Your Desk, By The Window

by Jamison Koehler on May 28, 2018

“I am in.” 

This is what my niece Meg says as she forces open a window on the first-floor and crawls into the building.  She comes around to the front door to let the rest of us in.  I am horrified.  I am also impressed.   I follow my sister and daughter into the building to join her.

We have just broken into Bartlett Hall at the University of Massachusetts.  For 60 years my father had his office here, first as a member of the English Department, then in retirement.   The building is now empty.  They are about to tear it down. 

* * * * *

According to Google Maps, it is 1.1 miles from Bartlett Hall to my parents’ house on Hills Road. My father used to walk this every day.

There must have been some days in which he would have been more comfortable staying at home, in his bathrobe and with a cup of coffee.  The New England winters can be brutal, and his home study was cozy.  With its dark wooden bookshelves lining the back wall, Sylvia Plath once compared the room to the inside of a walnut.   But my mother liked to have my father out of the house at times, and he enjoyed the walk, even on the worst days. 

A former student told my mother of driving up Clark Hill Road one snowy day to find my father lying by the side of the road. 

Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler, the student said, getting out of his car to help my father to my feet. Can I give you a ride?

My father thanked him but declined the offer.  It really is a nice day for a walk, he said. 

* * * * *

I don’t know how good a teacher my father was (I assume he was better with graduate students) but I do know the students liked and respected him. 

We used to joke that you could go anywhere in the world only to have a student seek him out with a “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler!”

Backstage at the Lollapalooza in 1995, my father is the only person in the entire stadium who is over 60 years old.  Apart from the bleached blonde bassist from the band, he is also the only person in a coat and tie.  The “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler” person in this case is a roadie who accosts my father as we approach the stage:  Don’t you remember me from freshman English?  You gave me a B when I deserved an A.   My father never did believe in grade inflation. 

* * * * *

Once inside of Bartlett, the four of us walk up to the fourth floor where my father had his office.  The small offices, cinderblock walls and metal office doors are familiar to us, but when we arrive on the hallway we struggle to remember which office was his. 

My sister Maggie goes with her gut:  This one feels right, she says, and we step into one of the cramped offices.  The office is mostly empty now, with a metal table and filing cabinet pushed off to the side.

* * * * *

Apparently, in going through his things a couple of years ago, we missed a box of his personal papers.  Someone bought the box at an auction and contacted me.  I thought the guy was going to hit me up for some money.  As it was, I could barely talk him into accepting reimbursement for the postage.  The papers seemed important to me, he told me.  I thought you might appreciate them.    

It was fun to find, along with letters and old photos, early drafts of some of our favorite poems by my father, poems that my siblings and I can recite from memory.   We have the draft, for example, in which he scratches out “gold” and writes in “bronze” in “Aging Bronze.”   “Snow” was originally entitled “Fourteen Inches.”

My father hated adverbs.   Adjectives too, for that matter.  Contrary to what many creative writing teachers might tell you, he also preferred the general to the specific.  He would say “stomach,” not “belly,” even if the latter was far more descriptive.  And he always took out any suggestion of sentimentality.  

His only indulgence, as far as I can tell, is a poem he wrote after his father’s death, inspired by his experience cleaning out his own father’s study.  In “Your Desk, By the Window,” he writes of his inability to “think, or take, or touch things”:   “In the middle drawer/these envelopes, unused; letters/you did not write./Their whiteness is/the distance now between us;/differences;/ so many ways to fail.”

* * * * *

Meg does not share her mother’s certainty as to which of the offices belonged to her grandfather. So she pulls out her smart phone and produces a photograph.  It is of my father actually sitting in his office.  He is at his desk, by the window.

We search the photograph for clues.  We check the wall for markings consistent with the wall hangings captured in the photograph. There are also plants on the windowsill behind him, spindly-looking things because, to be honest, my father never had much of a green thumb. We check the wood for signs of water damage.

