After my father died, I was faced with two not uncommon, but nonetheless heart-rending chores. I had to move my mother—in turns confused, then defiant, then weeping—into an assisted living facility. And I had to clean out my parent’s 1950s bungalow in preparation for its sale, deciding which family heirlooms, mementos, and junk would survive for another generation in my attic and cellar; which would become garage sale fodder; and which would be buried in the county landfill.
Some things I had braced myself for. I knew that I would find the old pictures of me in my Easter dress and my baby brother Tommy in his little suit: pictures taken the spring before Tommy died. And I knew I would have to throw away most of my schools projects that Mom had accumulated from kindergarten through high school.
But what I hadn’t braced myself for—because I hadn’t known it existed—was the manuscript. I found it in a trunk in the attic the third weekend of the clean out. It was a novel, banged out on a typewriter that, based on the flying “i’s” and “o’s” had been either old or cheap. Its yellowed pages were topped with fifteen equally yellowed but better typed rejection letters. Manuscript and letters were bound together with a ¾ inch faded faux-velvet red ribbon with gold trim.
The letters all began “Dear Mr. Williams.” How could I not have known that Dad wrote a novel? He was always so proud of me whenever I achieved a new writing success. My first novel, my first appearance on the New York Times Best Sellers List, every award I won—Dad always wanted to celebrate. Why had he never told me about his novel?
Mom told me the story. The old memories supposedly last the longest with Alzheimer’s. Mom told the story with a gleam in her eye and a spark in her voice that told me she was reliving events in her mind’s eye. Yes, Dad had been an aspiring novelist. He was convinced that God had called him to write. He wrote four or five novels. All were rejected. The publishing industry was different in those days. He bundled up copies of entire manuscripts and sent them off to various publishers and agents. Mom was sure I would find the other manuscripts somewhere.
And the red ribbon? That manuscript was the last one. Mom and Dad were going broke with Dad writing full time. They prayed and decided that Dad should try one last time. If he didn’t get published, he would seek gainful employment. And so the Dad that I remembered—Dad, the school teacher—was born. But Dad wasn’t angry or resentful. He was persuaded that God had called him to write and that God had called him to stop. As an act of gratitude and celebration for that season of his life, he had tied his final work—and its rejection letters—in the red and gold ribbon.
Then Mom and Dad swore to each other to never tell us—Tommy was still alive then—of Dad’s sacrifice. They never wanted us to feel our life, our joys, our successes were tainted.
I don’t know how long I sat there in shocked silence before Mom wiped the tears from my checks. How could he have maintained that vow of silence all those years? How could he have stopped writing cold turkey?
Being a New York Times Best Selling author has its perks. With much arm twisting, I persuaded my editor to publish Dad’s manuscript. I knew it was good, very good. It obviously belonged to a bygone era, but with great tenderness, I updated it, changing absolutely as little as possible.
My publisher insisted that my name appear on the cover, but at least the byline was “Allen Williams and Margaret Cunningham.” I even prevailed upon them to use Dad’s original 1950s-esque title, “That Final Spring.”
My readers fell in love with the book and thus “The Manuscript Series” was born. Mom was right; I found four other manuscripts. Two of them were publishable without a major re-write: Dad had become a better writer over time. Those are the ones we published. The last book, the barely-fictionalized story of Tommy’s illness and death, “God Took Him Home,” won the American Book Publishers Prize.
I took the Prize presentation plaque, tied a red and gold ribbon around it, and placed it gently, lovingly in a trunk in my attic.
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