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Exiled: A Memoir of O. B. Hardison, Jr.

ISSUE:  Spring 1993

O. B. Hardison, Jr., former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, was a scholar and a critic, a poet and a humanist. He was also an inspiring teacher and a devoted father. He died on Aug. 5, 1990 at the age of 61. This is how his second oldest daughter recalls him. . . .

October 16: It all happened so quickly that now I have to sit and think to reconstruct the chain of events. First, there was the phone call one hot afternoon in July. It was unusual for Dad to call in the middle of the day, and I knew right away from his tone of voice that this was a serious call. Would I donate blood for an operation he needed? I agreed immediately, waiting for further explanation. None was volunteered, so I had to ask, “What kind of operation?” The doctors had discovered that he had prostate cancer. The operation would remove the prostate gland and halt the cancer’s further spread. An unpleasant, but fairly common operation. He had to have a bone scan the following Friday and would probably go in for the operation on Sunday. Over the next few days, I donated blood, read up on prostate cancer, and forced myself to think positively. The day came for Dad’s bone scan. That day and the next passed with no word from Dad or Mom. I called to find out exactly when Dad would be admitted to the hospital. “The operation has been canceled,” Mom informed me. “The scan showed that the cancer has spread into the bones.” The technician had told Dad which color would indicate cancer as the scan was being taken. In Dad’s words, his body “lit up like a Christmas tree.” Still, the doctors said there was a chance to halt the spread and force the cancer into remission by stopping the body’s production of testosterone. They gave 52 months as the median survival period for people with that form of cancer. 52 months. That was more than four years. Some friends told us stories of others who had survived for years with the same diagnosis.

A week after the bone scan news, we decided to meet at Mom and Dad’s rustic cabin in Syria, Virginia. Dad was starting his treatments and was feeling well. He even did some mowing on Saturday, but Saturday night he was suddenly stricken with severe back pain. He spent the next week and a half in bed, the doctor assuring him it was a strained back. Finally, the pain grew so intense that he went to the hospital on a Thursday night. An MRI showed that the cancer had spread to his spine. Sunday morning, when a nurse was helping him to stand up from his chair, his heart stopped.

We were assured that Dad was spared from worse agony by such a quick end. Maybe, but I still find myself recoiling from a God who could allow this. It throws all my carefully constructed philosophies into the air. I am terrified of a world where someone can disappear so quickly and completely, as if a crack had opened suddenly beneath him, then closed silently back. A person disappears and the birds still sing, the sun still rises in the morning, as if everything were normal. My beliefs seem inadequate to explain this mystery.

We all construct our lives on the foundation which is our parents. Our sense of self-esteem and well-being as children is based on the trust that our parents will be available when we need them. It is an assumption that allows us to continue building, reaching higher. Though we depend on our parents less as adults, we still carry forward that child’s blind trust, that assumption that our foundation is secure. When a block is suddenly yanked out from the foundation, the whole building wavers and threatens to topple over. I question whether what I’ve built has the strength to stand without that block. Do I have it within me to go on? How much of my motivation comes from within myself and how much from without?

The gospel tells the story of the man who built his house on sand and the man who built his house on rock. A storm came and washed away the house built on sand, but the house built on rock stood. I feel the winds tear about me and the rain pound. Lights flicker, the phone is dead; I hear water rushing outside my door. I was so sure it was a rock beneath the house, but maybe I deceived myself. Remember, though, I tell myself, in the gospel account neither man escaped the storm. And maybe only by weathering the storm can one discover what he has built upon.

October 18: The rain makes a pattering sound on the tin roof. Listening to it is like being in an audible womb. The leaves are still green on the elm tree outside my window, but they flop about like limp wet handkerchiefs. A squirrel treads hesitantly through a big puddle. Why hasn’t he sought shelter? Snug and dry, I am enjoying this gray weather. I imagine I am sitting in a soft windowseat near a fire with a good book. I imagine open landscapes of the mind where I roam in solitude and peace. There is the squirrel again. He is searching the ground. He finds a nut and sits up on his haunches to nibble it, oblivious of the rain coming down around him.

