Dad Memory #8: Ghost

I can’t remember if I told you this already. I believe that this happened in real life, and that later, after my father was dead, I dreamt it, only the dream was a nightmare—not just a terrible thing happening for real. He’d been hospitalized. I know this because I remember a story about how he had the hiccups in the hospital, which wouldn’t go away. The hiccups were getting so bad—staying so long—the story went, that the doctors and nurses were starting to worry. (Or something like that.) Anyway, the punchline is that when he came home from the hospital, the hiccups stopped. I liked this story when I was a kid, because it meant that my father was that happy to be home.

The point of my post, though, is this: that one time, when I knew that my father was coming back from the hospital, I ran up the stairs, threw the front door open, and ran outside to meet him—and he had utterly changed. He’d gone from a healthy man to an old person, sunken, stooped, and grey. I was not prepared for this; it was a terrible surprise.

This is the thing that I can’t get across—that I’m just learning about in writing you these memories of my father: I had not hardened myself yet. I had not steeled myself against pain that he might or might not inflict, or the surprise or cruelty that was possible for one person to inflict on another. I was still innocent and open to him. I don’t know what part this particular incident played in the creation of Deitch. Was it one cannonball in the side of her ship? Was it a flavor of the glue that stuck her together? Was it so bad that it made her speak of herself in the third person?

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I was just driving through the park, and the Cranberries’ song “Zombie” came on the radio, and I was thrown back to a time before I knew you, and Maud and I would drive around L.A. in Gil’s brother-in-law’s old Porche 914 (one the boxy ones made by Volkswagon), and we’d listen to this song A LOT. Maud must have been seven or eight or nine—a little blonde with a great sense of humor and an outsized love for me—and we’d ride close the road, and sing “Zom-bie, Zom-bie, Zom-beh-eh-eh.” This was before I loved you—when I had this phosphorescent little kid, and Gil was still my good friend, and Scout wasn’t even born yet and you were just starting out, unsuspecting. It’s like thinking about before we were all born. It’s like thinking about all-pervasive peace of mind.


I’d like my dad to be alive. If he were alive, he’d be 103, I think. I imagine him in Florida, 103, skin like rock, but brown from the sun. I imagine him shriveled, but full of joie de vivre, dressed in pink golf pants with creases, and two-tone golf shoes. I imagine him one of those Republicans who voted for Obama, even though Obama was black, and a democrat—not only because McCain was a retarded monkey and Palin a yahoo, but because his granddaughter needed a better planet. That’s how much he’d love her: against his better judgement, he’d give her a better planet.

If my grandmother had a dick, she’d be my grandfather. Like that.

Who knows where I’d be had my father not got cancer when I was seven and died two years later. Would I be in some kitchen on the upper east side where he’d stand in shorts, even though it was winter, like Bronnie’s dad did (his foot in a plastic boot, after surgery), holding his massive hands out at his sides and saying to me, “Everything’s going to be fine. Just let it go,” when he knew I was upset? Would he take care of it for me, like Bronnie’s dad? Like kissing a boo-boo, and pretending it would now all go away, just because he was there?

Trungpa Rinpoche said that women are crazy and men are stupid, and I think that captures something. It’s not that men are stupid, really; it’s more like they’ve been raised to be protectors (and porters), and that requires a certain padding. Dads will be your padding, if you need them to be, I imagine. If they’re still there when you need them. This is my fantasy. Some women count on their husbands this way, and that sounds good to me too. I’m a little tired. I’d like to take off all the padding and hang out with my dad in Florida for awhile.

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Dead Dads

My old boyfriend, Geoff, they told him his father was dead, but he wasn’t. When Geoff was little, his mother told different people different things, like Geoff’s father was killed in the war, or he died of cancer. But one night when Geoff was seventeen, his stepfather, drunk, told him that his father was alive—that he’d left Geoff’s mother when Geoff was a baby, his sister, three.

I met Geoff right around that time, and I remember him telling me that story as we waited for the car, furnished by the waterside-apartment complex we lived in with our mothers, to take us to school. I didn’t think, at the time, “I wonder if my father is alive.” I knew he wasn’t. Instead I thought about Geoff—what beautiful blue eyes he had, and how sweet he was.

He had another story that he told me in this period, which was in the weeks before we started going out. He had been working as a box boy at one of the local grocery stores, and he’d been befriended by the store manager, who was an old guy—like a dad’s age. One night Geoff was walking with him across the parking lot to wherever it was he normally deposited the store’s daily earnings, when two or three boys jumped out with guns. They took the money, and shot the store manager. They killed him.

Geoff, being about those boys’ age, was a suspect, at the same time that he was traumatized by the event, and the death of this dad-guy. If you knew Geoff, you’d know the truth of all that: that he wouldn’t have been involved in any crime, let alone this one; that he suffered, and didn’t know how to suffer, suffering being hard, for one thing, but also something that was magically wiped away in his family, by lies and alcohol etc., etc., etc.

This is the beginning of a long story.

Neighbors at Night

My place in the moonlight
I drove to East Marion from the city in the dark tonight, slowing down for the last forty-five minutes through farmland and past vineyards, to keep from hitting deer and rabbits. I’m used to pulling into the long driveway and stopping in front of a dead-dark ultra-modern house (my landlords’ beautiful renovated army barracks), the shades drawn, the night overwhelming. I keep my car lights on then, and get out and walk up the two steps to where there’s an outdoor-light switch. I turn it on, and then I go back to my car, turn it off, and walk, always slightly spooked, along the dimly lit brick walkway, toward the steep wooden stairs that lead home.