One of the things I learned from my father is an appreciation for the seemingly insignificant things in life.  It was not just the joy he took in finding the perfect word or turn of phrase for a poem.  He could spend days doing that.  It was tending to his yard, where the grass never seemed to come in just right, or the vegetable garden, where he planted an extra row every year, this one for the bunnies, he would say.  It was stooping over to pick up a penny on the street.  It was a stupid joke, with a corny punch-line, that would amuse him for days and that he would tell again and again.  It was the pleasure he derived from the snowdrops that pushed up through the earth on our front lawn every spring.

Even with Meg’s photographic evidence, we are still unsure.  Maggie who, along with my brother, cleaned out the office after my father died, sticks with her gut.  Meg and my daughter Laura look for the positioning of the tree limbs visible outside the window in the photograph.  We realize his office could have been a couple of doors down. 

* * * * *

Although my father never complained, you have to wonder if he was ever disappointed with the way his career turned out.  Without an interest in departmental politics, he was never selected chairman of the English Department.  Nor was his poetry ever recognized in quite the way he might have hoped.

Emma – another of my nieces — went through William Carlos Williams’ papers while writing her senior thesis at Dartmouth.  There was a file with my father’s name on it.  Emma also discovered a letter Williams had written encouraging the poetry editor at a major publication to look at my father’s poetry.  My father was, Williams wrote, “a man of 40 who has just had some poems accepted by Poetry.  I was amazed by the excellence of his work.  Bear the name in mind and if you can place him among your acceptances I’m sure you won’t regret it.”  The letter was dated March 7, 1957.

Years later, going through my father’s things, we came across one of my father’s rejection slips, this one from the Atlantic Monthly.  The year was 1938.  “Not quite right for us,” the note said, “but please try us again.” We joke that 70 years is not too soon to give it another shot. 

So many ways to fail.

* * * * *

We decide it was the first office, the one that felt right to Maggie, and the certainty makes us all feel better.  It was this one, we say.  It was definitely this one.

We photograph ourselves at the spot where the desk would have been, first Meg and Laura, then Maggie and me.   We can feel his presence in the room even if we are wrong, even if we are standing in someone else’s office. Because this is a dilemma he would have appreciated. This is a dilemma that would have inspired one of his poems.  

My father had a problem with goodbyes.  Whenever we said goodbye, he wrote, it was like this, and he never needed to explain what this was.  He thinks of tail-lights, the car braking at a curve, and the phone more quiet now.  Maybe this explains what my nephews and nieces call the “Koehler goodbye,” an extravagant spectacle in which everyone comes out onto the street to wave goodbye.  My brother could have some fun with this when he was the honoree.  He would veer off course or stop the car at the curb to prolong things.

Our break-in today, I guess, must be our four-person “Koehler goodbye” to Bartlett Hall. 

Meg takes the small rectangular clasp from the front of the door.  She, the middle cousin, understands the significance of these things.  There is, of course, always the chance that this piece of metal once held an index card with my father’s name on it, identifying the office as belonging to him.  We will assume it did.  I add theft to my list of criminal offenses we committed today, but it doesn’t really matter.  The building is about to be torn down.  No one will miss what we have reclaimed.

“Bye Dad,” my sister says, with as much finality as she can muster.  Meg has her souvenir.  We shut off the lights and close the door.  We head back toward the exit.

21 Comments on “Your Desk, By The Window

  1. I love this piece. Thank you. Perhaps someday you will become “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler!”

  2. And I just read your previous blog post; indeed, you have become “Mr. Koehler, Mr. Koehler!”

  3. Kristi:

    I hadn’t made the connection but you are right! Always great to have you stopping by here.

    Jamison

  4. This is a lovely memory of your father. I had the most wonderful conversation with him about modern poets. It was my senior year at Muskingum. I cherished the Christmas poems as well.

  5. What a sweet story, Jamison! Thank you for sharing.

  6. I do not know how I became a member of this blog, probably by accident as I fumble around the Internet. But I am glad–that was a beautiful and well-written piece. Thank you.

  7. Nice piece, Mr. Koehler. So much for Bartlett Hall! I am glad there was this final farewell to the hall as well as the Man. When I saw the photo with Meg and Laura standing where the desk was I had no doubt but that this was the room. The filing cabinet has been moved, though.

