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You Brought It All Back

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Dear Voice from 1952,

It was wholly a pleasure and much more to get your letter recalling an incident in that other country known as the past.

After reading a Labor Day column about my father, who by the time you encountered him was no longer a shoemaker but selling furniture out of the same little shop in Shreveport, La., you related your own story about him.

I've now read it over and over again, and I can picture him every time. You can imagine how your remembrance of him makes a son feel after all these years. Your letter is far too satisfying for me to shorten it in any way:

Sept. 3, 2012

Dear Mr. Greenberg,

I enjoyed your article about your father and I am almost certain that I purchased my bedroom furniture from him. (I still use it.) It was fall 1952 and I was in my ninth month of pregnancy. My husband and I were moving from a furnished apartment in Leesville (he had just been discharged from the Army) to an unfurnished apartment in Shreveport.

In making arrangements for the delivery of the furniture, your father discovered that I had ridden the trolley to his Texas Avenue store. He sent me home with my furniture in his delivery truck with his black driver, assuring me that he was a good person and I would be perfectly safe. I have never forgotten his kindness....

That sounds just like him, all right. And just like Henry Johnson, driver, handyman, confidant, family retainer and all-around mentor to this teenage boy who, believe me, needed mentoring. Henry taught me how to deliver furniture and connect the occasional gas stove, how to tell good credit risks from bad, and even how to ask for directions. (Always get out of the truck, exchange a few words about the weather or the crops, and then ask. Never -- Never! -- just roll down the window and shout.)

Let's just say Henry taught me the lay of the land in these Southern latitudes and maybe in this world. By 1952, he would have been working for my father for 20 years, and would go on working for him for another 30. Although it wasn't always easy to tell who was working for whom.

Your brief letter brought all that back, and with it the old sense of pride and security I always felt in Pa's presence. I hadn't dwelt on that in years. So do we pass by the treasures on our shelves every day, not pausing, occupied by trivia as truths gather dust. Then a letter like yours arrives.

That you should remember a small act of consideration all this time, and then 60 years later, take the trouble to remind a son of who his father was, and whence he came.... Your letter was a reminder that the small acts of gratitude are what hold us together, and maybe civilization itself.

Talk about casting your bread upon the waters. A kindness done never ceases to ripple out in time.

To open your letter was like getting a message from a faraway star that still shines, even stronger than ever. The dead grow stronger and stronger in our memories, more present, ever more vivid, ever more alive as we return again and again to the inexhaustible well that is the past.

I can't thank you enough, kind lady. And I would be remiss if I didn't quote your P.S., too -- direct, in toto, and unabridged:

"Remember Herbie K's?"

How could anyone who ever snuck over to the West End for lunch ever forget that classic hole-in-the-wall burger joint? Over on Pierre, wasn't it? It was just a mile, maybe less, from the store. And it's apparently still there, to cite the rave review of Herbie K's, Shreveport, La., that I just googled up:

"It's a long way from the Gulf, but they know what to do with shrimp: Pound thin, until the tails splay flat ... Fry hard. Serve open-faced, on a crusty roll, with a side of house-made tartar sauce." --"100 Southern Foods That You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die," Garden and Gun, November 2008.

I'm starting to get hungry myself. And not just for food. But for memories, rich and savory and renewed once more, this time through another's telling. Which somehow makes them even better. They glow again, validated.

Bless you, and I can't thank you enough for remembering my dad and his sidekick. You had them down.

Be well, dear lady.

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