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He kept his promise

My father never got around to carving my gondola. But he never forgot that I had asked for one. I was in college, my dolls long lost or given away, when he mentioned my childhood request. I knew what troubled him about it. It was a promise not kept.

He was a man who kept promises to children. If he promised a trip to Mt. Rainier, or a swim in Green Lake or a picnic, only a broken axle on the family car would keep us from going. The thing was to get him to promise in the first place.

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''I'll have to do some figuring,'' he would say. ''I'll have to see if the car will make it.'' A professor of engineering, he could design an airplane or repair almost any automobile made. He was not a carver of gondolas by profession.

I don't remember where I first learned about gondolas. Maybe it was in some movie or the Sunday supplement that I had seen pictures of them gliding along the canals in Venice. Anyway, I was captivated. Those slim black boats, those lovely fiddlenecked prows! I could see my dolls - no baby dolls for me, but Barbie-size princesses in velvet dresses and scraps of rabbit fur - lounging regally in boats like that. I would make a Grand Canal for them with the hose, in Mother's garden. My brother could build a little landing with some pebbles. Father would carve the gondola. He had promised.

But he didn't.

I outgrew the dolls, along with family trips to the mountain or Sunday picnics. My horizon expanded. When my sister and I were in high school Father took us all on a trip to visit our grandmother in Nebraska. We had never been so far from home before, and he made sure we took in every sight en route. He taught us to know the sight and smell of sagebrush and greasewood. We sympathized with a hobo at the side of the road whose shoes were so worn he threw one of them away as we passed. And Father showed us traces of the old Oregon Trail still visible in the dust across the prairie.

I was in college when I made my first trip alone by train. Father took me to the station and, though I know there must have been a catch in his throat, he smiled as he put me on the train and waved goodbye.

And then one Christmas Eve he said ruefully, ''I never carved you that gondola I promised.''

''You will,'' I said.

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One summer evening I stepped from a train in the station in Venice and looked out across the Lista di Spagna at the Grand Canal. I was alone in the black-pearl darkness, the bustle of arriving passengers muted behind me, the noises of vaporettos mingled with the slapping of waves ahead. A soft baritone voice from one of the waiting gondolas sang a familiar song: ''Santa Lucia.''

''Grazie!''m I applauded, trying out my one word of Italian.

''Prego,''m he answered.

I shivered with happiness.

And then I was handed into a slim, black, lacquered boat, with a fiddlenecked prow rising gracefully behind me. Not my dolls, but I myself, lay back against the cushions, while my gondolier poled us away from the quay and over the water. Slowly, smoothly, past churches and palaces, islands of light and hidden laughter, past dark steps and under humped bridges, we glided to my hotel. But my thoughts were far from Venice. I was thinking of Father.

Not carve my gondola? He had done so much more! He had taught me to part from childhood without giving up its eagerness. He had given me the delight in travel that made this night so special, and the courage to venture on a trip alone. Father had gone now on a more distant journey, but I think he'd have been content, as I was, with this most precious gift, this night in Venice.

As always, he had kept his promise.

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