With six children in the family, the house I grew up in was usually full of noise, but there were rare moments when I was alone there. Then the house waited, weighed down with silence accentuated by odd creaks and sighing boards. It waited the way our old dog, Poppo, would wait, head on paws, willing on an instant to be up, but prepared to wait forever. At those times I would lie on the couch in the sunporch of our house and read. I floated in time. It stretched behind and ahead of me. I expanded to my full size within it and WAS. Why is it so hard to BE, to expand, as an adult? We chop off bits and pieces of ourselves, suck in our breath, until we become strangers to that whole self and only partially inhabit our lives.

That house was a big old clapboard house on Rosemary Street near the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. My father had lived in it as a student when it was a rooming house. When I was six years old, my parents bought it. Neglected for many years, it needed complete renovation. Every wall had to be replastered and painted. They tore down the wall between the living room and dining room, leaving only the two-sided brick fireplace between the two rooms. A glassed-in sun porch was added and a wooden deck. Dad painted the outside of the house himself. With four bedrooms upstairs, and another bedroom downstairs, it was the right size for a family of six rambunctious children, several temperamental cats, and a dog that tore through screen doors when she heard thunder. After all the renovations, it was a relaxed, yet elegant house, a house to be lived in and enjoyed.

We children roamed the neighborhood freely and played in the spacious yard. In the fall we raked oak leaves into forts and jumped in them. On summer nights we played Capture the Flag with all the kids in the neighborhood, or Ghost, Ghost, Ghost. The boy across the street collected snakes and had his own chemistry lab. We would go over to play with his boa constrictor or to watch it eat mice. In the winter we gathered with other kids at a nearby hill and sledded until our hands and feet were numb.

My father walked to and from work everyday trailed by our dog, Poppo. Somehow he had mastered the technique of walking and reading at the same time. He was deeply involved in writing, research, and teaching English. In 1961 he was on the cover of Time magazine as one of the ten best teachers in the country. A former student of his, now a music professor at Mary Baldwin College, said it was through taking a class with Dad that he decided to switch his major from English to music. Dad inspired him to do what he really wanted to do, rather than what he thought he should do. Dad was not afraid of uncharted waters, of new ideas, of being different, and he inspired others to open up and dare to dream also.

In the summer, my sister Charity and I often walked to the university’s outdoor swimming pool for lessons or a free swim, then took our lunchboxes and walked to Dad’s office to eat lunch. His office was filled with books from floor to ceiling and had a dusty old book smell. In one corner he kept a circular fan going that doubled as a stool. He’d stop to chat with us and to eat his salami or pastrami sandwich, then go back to his work, constantly twisting locks of hair, deep in concentration. I’d search the walls for a book that looked interesting. The War of the Roses was one I remember being disappointed over. After eating, Charity and I often went to an empty classroom and played on the chalkboard. The building was usually silent, the shoes of anyone coming down the hall making loud echoing sounds on the hard linoleum. There was a hallowed feeling about the ivy-covered English building, a sense of years piled upon years, a mausoleum of knowledge, the awe due learning. Yet it was a happy place for us and going there made us feel important.

Poppo was really my dog, but she attached herself to Dad. I even thought her expression began to look something like his. People knew Dad was in his office if they saw her outside the door. Dad told everyone that the first year Poppo followed him, she came right into class with him. After the first year, she waited outside the door. She’d heard it all. When Dad went into the stacks to look for a book, Poppo followed him. When he was ready to leave, often hours later, he’d have to wander around the stacks, calling, “Poppo! Here, Poppo.”

Dad had prodigious powers of concentration. Just as he could read a book while walking, he could and did work many evenings right at the dining room table, surrounded by noise. It often took several attempts to get his attention, and then he would look as if he were coming back to the present from some great distance. When he moved to Washington, he still continued to work at the dining room table. It wasn’t until he and Mom moved to Dupont Circle after he left the Folger Library that he had his own study in the house.

