The Book


When Walt Ironsen celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, he retired. Of average height for his generation—perhaps an inch below six feet—he was still trim, healthy, and full of energy. He looked younger than he was. Even his blond head of hair was still thick, healthy, and only slightly touched with white at the temples. But he had always considered sixty-five to be the traditional retirement age, and he was one for tradition. He was secure financially and thought he would like to take things easy for a change. He turned the running of their men’s clothing store over to Walt Junior.

Junior had worked in the store for years, part-time through high school, full-time after graduating from college with a business degree. He knew the business thoroughly and was as good at it as his father. In fact, he was sharper at anticipating style trends and the preferences of young men. Walt Senior had still not quite understood the extent and speed with which style changes in men’s clothing were penetrating even to smaller Midwestern cities like Centerville.

Centerville had become more than a rural, county seat town. As the back roads had been improved over the years, it had drawn in shoppers from a wider area, until it had become a small city, a regional shopping center. It was still a quiet, conservative Midwestern community, but it was big enough, and busy enough, to support a major men’s clothing store, if that store was properly managed.

The transition of management should have been smooth and effortless given Junior’s long experience. To an extent, it was. The only problem was that Walt Senior could not let go. Over long years of hard work, he had built a prosperous and respected clothing store from the meager beginnings of a tiny shop selling shirts and ties. It was, in a sense, his life’s work. He could not bring himself to walk away from it. In addition, he continued as part owner, sharing in the profits.

He left Junior with all the day-to-day headaches and responsibilities; but he was continually looking over Junior’s shoulder, questioning, commenting, objecting, sometimes countermanding Junior’s decisions with the sales staff or with stock orders.

Junior put up with his father’s interference longer than his sales staff thought he would, but there finally came a limit. One day, when Junior learned that a major part of his order for the summer stock had been canceled, he hit his limit.

He went into his office, reviewed his account books, had a long conversation on the telephone with his banker, then called his father at home.

“Dad, we need to talk. Can I come out to the house?”

“Talk about what?”

“The store.”

“Good. I have some ideas about a sale promotion. And I think we’re getting too flashy in our summer fashions. I canceled most of your order.”

Junior took a deep breath and resolved to be calm but firm. “Yes, I know, but that’s only part of what I want to talk about, Dad. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”

The result of that talk, which was long and sometimes painful, was that Junior bought out his father and became sole owner of the clothing store. With a loan from the bank, and some of his savings, Junior paid cash and gave his dad a good price. Once the deal was complete, Walt was gently given to understand that he was welcome at the store, that his advice would be valued, but that he had no authority to make decisions there. The staff was so instructed. They were greatly relieved to know, finally, who was in charge. That left Walt with a substantial new nest egg and a lot of spare time.

At first he thought he would spend that time helping out at home. He already did the yard work. It was a small yard in a quiet, suburban neighborhood—level, smooth, with a couple of nice shade trees and a modest expanse of grass. The flower beds contained mostly perennials, and he had long since given up on the small vegetable garden in the back yard. That had gone back to lawn. There was not much yard work to do, and it was mostly seasonal. All his life he had been busy all day, every day. At that pace, he soon ran out of things to do in the yard.

He made some minor house repairs, did some touch-up painting, but that didn’t last long. Then to his wife’s dismay, he tried to help around the house.

Louise Ironsen was a handsome, intelligent, vigorous woman, a few years younger than Walt. She was careful and efficient, and she knew her own mind.

She was a planner. When she got out of bed in the morning, she knew what she wanted to accomplish that day, and in what order. But she did not like to have to explain it, even to Walt. She was a doer, not a talker. She did not need, or particularly want, help with the household.

“What can I do to help?” he would ask, standing empty-handed and clueless in the doorway to the kitchen. Louise would put him to setting the table or peeling potatoes or scraping carrots, but he was so much slower at these tasks than she was that he was more in the way than he was helpful.

With the best of intentions, Walt’s efforts around the house often became more annoyance than help. Finally, he found a few simple chores that he could do competently and that Louise was willing to concede to him. He set the table for the meal, put on the breakfast coffee, carried out the trash, sometimes vacuumed the living room rug. Still, that left him with a lot of spare time, a circumstance that made him restless, even edgy. Since childhood, he had found very little spare time. Always there had been work to do. Now the work was done; but he still had health, energy, and an active mind. He fidgeted around the house, rummaged in the files in his study, refused to succumb to the mental opiate of daytime television. It was a problem.

An answer came when he tackled one of the chores Louise had suggested to him—more, in her mind, to get him out from under foot than to accomplish anything significant.

“Remember that big wooden box in the attic?” she asked one day. “It’s full of family records, letters, and pictures that we kept when we cleaned out your parents’ house after your mother died.”

“Mostly junk,” Walt said.

“Well, then, sort through it, pick out the junk, and throw it away. Label what you keep and then we should store it more carefully to preserve it.”

So one fall afternoon, when the attic was neither too hot nor too cold, Walt went up, dusted off the top of the old footlocker, opened it, and began to explore.

