ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN Toting up feelings about the family business


When I was about 7, on one of my frequent visits to Dad's office I did something that I have never told anyone.

Dad was in another room. I picked up a device that resembled a rubber stamp. Curiosity got the best of me, so I began pushing it against a pad of paper, just one time at first, then another, then again and again, until I had stamped it two dozen times. It made an appealing sound, a "ka-chunk." Then I realized the numbers printed on the paper were increasing, one digit at a time. Panicked because I didn't know how to put the numbers back in order, I set the contraption down.

For years, I fretted that a vital numbering system had been botched by my tomfoolery. What if the disorder was left undiscovered, creating a hopeless mess years down the line?

This is when I first knew I did not want to be entrusted with the family business. I was afraid of it.

My father is an abstracter of titles. In small towns like the one where I grew up, you can find an abstract office near the courthouse. An abstracter compiles a history of a parcel of property, detailing its owners and the milestones in their lives -- births, deaths, marriages, divorces, bankruptcies, foreclosures. When I bought my first house, I discovered an item at closing that made me smile: abstract, $100.

The business has been in the family for 125 years; my great-grandfather, the son of a farmer, went to work fo the local abstracter as a teen-ager and eventually bought him out.

A visit to the office was always an adventure. My brother and sisters and I took turns locking each other into the big vault with the heavy steel door, a room with rows of oversized, leather-bound volumes containing copies of records filed in the courthouse. The pages in those books are fascinating, some of them typed neatly, some written in looping, cursive style, the ink long since turned brown, having been penned by the ancestor whose picture hung on the wall, the one with the big, bushy mustache.

As teen-agers, we all worked there, typing and filing and running errands. The work was tedious, though entertaining at times. Hearing about people's marriages and divorces, even in dry, bTC legal language, felt like eavesdropping on people long since dead.

On my last visit home, I walked around the downtown. The corner drug store is now a sandwich shop. They don't sell chocolate sodas anymore. Many of the family stores from my childhood are shuttered. I stopped into the coffee-and-doughnut shop, where I was relieved to see that over bismarcks and chocolate long johns, farmers and merchants and businessmen hash out all the problems of the world, from presidential politics to the sorry state of the high-school basketball team.

Back in the kitchen, however, the owners talked of retiring. One son had hit it big on Wall Street. "He really knows how to live," the owner said, shaking his head. Their other children moved away, too. "They all said we worked too hard."

I suppose I always figured my family's business would be there for me, if I ever so desired, though like many teen-agers growing up in small towns, I could not have fathomed a worse fate. As the youngest, I worried none of my siblings would follow Dad's footsteps, and it would be left to me. Like the children of the doughnut man, I thought my father worked too hard. He didn't take vacations, he often worked late and he spent Saturday mornings at the office.

Between the time I had last visited and now, my father bought the building next door to his office and renovated it, moving into ++ it so now the office commanded three store fronts on the east side of the courthouse square. The brick was painted gray. Green shutters dressed the second-story windows. Green, gray and red canvas awnings shaded the first-floor widows. The family name was still there, as solidly as ever, etched in stone.

Looking at the office from across the street, on the courthouse lawn, stirred mixed feelings. This was the business my ancestors built. My father had cared for it well. The physical improvements were perhaps his way of tending the business, nurturing it like a family farmer religiously works the soil, leaving it behind in as good, or better, shape as it was left for him.

Standing there, a part of me wished it was I, and not my brother, to whom he was passing the business. (My brother taught school for a few years before going to work for my dad. Birthright had given him first dibs.)

I felt omitted from the steady line of progression now four generations long. But had it been me, how would I have done? Was dropping the rubber stamp a metaphor for how careless I would have been with the family business?

I was, and am, relieved, yet a part of me wants to be included, a part of me critically watches my brother. To me was never passed the knowledge of my father and grandfather and great-grandfather, this business of being an abstracter, of which my grandfather once wrote, "The principle ingredients are accuracy, patience, and care, together with a vast amount of routine work."

From across the street, I catch a glimpse through the front window. My father and brother are standing together, huddled over one of those record books, inspecting the handwriting of fathers and sons from an earlier generation. My father leaves work early this day, while my brother stays behind to lock up.

TIM LARIMER is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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