As it was for my father, it will one day be true for me.  Soli Deo Gloria.


Dollar Store Items said...

This is the kind of piece I will definitely be sharing my friends today:-)

Anonymous said...

Nice post Carl! What a find on the internet!

Pastora Carmen Rosario said...

Beautiful words. As my retirement day after 28 years of parish ministry is approaching (March 31,2012), I really appreciate your words.

Neal Lloyd said...

Carl: You've pretty well nailed it! In retirement we returned to the "family farm", my office in the room where I slept as a child. But of course the farm has been sold and even the young farmer has sold all the cattle and only grows crops. The town has changed and the "home church" is renewed but struggling as I sit in the back pew with the few "old-timers" that I knew in youth.

My legacy, like yours will be in a bit of family, a few words on paper, and the host of folk who have responded to God's invitation because of what we did. We can only give thanks and hope it is enough.

Phil Gehman said...

A wonderful post, Carl. I find it particularly meaningful since I'm in the midst of transcribing my father's diary as an 18 year old. His father had died 7 years before, but he later went on to become a PCUSA minister without a high school or college education - his only credentials being his ordination by a Bible School and a certificate from an off-brand seminary. With gratefulness for our friendship and for you witness to the faith...