Tom Johnson has an old heart. He knows this even before Roger Daugherty, his friend and physician, tells him that a series of TIAs, or small strokes, has weakened his heart and he will continue to lose strength.
Tom knows, through a series of “incidents” that his mental faculties are failing and that his children have found him a new home in a “retirement community.”
Tom’s heart has withstood emotional blows: a first love left behind in World War II, a marriage that became increasingly loveless and perfunctory until his wife Julia finally died, and a career deferred then abandoned for one he at first thought unworthy of him.
The day after the annual Fourth of July celebration at his home on a small lake in Illinois, Tom sneaks a taxi to O’Hare and flies to Paris – for the sake of clarity in
his old age, or because he may be slightly demented, or to find Sarah von Praag, whom he last saw in Belgium in 1946.
Tom has no intention of returning home. He has left his finances and estate in order, leaving his two surviving children the money and things he thinks they will need and arranging for his own expenses to be paid from a bank in Europe. His lawyer is
of course bound by confidentiality to keep the plans from Tom’s family, and Dr. Daugherty is getting up in years himself and Tom feels the doctor might be too forgetful to remember that Tom’s future is a secret, so his granddaughter Nora becomes his confidante.
Together they write the family history of Tom’s work with the underground forces in Belgium to help get supplies to the Allies after the Battle of the Bulge; of Tom and Julia’s uncertain courtship and shotgun marriage; of his leaving graduate school and the dream of becoming a college professor for small-town high-school teaching; of Tony, Tom and Julia’s first child, born with Down syndrome, and their two later, typical children, Brooks and Christine.
Tom reflects on his life with thoughts that he has hidden from everyone, including himself, for decades. Some of the memories are pleasant, many are difficult; almost all of them are reflective.
Was it Julia’s fault or his – or theirs – that they had “wasted their lives on each other”? And how did it come about that Tom’s daughter Christine, who at 14 was “a willow, thin as a girl wants to be, with fine features” had by 24 “had fretted herself plain”? But he also wonders, “Had she grown wise and strong in time, and he had missed it?”
Brooks, his second son, is “self-centered and relentless,” always with another scheme, another deal in the works, a better job on the horizon, and a smile to convince many a stubborn and once-burned prospect.
Tony – Tom’s first son and eventually his best friend – was born with Down syndrome. Just before Tony died at age 51, Tom had told him, “You are many things. You’re a brother. You’re a son. You’re … an excellent employee … and an excellent fishing companion. … You’re never in a hurry and you’re comfortable being quiet.”
Tom’s dreams unwind and his thoughts coil around the reader. What, and whom, he finds as he settles in The Netherlands for the rest of his life became the story reshaped by his children and retold by his granddaughter Nora.
“Old Heart” is the second novel by Evanston resident Peter Ferry. Dave Eggers says of this book: “‘Old Heart’ manages to weave together an astonishing array of themes and layers – the perils and freedoms of old age, the complexity of family ties, the liberation of travel and finally Ferry presents and proves the bold and needed idea that it’s never too late to re-open the past to recast the present.”
Mr. Ferry will read from “Old Heart” at 7 p.m. on Sept. 2 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.