He like to keep life as simple as possible. This meant always wearing the same kind of white shirt, the same make of black socks, the same style of Thorn McCann black shoes. The only area of attire in which he allowed himself some ostentation was ties. What can one buy a person like that for birthdays or Christmas? Needless to say, he received many ties.

Simplicity was important to him in more than attire. Material possessions beyond what were needed never interested him. He cared nothing for flashy cars or for status symbols of any kind. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” was his favorite saying, and he impressed it upon his children on every possible occasion. Martin Marty said, “Successful living is a journey toward simplicity and a triumph over confusion.” If that is the case, Dad lived very successfully.

Perhaps he first acquired his taste for simplicity when he was a student at Chapel Hill. The wake of WWII brought an influx of veterans to UNC; students were living wherever they could find space. Dad lived in a tent with a wooden floor. He hooked up his alarm clock so that it turned on his coffee pot, which in turn triggered the radio. When the university decided it wanted to build on the spot occupied by the tent, Dad informed them that he had a lease and would be happy to move when his lease was up at the end of the year. The university had to wait.

Dad was a well-known figure on campus. He wore khakis and carried a guitar wherever he went. He had taught himself to play and liked nothing better than to while away the evening singing folksongs with friends, and later with family. He was known for his brilliance but more for being a real person on top of that. So it was that my mother had heard of him before she ever saw him for the first time, sitting on the steps of her dorm helping someone with Latin. Later they ended up in the same Victorian literature class. Dad, as he told it, was struck by her beauty, and, as she told it, it took her no time at all to decide he was the person for her.

October 23: Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. How strange to be passing over that day without a celebration. I wanted to gather with the rest of the family for some acknowledgment, but they were too far away. I have heard it is a Jewish tradition to light a candle and leave it burning all day to mark a deceased person’s birthday. I like that idea.

Part of the grief I have experienced lately has to do with all the words I left unsaid, the gifts ungiven, the gestures unproflered. I thought I had no regrets, but I find I do, especially when I think of all that he did.

When I was about ten, I asked him to make me some bookshelves for my room. He went to work with his hammer, some nails, and some two by fours. When he was finished, he called me out to see the result. Instead of making plain wooden shelves, he had used the jigsaw and made the sides an elaborate design of branches, leaves, and birds. In the middle of the top shelf, he’d put a little compartment with doors that opened outward and could be locked. I was thrilled to have a place to put my secret treasures where five brothers and sisters could not get at them.

Dad and Mom spent many hours reading to us in the evenings. Listening to their voices rising and falling taught me the rhythm and pure beauty of words carefully crafted. I fell in love with words the way a musician must fall in love with notes. Those lazy nights, my sister and I resting against Dad as he read, were times of perfect security and peace. We read, among others, The Mysterious Island, Kon Tiki, 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea, and The Incredible Journey.

When we were even younger, Dad told us stories every night. On the wall behind our living room couch was a large black and white street map of Rome, which Mom and Dad had acquired during the year they spent in Rome on a Fulbright. The story would begin with our pointing to a place on the map and supplying a title. The cast of well-loved characters included Mr. Ice and Mr. Nice (two mice who lived in Rome); Aunt Blandidea, an obstreperous, but lovable old lady who always carried an umbrella; a horse who pulled a cart; and Pierre, a Swiss guard. Dad spun fantastical and suspenseful tales with utter ease, keeping us entranced night after night. When Laura and Agnes came along, the characters of Fern and Flower were added. With the arrival of Osborne and Matthew, the story grew to include Mr. He and Mr. Ho. In later years, Dad even told a few stories to my three boys, inventing three new characters. The last night we were together at my parents’ cabin in Virginia the children asked Dad to tell them a story. His back was hurting, so he said he wasn’t quite feeling up to it. “Maybe next time,” I said. “Maybe next time,” he agreed, but without conviction.

