Dartch and Mr. Samuel Johnson
By Eileen Yeager
Growing up inQueensin the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s truly was living in a warm fuzzy time. Folks were “seeing theUSAin their Chevrolets” – in our family a DeSoto – and shopping for groceries in Hudsons and Studebakers at not-so-super markets like the A & P and Bohack’s. Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet splashed across TV screens and in our row house on83rd StreetinMiddleVillagemother and father really did know best! Unlike the popular show, we didn’t call them mother and father – everyone in our family had a nickname; Mom and Dad were Romps and Dartch and my little sister and I were Miggy Pat and Missy.
Our family loved words – and invented our own! We had
expressions known only to us and our nearest and dearest. Visits to Patchogue, where both sets of grandparents were next-door neighbors, reinforced quotes and phrases that stuck to me. Both Papa Al and Papa Gene had philosophical things to say and their bandied discussions often employed meaningful adages. Dartch and Papa Al were avid Scrabble players. Dad had a difficult time finding the new, popular game in 1948 but when he finally did, it was well used during weekend visits. I’d question and try to recall the strategically placed words – and still play on that well-worn board today. We were readers; Dartch always maintained that a well stocked home library must contain a Bible, an unabridged dictionary and a copy ofBartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Each held a prominent place on our bookshelves. The knowledge of man, he often said, can
be found between the covers of books.
Gentle, soft-spoken Dartch often cited bits from these volumes. He was great at what we called “pithys” – wise little tidbits of knowledge that he’d share with my sister and me at the most exquisitely perfect moments. One of his greatest endowments was his ability to pluck from memory the perfect phrase, quote or parable germane to an occasion. Whenever we’d find ourselves perplexed by a problem or seething with frustration at something deemed unsolvable, Dartch would quietly interpose a comment or statement that shared a solution, confirmed a suspicion or simply showed us a different perspective.
I never thought to question the origins of these tidbits.
Dartch was, after all, the smartest man in the world. It was only natural that he’d know these things and share his rich insights and I tried to commit to memory many of his bons mots.
Like a castle on a hill, one expression stood taller to me than the others. Not an especially patient child when, in a torrent of tears, I would dissolve at some seemingly impossible task at hand, Dartch would gently remind me, “Missy, nothing is impossible to diligence and skill.” How many times as I attempted to memorize geometric formulas or conjugate French verbs I’d consider that phrase. I can do this, I’d tell myself; nothing is impossible to diligence and skill. It always seemed to give me the extra nudge – that bit of impetus to keep
on trying because – it could be done. The little expression
became my mantra.
One day in my early teens I was in an elevator when something I overheard caught my attention. Two businessmen stepped on in animated conversation. My ears perked up as one said, You know what they say – The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I couldn’t wait for dinner that night to tell the family that I’d heard one of Dartch’s bits of wisdom – miles from home! I recall feeling a slight deflation – a sense of sadness really – as Dartch explained that, flattered though he was that I thought that he, personally had made up these morsels to ponder, he was in fact sharing things that he’d learned from other folks, people like, as he referred to them,
Mr. Shakespeare, Mr. Twain, Mr. Thoreau and the Good Book.
Of course, through the years, I continued to hear the various sayings. Reading of life on theMississippiin high school and Odysseus in college I heard many of “Dartch’s” quotes often repeated. But never did I hear or read my favorite: Nothing is impossible to diligence and skill.
The years passed with the family leavingQueens. My husband was in the Air Force; he and I and our two sons lived in many places until his passing. Mom and Dad leftMiddleVillageforFlorida. I went back to college, graduating just three weeks shy of my 50th birthday. How many times as I made the commute or studied for exams was I ready to give up, yet those words seemed implanted in my brain; nothing is impossible to
diligence and skill. I can do it. I will do it. And I did do it!
Miggy Pat and her husband moved toLos Angeleswhere I eventually followed and saw my efforts reach fruition. I spent
15 happy years teaching fifth grade. Besides daily lessons one of my goals was to inspire students with thoughts and ideas that I believed would help them through life. I couldn’t think of a more apt expression than my favorite. I repeated it to classes many times. I told them of how, so often, it had spurred me on and admitted that, through the years, I’d found diligence the part I most employed; skill, even when acquired, often needs the force of diligence to successfully complete a task.
On one of the folks’ visits toCaliforniaI mentioned to Dartch that, of all the things he taught me growing up, this
expression had served me best. He chuckled. That one, he said, evoked a memory. It was by Samuel Johnson. He’d seen it years before on the cornerstone of a school onLong Island. He couldn’t recall exactly where – he and a few of his buddies were driving to Montauk for a fishing weekend when they’d passed the school. He, too, had been taken by the words and they’d stayed with him through the years.
My retirement was drawing closer and I decided that I wanted to spend that time nearer to my roots. In preparation, I came to the east end to seek my retirement venue. In the summer of 2009 while visiting old friends, we decided to
drive to theHamptons. I can’t forget my elation when
we stopped for a light and – I saw it! There, on the edifice of a
stately brick building -SouthamptonElementary School- sat two ornamental concrete slabs, one inscribed with – my pithy!
“Look,” I said – “that inscription on the school! My Dad often quoted that and I always said it was the very best thing he ever taught me. He said he had seen it on a school onLong Islandand – after all these years – there it is!” How many people had passed the school and noticed it? Had it made an impression on any of them the way it had with us? My heart was shouting – Here it is, Dartch! I’ve found it!
The phrase varies a bit from Dad’s rendition; in actuality
the plaque reads Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Did Dad misstate Mr. Johnson’s words accidentally? Or
did he reconstruct the adage from “few things” to “nothing” in order to ensure that his girls would not be able to say that the particular plight of any given moment was one of the things impossible to diligence and skill?
I’ll never know, but given is proclivity toward the ideal I tend to think that any variance was unintentional. If he did alter the quote Dad’s secret died with him; now, neither diligence nor skill can secure the answer. But it really doesn’t matter. My father, courtesy of Mr. Johnson, gave me a life lesson that has seen me through some difficult times.
Now that I’m living nearby I pass the school often and each time I do I look at the plaque. I can picture Dartch on his way to a weekend pursuit of a favorite hobby, seeing the
words and taking them in. Did he mention them, I wonder, to the others in the car? Did he comment on their cogency? Or did he, in his own quiet way, simply tuck them into the back pocket of his memory to be pulled out and shared with his girls at an opportune moment?
I can’t know that, either. But I do know that I’m grateful for the wonderful life lesson from my father who always said he wanted his epitaph to read: He loved his girls. Thank you, Dartch. As I tried to tell you over the years and am finally telling you now, your words have inspired me more than I think you ever knew.