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Life's quiet rhythms

Recently I sat in a college classroom and listened while the professor announced the assignment: ''Today, you will write a profile of your father.'' I was thirty-two years old, a wife and mother, and I had all but forgotten that I grew up without a father. I leaned back in my chair as my hard-earned maturity seemed to slip away from me, and I felt like a six-year-old girl again listening to my kindergarten teacher announce: ''Today, we will make ashtrays for our fathers.''

I had felt a little panic then. If I didn't have a father, I reasoned, I could not by rights make an ashtray. But I was stuck at a long table with the other children, each of us confronted with our allotted lump of clay and a pot of tempera. I worked along with everybody else - the last thing I wanted to be in those days was different.

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I walked home alone, with my gift packed in a shoe box, and I didn't start to cry until I got two blocks and half an alley away from school. I sat down under an overproducing forsythia bush, where no one could see me. There I figured out for myself who would be the recipient of my gift: my grandfather. I lived with him. He put up with me. He deserved my lumpy blue ashtray, and a whole lot more.

All I knew about my real father at the time was that there had been a divorce when I was two, and the image of him that I had created from clues I uncovered in a trunk in the attic. He had left the grueling shift work of a millhand, determined to invent a new process for making steel. When invention failed, he went to sea in the merchant marine, and I never saw him again.

I have thought of him wistfully at times, and fancied myself the dreamer, too. I like to think that I take after him, in some ways, because then we are connected. But I see little reason left to wonder about him, for like many children today for whom the word ''family'' has an unconventional definition, I was blessed with someone in my life who served as father.

There is a father in everyone's life, I suspect, if you know how to recognize him. I remember the signs that I saw in my grandfather. He taught me how to tie my shoelaces. He let me comb his thinning hair. He couldn't abide my noise. His steady hand launched me on my first two-wheeler. He presided at the dinner table in the kitchen, where he gave me the habit of thankfulness. He let me use his cellar workbench for science projects, and he said, ''Now you're cooking with gas!'' when I brought home a good report card. And while I was growing up, he talked to me.

We talked about politics, though there was only one direction to go with a man who wore an ''I like Ike'' button around the house. We talked about faith and hard work. But no matter what he wanted me to think about, he never lectured; he told stories. Most any concept could be demonstrated in a family story. Only now, as a parent, have I come to see how much his storytelling left up to me. He would teach, but I would have to learn. I would have to make up my own mind.

When I went to live with my grandfather he had just begun what he thought would be a quiet retirement. He took me in more out of good heart than good sense. Our house was on a long street in Pittsburgh, a four-block stretch of big brick houses, all built humbly close together.

My grandfather created the rhythm in that house. Once a week he sat at his tall desk in the bedroom where he typed checks and plucked papers from the pigeonholes; then he blotted, sealed, and pounded his fist on each envelope for good measure. Often I would hear him hammering and sawing at his massive workbench in the cellar. On the shelf above the bench, peanut butter jars of paint, and boxes of nails, rattled in time with his hammering.

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There was a rhythm to the chores and the changes that went on almost unnoticed by me. In the summer the screens and awnings went up, and the grass was cut with a humanely quiet push mower. In the winter the screens came down, the awnings were rolled in the attic, and the sidewalk was shoveled to the neighbor's property line and then a little farther, just out of courtesy. On bitter cold winter mornings I would awake to the acrid but reassuring smell of coal gas rising from the cellar through the gratings in the floor. With only the faintest margin of light around the window blinds, my grandfather was up and had things going. He worked in the morning so that in the afternoon he could sit on the couch and read and relax. There he kept the Bible and U.S. News & World Reportm, the only two publications he trusted.

I wonder what rhythms I am passing on to my children. Perhaps they absorb my rhythms more than my rules. Am I passing on the gift of thankfulness, or sighing too often about the things we cannot afford? Am I greeting them in the morning with a smile that comes not always from pleasant circumstances, but from the joy of knowing that this is the day that the Lord has made?

I find myself thinking about my grandfather more now than I used to. It's nice to feel connected to someone, and even to excuse or flaunt some of one's own traits as gifts from a father. Now that I live in my own house, I turn into my grandfather late at night, for like him, I cannot go to bed without testing the door locks, checking the knobs on the gas stove, and turning out the porch light. I used to wonder why my husband was not the keeper of this night watch. I thought it was a man's job to be so methodical. But I was mixed up.

Closing up the house is the province of John's granddaughter.

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