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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

I Thought of You Then

April 2024

Dear Dad,

I wish I could have written this letter while you were still alive not after you died, but you died too young and I was only a teenager. Still, traumatic as that was, you greatly inclined my life toward learning in general and specifically toward literature, history math, and science. Through your behavior, you taught me how to learn, socialize, and laugh. I remember listening to you talk about carbon-14 dating at the dinner table when I was eight. Imagine that—we could know the age of organisms that lived tens of thousands of years ago. Penny pincher brother Bill, the geologist, thought I was crazy to spend $600 to have Beta Analytic carbon date macoma baltica shells, a small saltwater clam, thirty feet down on my Alaska property. These shells carbon-dated to 2,400-2,700 years ago. I thought of you because I know you would have approved. As an adult, Mary, Bill, and I had a conversation about the book, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom. I thought of you then. I chart human and planetary behavior on a semi-log chart. I thought of you then. I’ve published articles on the science of human behavior. I think of you and the articles we could have written about ecology and its chemistry.

I didn’t go to Dalhousie University as you and I had wished. Something about your early death made me not want to go live in a province where I had so many relatives and much name recognition. I’m sure I would have been quite happy in Nova Scotia. Instead, I moved to Colorado to be near my brother and his young family. I hear your silent disapproval, for you never would have told me. I agree with you.

Years later, I had an invitation to get a PhD under one of the major professors and experts in the field of human behavior. I didn’t think of you then, but when I walked into my study a couple of days after the invitation, I heard you say Hello. I startled. There you sat in one of the upholstered chairs from our home in Framingham Centre. I sat opposite you and we talked, your voice so plain and clear, so familiar.

“I’m thinking of moving to Kansas to get a PhD. Should I?”

In your usual style of never telling us what to do, but asking us what we thought we should do, you said, “Why do you want to get a PhD?”

“Because I want to study with Ogden Lindsley. I will learn so much and it will advance me professionally.”  I didn’t know that Ogden’s encouraging me to study inner behavior, the behavior of thoughts, feelings, and urges would lead me down an excellent road that would result in life-changing experiences for me. Invited talks in foreign countries—Norway, Russia, China, Switzerland. I know you didn’t care about foreign travel, but my mother and I always loved it.

“What will you learn?”

“I’ll be a better researcher. I’ll learn new things, perhaps a new way of thinking.”

“Is this what you want to do?”

“Yes.” As usual, you never told my three siblings and me what you thought we should do. You always just questioned us just like your grandfather had taught you.

In one of his books, Notes on Education (1888), your grandfather, after whom you were named, wrote:

Do not tell a pupil what he is able to find out for himself. The teacher should not see for the pupil, but should lead him to discover, by the exercise of his observing powers,…nor should he think for him, but should lead him, by the same use of his powers of reflection, to trace relations, to compare, to generalize, and to infer.  (Calkin, 1888, p. 48.)

I sit in my study in Alaska humbled by the photographs that represent three family members who have influenced my life—you, because I knew you, and your two grandfathers, John Burgess Calkin, head of the Truro Normal School, and Capt. Thomas J. Acker, a ship’s captain.

Capt. Tom

Capt. Tom, as his great-grandchildren refer to him. I so like his almost grin. (Yours was just like his, Dad, and you looked like him.) He died at 46 on board his ship when your mother was only a child.

J.B. Calkin

J.B. Calkin, principal of Model School, Truro Normal School, Truro, Nova Scotia, author of 11 books, some of which are still in print and in use in Canadian schools.

And then there is you. You look just like your grandfather, Capt. Tom. Any ship’s captain worthy of his salt knows his mathematics and is very well organized. You were just like that and I appreciate your teaching me those two things also.

John B. Calkin

John B. Calkin, named after his grandfather. He was academic, scientific, humorous, and loving. He looks like his grandfather, Capt. Tom

Much of what I learned about your two grandfathers I learned after you had died. I miss those conversations about math, science, and family you and I would have had. I know present and past family were very important to you, but I turned up questions I still wish I could ask you. No matter now, I just had to research it on my own including spending more time in Nova Scotia than I had as a child.

I remain forever grateful to you for your ken, keen thoughts and sensitivity, and providing me and my siblings with such fine education. You steered me in a direction neither of us had known then, but which shaped my life, parenting, and career.

Thank you.

With love from your youngest child,

P.S. Thank you for calling me, Abigail, the name I prefer to the myriad of nicknames I’ve had.

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