Why was my father such a mystery to me? Why did I never feel I really knew him? Only recently I saw movies taken by his parents when he was about nine or ten years old. His father was a tall strikingly handsome officer in the Navy. His mother, Ruth, had been considered one of the most beautiful women in Washington when she first met O. B. senior. The movies show the family in their home in San Diego, California near the navy base, and shots of a trip across country to Washington, D. C. Dad and his brother, William Gerry, are clowning around together, making faces at the camera. Is it possible to see intelligence? I think that is what makes a good actor. The audience can see his mind working as well as his body. I see a mind at work in those ancient pictures of Dad. It is more than that, too. It is utter alertness, like what you would see in a forest animal.

Ruth’s father was an eminent Washington physician. His house was very formal. On visits there, Dad escaped by going into his grandfather’s library and reading. When World War II came, Dad’s parents were separated for long periods of time. His father reached the rank of admiral and was the commander of U. S. S. Enterprise for a time, the only aircraft carrier involved in battles from Midway to Okinawa in WWII. My father was enrolled at St. Alban’s School in Washington as a boarder.

Dad was never very close to his father, who, when Dad got to college, did not approve of his majoring in English. Even less did he approve of Dad’s choosing to be a conscientious objector during the Korean War. What do I remember of my grandparents? Grandpa O. B.: formal, white haired, lived in a brick house in Washington, D. C. which seemed to be filled with silver and servants. There were silver platters, silver bowls, silver cigarette boxes. Most were engraved with his initials or his name and the occasion upon which the article had been awarded. There was the acerbic housekeeper Flora, who had raised Dad, a devout Catholic, and outspoken on everything. No one knew how old she was. And there was a cook. Meals at Grandpa O. B. ‘s were occasions. The candlesticks were silver, one of the maids served the food, and everyone was very careful to use the correct utensils.

Ruth: she had lost her beauty when I knew her but not her pride. She painted her nails and dyed her hair; she smoked heavily and spoke her mind freely. Grandpa O. B. made it through the war without a scratch. Then one day oh his way to play golf, his jacket button caught in a passing truck wheel and he was pulled to his death. Ruth died a couple of years later. They did not have a happy life together, and I think Dad separated himself emotionally from them at an early age. Perhaps this early separation worked as a catalyst, forcing Dad to fall back on his own resources, to develop the life of the mind.

November 1: We have a long driveway, which I walk or run up and down for exercise. Today is an Indian summer day. The sun is warm on my back. I hear dry leaves falling one by one. A nuthatch skitters to the other side of the tree as I trot past. Sooty, our dog, is sitting at the foot of a telephone pole gazing up. I can’t see anything, but maybe she sees a squirrel. She frequently deposits dead squirrels and groundhogs at our back door.

As I’m walking, I’m thinking about essence, truth, beauty, whatever you want to call it. I have a profound belief that at the core of existence is something true; its beauty comes from its being true, but also from its being good. As Hopkins says in “The Grandeur of God:”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil, It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.

Man has damaged much of the world, that is the surface world, but, as Hopkins writes:

. . .for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things:

At the core of everything is something indestructible. It is that core which writers, poets, musicians, artists of all kinds strive toward. Flannery O’Connor said, “No matter what the story, what the writer is interested in is the mystery of the subject, which he cannot expect to explain, but only deepen.”

I connect Dad with pure truth. This is not to say that he was a saint or knew all truth. Of course not, but he was a teacher. He taught something about the beauty of truth not just through his words, but through his being. How else can I express it? If I were to choose an object to convey my sense of his spirit, it would be an iridescent multi-colored lighter-than-air scarf. As it floats up, it shimmers with every color in the rainbow, disappearing in an instant, but remembered forever.

November 2: In an old photo, Mom is slender with dark shoulder length hair, bangs, high cheek bones, large haunting eyes, and a prominent nose. She looks into the camera with a deep and candid gaze. She came from a Catholic family of modest income, the youngest of five, with four older brothers. By the time this photo was taken she had lived through WWII, in which three of her brothers served. It had been only a few years since her father had collapsed of a heart attack and died in the living room of their home in Syracuse, N. Y. She had already followed her brother Jim to Oklahoma, attended the University of Oklahoma, then followed him to North Carolina, graduated from UNC, and started graduate school. If she looked haunted, it was because she had already lived through a lot by the time she was 21.

