My Father’s Oxford

December 29

This is my father’s Oxford: a citadel of gilded memories. White-haired Professor Jack Mahoney collects me from the foyer of Campion Hall and invites me into the parlor. Did my father ever arrange his guests in these velvet chairs of juniper-berry blue, or were students kept corralled in the Common Room? Certainly the Dining Hall would have been familiar territory. The smell of vegetables boiled grey has not yet been wrung from the curtains. From the walls, Campion Hall’s dynasty of Masters watches within wooden frames. Master Martin D’Arcy has a meat-cleaver face and charcoal eyebrows, yet there is a glimmer of my father in his gaze: a beam of unshaded attention and curiosity.

Professor Mahoney ushers me across a wood-paneled corridor and into the library. Here at last is the cavern of books where my father quarried the colors of his mind. The walls are a rainbow of leather, each book spine spider-webbed in gold and silver filigree. Swan-necked lamps nest on sills and boot-buckled windows keep books and scholars warm. I sift through the handwritten card catalogue with fingers inherited from my father. Only the books know how many months of his life are folded between these pages.

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A flight of stairs steals Professor Mahoney’s breath, and when he finally catches up with it, we are in the chapel. Flocks of lamps hang on crimson cords, illuminating pews where my father prayed. With an underlined engagement to keep, Professor Mahoney leaves me at the foot of the stairs beside a scabbed and peeling statue of Our Lady. I drift to the window and look out across the hundred sunny afternoons my father spent in this courtyard. Under constellations of yellow starflowers, my father and his friends reclined against the medieval city wall, unfolding new philosophies until the words became so worn and wrinkled that the students let them skim away on the wind.

By the fireside this evening, I turned to a friend of my father’s from the Oxford-days.

‘What was my father like in his twenties?’ I ask. Nicky smiles. ‘He was quite like you in many ways.’

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