Boxing the Compass

September 6th, 2012

My father had a bigger sense of “we” than most people. He didn’t draw concentric circles distinguishing between friends and family, like I do, or you might. To him, it was all one tribe. His generosity of self was one of the things that made him so incredibly magnetic, and so very hard to live with sometimes. It wasn’t until he died, when I realized how deeply other people were bereaved by “our” loss, that I was able to accept that he never really belonged to us, his nuclear family, but to everyone.

His attitude toward material possessions was an extension of his big tent of a heart. He loved to give things away, and he was a relentless re-gifter. If you gave him a present, you’d best understand that the pleasure he derived from receiving it was all in the moment and the sentiment, or you’d get your feelings hurt when he inevitably passed it along–always with great ceremony–to the next  person in line for his affection.

Over the years, he gave away a number of items that would be considered heirlooms in other families. One was a set of antique books that he told me would pass to me one day. Another was a manuscript, also promised. Several years before he died, he gave away the compass from my grandfather’s boat, the Kyran. The recipient was one of his dearest friends. In his mind, no doubt, it was all in the family. But by that time, I was starting my own family, and I was quietly disappointed that my grandfather’s compass would pass to someone else’s great-grandchildren.

Still and all, I am my father’s daughter. I know that stuff is just stuff. I let it go with a secret sigh. I wouldn’t trade one day of my life with that exasperating, marvelous man for a house full of antiques. His legacy is so much bigger than anything I could hoard for my own.

This summer, the boys and I were able to participate in the unveiling of a public monument to their grandfather’s writing. My oldest son got to pull away the cloth and reveal Dad’s image in bronze. It’s fair to say he thought that was pretty cool. How many kids travel to grandma’s house for vacation, and get to be in the newspapers and on TV? There were speeches made, and poems read, and interviews given. It gave me so much joy to see my kids getting an immersive sense of what a very special person their grandfather was. I was happy to let it go to their heads for a little while. Small compensation for all they’ve missed.

When we got to the reception that followed the unveiling, there was a surprise waiting for me. Our dear friend presented me with the compass Dad had given him, the instrument that had guided the Kyran for so many years. In my heart, it was as though he were handing me back a little bit of my father, who took his love so far and wide. Few gifts have ever mattered so much to me.

Of course, I immediately re-gifted it to the boys.

Because still and all, I am my father’s daughter. And that’s the real gift.


The story of our compass is told in the poem, “Boxing the Compass,”  by my late father, Al Pittman. An excerpt appears below.

Are there heirlooms in your family? Something you cherish, covet, or lost? Tell me the story.

(from Boxing the Compass, published in Dancing in Limbo, Breakwater Books, 1993)

In the middle of his middle age
I bought my father a boat and a compass.
We moored her in the shelter of a small cove
where she could come to no harm
while at rest between her little league voayges
up and down the unhazardous shore.
But even when she was tied up
going nowhere bouncing gently
up and down and around her mooring
I’d see from back aft
my father in the wheelhouse
standing spread-legged.
The wheel in his calloused grip.
His eyes glued to the compass.
And I wondered then
if he was out somewhere
in a bank of fog on the Grand Banks
rolling in a south-east wind

Once upon a time
in a fog bank on the Grand Banks
his younger brother went overboard.
And though they searched all night
they couldn’t find him.
When the fog lifted at daybreak
they looked again.
But no luck.

My father and my uncle
their brother gone
forever to “the grey seas under”
took their course
and headed south-south-west-by-west
to Boston.

His boat is long gone
to the sand and seaside grass.
But I still have the compass
he used to navigate his last voyage
to nowhere.
It sits on a stand
in a corner of my living room.
I check it often
each and almost every day.


4 Responses to “Boxing the Compass”

  1. Leigh says:

    This is really lovely, and I teared up as I read your story thinking of how happy you must have been to see your heirloom again. Somehow having something tangible to hold or see makes the person you’re missing feel closer to you, and I would give up a lot before I would give up my own family heirlooms.

    One of my two favorite heirlooms is my paternal grandmother’s trunk, which was handed down to her from her own grandmother. She kept sewing supplies in it, and the interior still smells like her house even though she passed away 20+ years ago. My other favorite is a set of costume jewelry, mostly brooches, that my maternal grandmother gave me. She lives in a nursing home far away, and I love to wear her jewelry and remember the countless hours I played dress-up in her closet.

  2. marilee pittman says:

    Wonderful! The compass is where it belongs and hopefully will his grandsons ever homeward…

  3. RoKeSca says:

    I ran into the March Hare in Cornerbrook. Years later I channel-surfed into “To Dublin with Love”. And that was when I realized that your father still walked among us, but with a hint of a drawl (Yes, it is there) and a fresh voice of her own. That’s when I understood “Homecoming”. and not an Island in Sky. So much, material and otherwise, will come back to us on the tide of time. Glad to see that you and your kids are standing at the shore watching. There will be lots more.

  4. Pat Hammond says:

    beautiful story! i really wish i’d lived closer and had the oppotunity to know him better. there was never any doubt, though, that he was an intensely interesting person. unique in the nicest way!

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