Theirs was a whirlwind romance. They met in May and were married in December, three days before Christmas. Because Mom was marrying a non-Catholic, they had to get married in the rectory of the Catholic church. Ruth was there, and Mom’s mother, Agnes, was there. We have a few tantalizing shots on ancient 35-mm film. Mom is wearing a long cream colored two-piece wedding dress. Dad looks about 18 years old. Ruth is doing the filming and gets only about a minute’s worth of profiles and distance shots. Even with the poor video, though, it is possible to catch the jubilant air surrounding the celebration.

They started out living on almost nothing while Dad finished graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. A year after they were married Charity came along. Within ten years they had six children and Dad was a full professor at UNC. In later years, with marriages crumbling all around them, they were often asked how they had managed to make such a successful go of their marriage. Dad always answered, “Eternal lust,” but there were also things like love, tremendous mutual respect, sacrifice, determination, and endurance.

Nov. 6: Mom and Dad worked as a team. Mom handled the finances, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and most of the nitty-gritty of raising six children. Dad brought home the paycheck, wrote books and articles, taught and gave lectures, and took care of maintenance on the house. They both strove to encourage and support their children, not expecting them to fit into any predetermined mold, but rather expecting each to pursue his or her own interests and grow into a healthy individual. Mom supported Dad, likewise, by making it possible for him to do his work, protecting him from distractions, believing in him. It may seem old-fashioned these days, but she appeared to find perfect self-expression in motherhood, where her extensive gifts for nurturing were called forth. Dad supported her and respected her for her part. Neither could have done what they did without the other one.

Many psychologists counsel women these days to establish their own lives apart from their husbands. On the other side are Christian groups advising women to be submissive to their husbands and husbands to take more authority in the family. I doubt the existence of a single blueprint that will fit every marriage. I do believe, looking at Mom and Dad’s example, in the necessity for mutual support, respect, love, and sacrifice.

Nov. 7: I am writing most of this in my head as I cruise 81 going to and from work. I spend this time in Dad’s company, trying to force my mind to understand. I remember the last two times I saw him. One was at the farm. He was so solid, a slight paunch showing under the white tee shirt he always wore at the farm, his cheek bristly from not having shaved yet. And the last time in the hospital, when I bent over and just touched his cheek, so that I wouldn’t jar him and cause him anymore pain. He smelled of sweat. I wanted to say, “I love you,” but I knew I would break down, so I said nothing.

Now I feel him with me, calm, unperturbed, looking out the window lost in thought, as he was so often. My mind veers away when I try to comprehend his being gone. But I am sure that even if I am not large enough to accept, he is. Just as I am thinking this, I see a hole open in the solid dark cloud cover overhead. Through this hole issue streams of sunlight. The edges of the clouds are radiant.

I look at the orange leaves of the oak trees along the road and think of transformation. How ridiculous that such mighty trunks could spring from tiny seeds. How ridiculous to think a being as complex as a human could spring from a microscopic egg and sperm. I can only begin to understand this. How can I hope to understand the kind of transformation that occurs at death?

Nov. 8: I am weary lately, not physically, but spiritually. Each day creaks its way toward the next, like a giant rusty gear. I wonder when life will feel normal again, when I will stop running Dad’s death through my mind, sorting, sorting, picturing, reliving, spinning out “if s,” searching for the beams of light in the cloud cover. My sister says every time she goes in her bathroom and sees the grout between the tiles, she is reminded of Dad, because he kept telling her to put in new grout.

Nov. 12: 1 am sad today. I am sad for Mom who must go on without Dad, sad that she has to experience such loss and loneliness. I am sad for myself, because I will never see Dad again. I am sad for Dad that he never got to retire to the farm or see his grandchildren grow up. I am sad that my children will not have Dad’s influence as they grow up. I am sad for the world.

