Remembering Robert Angus McDavid
We cannot develop and print a memory. — Henri Cartier-Bresson
Last night, in my study, to the steady accompaniment of rain, I read comments my friend Robert Angus McDavid penned many years ago. They were written in blue ink, in his neat hand, in the margins of a poem by Thomas Hardy. With my mind’s ear, I heard him speak the words I was reading, and with my mind’s eye, saw the face of my old friend. An aching desire to speak with him, to talk of things we cherished, overwhelmed me. It is nearly forty years since Robert died, but with the passing of time, I find myself thinking of him more and more often.
I met Robert at my first job out of university. I had taken an entry-level position as a civil engineer at the company where Robert worked. Robert was one of the company’s senior engineers, and agreed to become my mentor. We often ate lunch together, sometimes at work, but more frequently at places nearby, which Robert assured me were more nourishing to the soul, if not the body. I enjoyed our lunches, relishing the attention of a man whom everyone admired, and taking the opportunity, despite our difference in age, to get to know him as a friend.
It was during one of these lunches that I learned of Robert’s passion for poetry. He was talking about what he called the art of engineering, its marriage of form and function. It was, he said, the second greatest art. Curious, I asked him what he considered the greatest art.
“Poetry,” he answered without hesitation, “unquestionably poetry.”
My question was all the prompting Robert needed. He launched into a passionate discussion of poetry, his hands drawing circles in the air, his cheeks flushed. He focused on one of his favorite poems, Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.” He recited it from memory, then went on to discuss in detail its meter, rhyme scheme, and similarity to some of Dante’s poetry. When he finished, he asked me how the poem made me feel.
“Confused,” I confessed, “a little sad, maybe. I’m not sure I understand it.”
“You’re an honest man, Steven,” he said smiling. “No one fully understands great poetry — no one.”
For two years I learned engineering and poetry with Robert. But I was young and ambitious. I took a job in another city with a larger company and more responsibility. Though separated by distance, Robert and I kept in touch. We exchanged cards during the holidays, and at suitable intervals, I sent him pictures of my family as it grew. It was his daughter Sharon who, remembering my relationship with her father, called to tell me that he had died. She invited me to the funeral.
“Please come,” she said. “I need to speak with you.”
I flew out and paid my last respects to a man from whom I had learned so much. After the funeral, Sharon asked me to her home. We sat drinking coffee at her dining room table, and talked. The house was quiet except for the rhythmic ticking of a grandfather clock in the hallway.
“I have some things for you,” she said, “from my father. First, I have to give you this.”
She handed me a sealed envelope with my name on it in Robert’s beautiful script.
“There are also some books, and three boxes of notebooks.”
She took me to the room where Robert had died, where the books and boxes were. She had stacked the books neatly on a desk. The boxes sat closed on the floor.
“He asked that you read the note first.”
She left me alone. I opened the envelope. It contained the following:
Steven, please accept the poetry books as a gift from an old friend. They’ve been well-read, and on dark days often lifted my spirits. It is my wish that you have them. Concerning the notebooks, I need to ask a favor of you. Please destroy them without reading them. They contain my own poetry, my confidant, my ever faithful Patroclus. Some golden-colored afternoon take them to a place clothed in the beauty of color and water, and there be for me their Achilles. — Robert
I arranged to have the books and boxes travel home with me. At home, I put the books in a special bookcase in my study. Often, in the evening, tired of drawings and numbers, I open one of them to find a poem Robert annotated, and to think his thoughts after him.
The autumn following Robert’s death, while vacationing with my wife in Maine, I left her alone early one evening after dinner and drove to a park by the sea. I took from the car’s trunk Robert’s notebooks. I had brought them with me to fulfill an obligation. I knew no place better clothed in the beauty of color and water. On the beach, I piled the notebooks together, and as the sun set, put a flame to them. I walked slowly around the fire, remembering my friend. As the notebooks burned, sparks from their glowing ashes rose into the black night sky, and were reflected on the dark face of the water.
Gershon Ben-Avraham writes short stories. He lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel. Recent publications include “Grandma’s Postcard”, Winter/Spring 2016 edition of Steel Toe Review; “The Cemetery of Outcasts”, in the Magical Realism issue of Chicago Literati, November 2016; and “What She Needed”, published by The Vignette Review, December 2016.
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