  8. A home run for you, Jamieson! I love that you “broke in”! You are a great writer, Mr. Koehler and I am quite certain Mr. Koehler would agree!

  9. What a wonderful story of dad and family… Heart warming, and a big smile for sure!

  10. What a fabulous vignette. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. It brought back a lor of memories of your dad and of Bartlett Hall, where I too have broken in at times because I needed to get to my office on one of the rare days it was locked. I can remember many evenings – long after “Mr. Koehler’s” retirement – that I would meet him on the path heading home after a long day of work in his office, always dressed in a jacket and tie. Many years earlier I had studied 17th century poetry with him in a graduate course, and my wife and I were friends with your parents for many years. I miss them both.

  11. Hello Mr. Penniman!

    Thank you for stopping by. Thank you also for commenting.

    Do you happen to remember which office was his?

  12. Stan Koehler was one of a kind, the most loving of men. I never heard him speak a critical word about anyone, except one: both he and his wife Jean traded rare, profane insults about Richard Nixon.
    He loved family, kindness of all sorts, being on the water, good wine and even better nightcaps, a well set fire in the fireplace, skating on his home-made rink on his back yard, talking about his children and grandchildren, and of course remembering poetry that he had loved for his whole life.
    It is no wonder that former students called out his name from every direction.

  13. A wonderful piece, Jamie. Your family and mine shared wonderful times in Europe, southern Germany and especially Italy, way back when. Your mother was great, too: one day I brought a submission for Stan to read for the Mass Review, coming unannounced through the front door when Gene came running out of another room into the kitchen, crying out, “they shot the President!” and wept upon my shoulder. Indeed they had and things have never been the same again. Stan was the first poetry editor of MR, and Gene said one day he came down from upstairs having read one of Anne Halley’s early poems, a submission to the journal, shouting (in his quiet way), “She’s a real poet!” As ineed she was, as he was, too. I miss them both and all of you. Jules Chametzky

  14. Much thanks for this. I knew him only for a few years, but I saw him often because his office was across from mine. I always treasured our conversations. He’d had an astonishing life – seeing WWII in both the Atlantic and Pacific – present both for the first depth charge in the war and also present in the fleet at the Japanese surrender. I recall him telling me that when they were steaming toward port in Brooklyn Naval yard, the first sign of the mainland wasn’t the Statue of Liberty – it was the ferris wheel at Coney Island. I think that tickled him. It was amazing that he wrote poetry while serving, and seeing all he saw, and that he turned the horror of it all into genuine art. But he was witness to the whole 20th century. He talked about seeing the glow from the Hindenburg explosion and fire from the roof of the English building at Princeton, meeting Mrs. Churchill (who evidently didn’t approve of his high regard for John Milton), and again while at Princeton, hearing T.S. Eliot read. He was our own literary Zelig. He also did an impeccable Robert Frost impersonation – having never heard Frost, at least I assume it was impeccable. One day after lunch he was back in Bartlett to get back to work on his Milton book or scratch out a poem, he was smiling unaccountably, and asked me if anyone had asked to marry me lately. I took the bait and said “No, Stan. Not lately. You?” He said the young lady that served him a sandwich in Whitmore asked him how old he was. When he told her (he was well into his nineties then), she said, “When you get to one hundred, will you marry me?” He was smiling all the rest of that day. I miss him.

  15. John, Jules and Dave:

    Thank you very much for your comments. I have alerted my siblings so that they too can enjoy what you have written.

    John: My siblings and I will always be so grateful to you. You were a wonderful friend to my father. I think in particular of the two of you having lunch every day on campus. It made us wonder how much work my father was actually getting done. You and Irene were also great to my mother after my father died, picking her up every Thursday for movie night at your house. Thank you very much for that.

    Jules: After my mother died, my four siblings and I gathered at Hills Road for a long weekend to go through my parents’ things. (John Nelson took a photo of the five of us sitting out on the back terrace). We came across a letter you had written to my mother after my father died. It was such a great letter that all five of us sat down so that Maggie could read it out loud. You could not have written a nicer letter. I myself remember all the time our two families spent together, including the time in Freiburg.