Nov. 13: My father did not believe in teaching summer school. Summers were strictly for writing and research, but that could be done just about anywhere. In 1967 my mother decided she’d like to rent a castle in Ireland for the summer. She settled for a house near the ocean in Santa Barbara, California. To resolve the problem of how to transport six active children and two adults across the country, Mom and Dad bought a pop-up camper and a National Park membership.

The first few days I remember as full of bickering. “I don’t want to get the water. You do it.” “He’s snoring again.” “How come we always get in trouble and he never does?” “I’m hot.” “You’re hogging all the potato chips.” “If you don’t stop at the next bathroom, you’re going to be very sorry.”I’m cold. “We were not used to working as a team. Charity and I were teenagers. She was into music, and I was into books. We were both into boys. Laura and Agnes were 11 and 9, respectively. Osborne and Matthew were 7 and 6.

The pop-up camper had two double beds, and we set up a bunk bed cot in the middle (the only one I’ve ever seen). Mom and Dad slept in the back of the station wagon. At night I could see them seated at the picnic table reading or talking by the light of a lantern.

Mom and Dad maintained a sense of adventure about the trip and managed to take small catastrophes in stride. We drove through snow and blistering heat. At the Powder River Pass in Wyoming, we pulled into a campground late at night in the middle of a torrential rain storm. We set up the camper at a site near the river, ate Bunker’s canned beef stew, and shivered in our warmest clothes. The next morning we learned there had been a flash flood and a camper down the road from us had been washed away. After clearing the mountains, we hit the desert. Our car had a great air conditioner—if you happened to be sitting in the front seat. The rear of the station wagon heated up like a sauna in the 105-degree temperatures. Discussions over who would sit in the front seat with Mom and Dad escalated into verbal, and sometimes physical, warfare. Desperation reigned. Our long list of criteria for a good campground narrowed to one: it could be crowded, treeless, noisy, but it had to have a body of water big enough to swim in.

Somehow we made it to California. Mom had arranged the house rental through a realtor and a black and white snapshot, but it turned out to be a lovely older house on a large lot near the ocean. In the yard were artichoke plants and lemon trees. Charity and I laid claim to a turret room which could only be reached by an outside staircase. Riding camps and sailing camps were discovered, and we were soon going off happily every day to camp. Dad spent the summer writing a detective novel, The Last Drop, It was published the next year under the pseudonym, H. O. Bennett (shifting around his initials). The picture on the back cover was a shot of him from behind, so that his face was hidden. It was not a commercial success, but he was a lover of detective stories; if he’d chosen to do that rather than write scholarly books, I could imagine his having developed into a great detective writer.

It was a relaxing summer in California. We swam, sailed, and played croquet together under the tall magnolia trees in the front yard. Then we packed up the camper and headed back. We had finally learned to work together, and the trip back was much more peaceful than the trip out. It was, as my parents had anticipated, the last time we would have an opportunity to take a trip as a family. The next year my father was offered the directorship of the Folger Library in Washington. Ready for a change, he took the job. Life in Washington would be exciting, but gone would be the relaxed small town life we had been used to in Chapel Hill, the neighborhood games, the long summer evenings, the house on Rosemary Street.

December 4: 1 just read a review of Disappearing Through the Skylight in the Smithsonian. Simply reading about his book makes his presence palpable. I hear him talking; I hear reason and wit and humor and zest for life. He is gone and we are left, the exiles, the strangers in a strange land. Reality wears thin. On the surface life is so sensible. We have our routines. We get up, go to work, balance checkbooks, plan for college and retirement. But under the surface of that oh-soreasonable existence is dark, swirling mystery. What a short time ago appeared substantial, dependable, weighty, unshakeable, suddenly seems fragile and transient.

“Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life” (John 12: 25). I never understood this before. Why should anyone hate life? I see now. It is a warning not to get too attached to this life, because this life is brief; it is only a preparation. If I feel like an exile, that is proper, because that is what I am. I am left behind, yet I am not, I discover, left empty-handed. I am left with a rich legacy of writings, example, and memories.


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Leake Little's picture
Leake Little · 3 years ago

Nice essay, well written. Evokes a sense of the eternal, yet personal.


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