What he found was an unexpected trove of family history. There were letters going back three generations, bank statements, scrapbooks, yellowed and crumbling newspaper clippings of his father’s exploits as a high school athlete, even letters from his great-grandfather to his great-grandmother during service in the Civil War. Best of all, to Walt’s mind, were the old photographs. Some were labeled, some he could identify, and some he could only guess the identity of the people and the places.

Walt was captivated. He spent many afternoons in the attic, then brought all the material downstairs to his study. He found very little that he could bring himself to throw away, to Louise’s dismay.

“How much of this can we get rid of?” Louise would ask, surveying the piles of papers and photographs that filled every horizontal space in Walt’s study.

“This is all good stuff,” Walt would reply earnestly. “We’ll want to pass this along to Junior. He needs to know his family’s history. I just need to get it in order.”

Louise had an opinion of how Junior’s wife, Cynthia, would react when Walt came presenting them with a big box of old papers, but she kept that opinion to herself.

Walt finally did toss out some of the unidentified photographs and some of the crumbling old newspapers and moth-eaten high school pennants; but he had found something on which he could spend his time, energy, and curiosity—his family’s history.

Genealogy was a part of it, but he went beyond tracing relationships. He wanted to know who these people were, what they did, how they lived their lives. He would gather all the information he could find about his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, great-uncles and great-aunts, the whole lot back for generations. He combed through county and church records both in Centerville and back east. He looked at federal immigration and military service records. He read widely in history books to get the context in which his forebears had lived. Then if he had pictures of any of them, he would spend hours looking at those pictures and matching them with the information he had gathered.

He came to understand their kinships and the arcs of their lives, their trials, and their triumphs. He found it moving to look at the young, hopeful faces in some of the pictures, knowing what their lives had been later, how their hopes and loves and ambitions had been realized or failed, and how their lives had ended at last.

Among the many photographs, Walt found that he had good large portraits of his father and his grandfather Ironsen. He thought it would be a nice idea to get a photograph of himself so he could someday give Walt Junior the portraits of three generations of Ironsen men. As he thought about this, Walt vaguely remembered having seen a photograph of his great-grandfather, Frederick Christian Ironsen. He had been a Danish sea captain who had come to America in the 1850s, fought in the Union army during the Civil War, prospered as a merchant and banker after the war, and sired a house full of offspring.

The photograph showed him as an older man with a lean face, chin whiskers, and a hard and almost belligerent stare at the camera. When and where had he seen that picture? Walt presented the question to Louise, and together they puzzled it out.

They had seen that photograph in the home of an older distant cousin years before. The cousin had lived in a town some distance away, and they had not kept contact after that visit. Walt wondered if the cousin would sell him the picture or allow him to have it copied. He was much taken with the idea of pictures of four generations of Ironsen men to give his son, who, in due course, could add a picture of a fifth generation to give to his son.

Walt soon found that his elderly cousin had died the previous year. When he reached her son, he was told that the contents of her house, including the photograph, had been auctioned off in the dispersal of the estate. Family ties and family history apparently meant little to that branch of the family. And no, the son did not have a record of who had bought the elaborately framed photograph. It might have been bought for the antique frame, and the picture might have been destroyed.

Walt was deeply disappointed. He had gotten wrapped up in his family history and was counting on having a picture gallery of the generations of Ironsen men. He moped around the house for days, shuffling half-heartedly among his memorabilia but not really showing his former enthusiasm for the project. He was so gloomy that Louise decided he needed a diversion, something to get his mind off his disappointment. A practical woman, she felt he needed to get back his old interest in tasks at hand rather than brooding over something that could not be helped.

Late one afternoon, with this in mind, she stopped in the doorway to Walt’s study. “Let’s go out for dinner tonight,” she said, trying to sound as if the thought had just struck her.

“Hmm?” said Walt, looking up from the index he was half-heartedly working on for the family history files. “Oh, OK. Where?”

“Well,” Louise said, looking thoughtful, although she knew exactly where. “Henry Warren has opened a new restaurant out near the Interstate. We could go out there and see what it’s like.”

Walt smiled. “Will he let us in? If he does, will he poison our food?”

“Now Walt,” Louise said, “give him a chance to let bygones be bygones.” Walt agreed, but without enthusiasm.

Those bygones had been a few years of intense competition between Walt’s clothing store and one owned and operated by Henry Warren. The contest was unequal at last. Walt was the better businessman. He kept a closer eye on staff and expenses. He always had the items that were selling well without seriously overstocking. He was a better planner. He was a better salesman.

After a few years of barely getting by with men’s clothing, in the face of Walt’s competition, Henry Warren had finally sold out for what he could get and gotten out of the clothing business. He went on to various other, and only marginally successful, business ventures—real estate, insurance, wherever he could turn a dollar and make a living. Yet even after years away from the clothing store, he remained cool toward Walt, blaming him, in some sense, for his own financial struggles. Walt regretted their estrangement but had made no special effort to remedy it.

Now Henry Warren had a new restaurant. Walt could not guess where he had found the financial backing but found it he had, and the new establishment...

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