Father on porch

Remembering My Father’s Slide Rule

Father on porch

My dad, Richard P. Curtis, c. 1964?, Marblehead, MA

My father was an engineer who died before the advent of pocket calculators, personal computers, and smart phones. Often when he came home from work, his slide rule was still nestled in the pocket of his white button-down shirt. I am embarrassed and even a bit ashamed to admit that I have never used a slide rule and wouldn’t know what to do with one. Even though I was quite good at math, I avoided calculus and chemistry and never learned to use a slide rule.

If I held one in my hand, I would treat it with respect and curiosity. Not as playful as an abacus with its sliding beads capable of making music when shaken, a slide rule by its silence and straight edges seems a sober sort of tool. But nonetheless possessing a certain sort of beauty, with its numbers so small I might now need a magnifying glass to read them. And that center panel that slides to line up universes of possibility–imagine holding the secret solution to so many puzzles!

In the old black and white photograph my father sits on a folding summer chair on our generous porch high above the ground that fell away from the ledges on which our house was built. The neighbors’ trees in the background are smaller than I remember them. The house in the far distance at the top of our neighborhood hill was less than a quarter mile from the house where my father was born.

The sleeves of my father’s white Oxford shirt have been neatly rolled to his elbows. His face is turned downward toward his hands. His long slender fingers hold the slide rule gently, gracefully, as he works some calculation that will likely be recorded on the back of an envelope in small, tidy figures.

His handwriting is neat but not fussy. He signs his name with one modest flourish at the end, so that the tail of the “s” on Curtis swoops around counter-clockwise to cross the “t.” Then his hand lifts to dot the “i.”

My father has been dead so many years I nearly clutch my heart when I come upon his handwriting–those unmistakable tracks made by his own hand. Some days I bend down and put my lips to the inked letters to kiss them, or hold the lettered paper against my heart.

*I wrote this piece with this photo in mind but not in front of me. I’m not sure my dad is in fact holding his slide rule in this photo, but it doesn’t really matter.


Meet Gould’s Pandora

Gould’s pandoras in my hand

Most of the shells that wash up on a nearby beach are species familiar to me from my childhood: mussels in shades of blue like Chinese porcelain, clams of various species (surf, razor, Quahogs, among others), slipper shells (a.k.a. boat shells), lots of periwinkles, and the very occasional whole moon snail.

This year I have paid closer attention to–and started to see more and more of–what at first I took to be the pearly interior fragments of some larger shells. When I noticed that all of these supposed fragments were uncannily similar in shape, size, and location of a hinge, it finally dawned on me that they were likely their own species, simply one unknown to me!

So I looked them up in a field guide to seashells.

One of several species of the family Pandoridae and of the genus Pandora, these are known as Gould’s Pandora, Pandora gouldiana. Each shell half (called a valve) is nearly as flat as and not much larger than a guitar pick.

I find them quite lovely in their simplicity, their lightness of being, their iridescence, and the music they make when jingled in hand or pocket. The shell’s pearly layer is revealed only after the tougher outer layers have worn away.

Of course their name, Pandora, set me musing a bit. Yes, there’s the woman from Greek mythology who was entrusted with a box containing every conceivable ill the could plague humanity. And she opened it. (As a young girl, I never considered the implicit misogyny of this–another “blame it all on the woman” story.)

But the name, Pandora. . . . My two years of studying Biblical Greek long ago suggest that pandora in Greek would mean simply “all gifts”–pan  (all) + dora (gifts)–the good and the beautiful and the painful and the destructive. All of these gifts, all together.

When I checked my old Greek lexicon to confirm my memory about dora, I found a beautifully musical word nearby: dorophoria, meaning “the bearing of gifts.” In a flash the marvelous treasures of language and sound brought tears to my eyes. 


Remembering My Dad on his birthday


oil painting, Sukie Curtis

Making Pancakes with My Dad, ©Sukie Curtis, oil on canvas

Today is my father’s birthday–his 102nd to be precise. 

My dad died a long time ago, thirty-eight years ago, when he was only 64 and I was only 25. 

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about him that I am linking to below. And I hope to add some more posts about my dad in the days ahead. Perhaps he can help me reconnect with my blog!



Poem: A Snowy Afternoon

Whose Woods These Are, ©Sukie Curtis, oil on panel

The Snowy Afternoon

That snowy afternoon a galaxy
appeared on your dog’s black back
while we talked. Stars took
their places, planets, whole constellations
gathered there, marvelous as a meteor shower,
until with a few friendly, unthinking strokes
I wiped the whole sky clean, and it
began to fill again. It seemed
the kind of tender beauty
too intimate to mention
just there and then, this galaxy
falling gently
onto your dog’s back.    

One of the Facebook’s features that I most appreciate is the way it serves up your own “memories” of things posted on a certain day in previous years. It makes for some interesting juxtapositions of past and present, such as a post of a rainbow from a few year’s back on a day when it’s snowing; or a post about snow on a rainy day, or full blazing sun.

That’s how I got reminded of this poem: first, by a gentle snowfall last year, when something about the snow reminded me of this poem I’d written years before (it was published in the Christian Science Monitor) and then posted on Facebook; second, by Facebook reminding me of that post this year.

Some things I am grateful to remember, and to be helped in remembering.