    Dave: Thank you. I had never heard much of that, including the stuff about the Hindenburg and the Coney Island ferris wheel. So, if your office was across the hall from his, we can finally solve the mystery: Which office was it? Where was his office, for example, in relation to the men’s bathroom and what appears to have been a conference room?

  16. As one of Stan’s children, I want to say how much these reminiscences about our father mean to all of us. Mr. Nelson, you brought back some of the magic of our own childhood — the skating rinks, fires in the living room, the banter and conversations. And all those adventures abroad — remember going to Basel at 4 a.m. for the Morgestraich during Fasnacht, Mr. Chametzky? And Mr. Toomey, thank you for relaying those memories of your conversations with our dad. You certainly captured his personality and warmth and humor. I can close my eyes now and hear that Robert Frost impression: “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence…” I’m grateful to my brother for bringing everyone together in this forum to share these thoughts and memories.

  17. I had written to Maggie when she first sent me the link to this piece, but I’ll add a version of what I said to her here. I’m also pleased to have been able to send it on to members of the English Department, a number of whom have responded with quite special memories.

    What a wonderful recollection and tribute this is! I had great affection and respect for Stan, who gave whole dimensions of meaning to the term ‘upright’, but never with less than a twinkle in his eye. He also had a rare gift for matching form, intellect and a kind of reserved (but therefore quite powerful) emotion in his poetry.

    As it happens, we live close by to Stan and Gene’s house, and I think of both of them every time we pass by or walk along the hill behind the schools where, from time to time, we’d find Stan tending his garden. What a great pleasure and honor for me to have known and worked with him. And how nice too that further connections came through Meg and her soccer, when I had the pleasure of coaching her. I do like the idea of Meg making her way in through a window of Bartlett, as agile and spirited as ever. That, it seems to me, has something of the true Stan ‘spark’. So it all continues…just as it should!

  18. I don’t recall the number of Stan’s office, but as you know, it was on the fourth floor and on the east side, facing the courtyard. You mention a room that looks like a conference room. If it’s the room I think it is, it was our lounge – it has a dark green linoleum floor. Stan’s office was the second office to the right of that room. I can’t be sure, but the one in the picture here looks right to me.

  19. Empty offices look alike, but to clear up one point, I am 100% certain we identified Dad’s office. I would put money on it. Little did we know when we decided to get off the crowded shuttle bus after UMass graduation to make our way across campus on foot past Bartlett Hall and the Old Chapel that this path taken would turn out to be such a meaningful one. Our heartfelt thanks to Stephen for sharing Jamie’s blog post and to you, Bruce, John, Jules, David and Stephen, for sharing some memories with us. Mom and Dad had amazing colleagues and friends. It makes me sad that losing my parents has meant losing them, too. This re-connection with some of you warms my heart.

  20. Lines for Stan Koehler
    1915-2010

    As you once said,
    Though I was too young then to understand,
    The seed is nothing before the sowing.

    There are things I’ve kept too long.
    There are things I’ve come to depend upon.

    You came down the hill
    Kneading a foreign coin
    Between thumb and forefinger,
    Wearing a blue sport-coat
    With lapel blossoming
    In spite of October.
    You came to hold vigil with Milton
    And Williams, invoking
    The honest fields of Nîmes
    And the swifter lambs that outran
    Rome’s teeming toothless wolves.

    Each time you passed by in bent procession,
    Familiar like wind, your words hewn from stone,
    We spoke of what was there and what was gone.
    I wanted to ask you:
    “How may we increase?”

    You left too soon to tighten
    The laces on your granddaughter’s ice skates.
    You will not be in time to carve
    Wintry striations into the hillside
    With soaped toboggan blades.
    But through the labors of your life
    You taught so many
    Of the limitless bounties sown from grace.
    The warm copper you hold will send you home.

    One once willful spirit has left flesh still.
    This is the fact of fall.

    By Sean Nolan (Graduate, UMass English Department)
    October 2010
    Reproduced with permission

  21. A lovely tribute to your father, who was an inspiration, friend and mentor to my son Sean. I think the two of them had a special connection.

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