Tonight, though, my landlords’ place was fully lit, the shades up. I could see the painter, Kes, at his dining room table, reading. I didn’t see Jerry. I always feel happy when they’re here (they were hardly here all winter), though during the day they play NPR too loud, and they have many screaming fights. Really, I don’t know any couple anymore that doesn’t fight. It seems to be the way of it.

To be alive is the thing. To be around human life, even if it’s downstairs in another house, is a party all in itself. Lamplight from a neighbor who knows you exist is a hootennany.

When I was little, I loved to lie in bed and fall asleep to the sounds of my parents playing cards with their friends: the thrum of the shuffle, the ting of the bridge mix against the bowl, the quiet of grownups thinking.

Wacky Street Love

An old guy was walking up Madison Avenue in the 90s this afternoon with the help of two ski poles—clink, clink; clink, clink—though, of course, it being spring (even a chilly one), he was wearing shoes. He had just stepped away from a typical Upper East Side matron (that is, she was wearing a fur coat), and she called after him, “I love you,” and blew him two flying air kisses—mwah, mwah—which hit me rather than him: he had already skied halfway up Carnegie Hill, and I was facing her. Except she wasn’t looking at either of us, her eyes being scrunched closed in ecstatic air loving.

Dad Memory #7: Sunday Morning

Even while he was fading away, and any constants would disappear forever, he kept it up, this one constant: he’d put a bar of packaged halvah, and a Joya-brand jelly-candy bar, in three sugary layers (red, white, and orange), on his night table on Sunday mornings, for when we woke up and bounded in, jumping on the bed and landing between our parents. I have no memory of eating the halvah or candy; that wasn’t the point. The point was it was there. It could be counted on. He could be counted on for that.

Was it then that we’d lean our faces, one at a time, down into his face in the bed, and rub our cheeks against his, to feel the rough morning stubble? It was such a stark and always shocking contrast to soft skin against soft skin, another game, meant to be fun, and funny. I remember laughing, but I don’t remember why. When I think of it now, what I feel is thankful for my father’s openness to me and my brothers on Sunday mornings. I feel thankful for his openness to me and my soft face against his. I had forgotten to let it reverberate through the years of my life.

Dad Memory #6: The Men In Black Hats

It’s like I erased him with my little pink eraser, or like maybe I erased myself, too, along with him. I know I was there, because of the things I do remember.

I remember an oxygen tank in his bedroom. I don’t remember it with any conviction, but I’m pretty sure it was there. I maybe remember a hospital bed, though not necessarily in the context of his bedroom. And I remember the men in black hats and overcoats who came to visit him. That is, I remember men in black hats and overcoats walking through his bedroom door, greeting him the way men greeted each other back then, in 1965 or 1966. The hats, maybe would come off, and there were crooked smiles and some genial grunting (a la Mad Men). Or maybe that’s just the way it looked to a nine year old.

I tried to name them, the men in hats, to myself the other day, but I could only get two names: Murray Pergamant, a neighbor; and Ben Shankman, a doctor who was also a relative. There was another key guy, a doctor friend, but I don’t remember his name. The strange thing is that, though I can remember that they visited my dad when he was sick, I don’t remember my dad. From the angle of the visual memory, I would guess that I was sitting or standing beside my father, looking up as the men entered.

The other day I was thinking about my younger brother’s friends when he was a boy, and suddenly a kid popped into my mind who hadn’t been there for many years. He came out of the void—a little black kid in a trench coat. It took a few days after that for his name to come up, like an answer from a Magic 8 Ball: Billy. This tells me that there are other memories in the depths, or out there, that can arise, given the right circumstances.

What are the right circumstances? My friend Angela, a Buddhist chaplain (among other things), was telling me today about a woman she worked with in a V.A. Hospital who had been traumatized in her teens; the woman had been gang raped. This woman talked to Angela about this experience sometimes, and every time she did, she’d be re-traumatized–that is, she’d remember the event anew, and her hands would shake and she’d cry. Etc.

So since I erased my father, if I remember him, will it be like that? Like I’ll remember him, suddenly, this man whom I loved—my father, that is—dying?

I don’t care about being retraumatized. I was nine then; I’m a grownup now. I’d like to know, rather than not know. I’d like to know, rather than not know. I’d like to know the pain of someone I loved, and who loved me, rather than turn away—turn away from him, and from myself. In turning away, I turn away from everything painful, and also everything good.

Dad Memory #5: Upside Down

Funny. Once I stop the Dad Memories, my mind closes up, and it’s like I have no memories of him at all: I just have this empty head, with the aforementioned headache. So let’s see…

When I think of my father, a lot of my memories have to do with the feeling of my body next to his. This seems like a dangerous subject, but why should it be? So much of my love for Maud, when she was little, was expressed through touch. So.

I remember a day when my father sat on his bed, and I sat in his lap facing him. We were playing a game where he put his arms around me and then dropped me backwards, so my head nearly touched the floor. Then he’d whip me up, so I was facing him again. We did this over and over, laughing. It wasn’t the game necessarily, that was the great thing about this—it was how engaged we both were in the game together. It was the immense pleasure of the touch and the swing and the blood rushing to my head and then rushing back down again. It was the laughter between us.

There’s so much we take for granted. This tiny moment was just a game. But, then again, it wasn’t: I lost my father not long after that, and I’m lucky that I remember this moment, because it’s one of the early experiences of pure love that I’m able to rebuild my raft on, in the middle of this vast ocean of loss.

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Come and Get Me

Think: mother. Think: father. Think brother; think sister. Something will come up, or things. But what I’m discovering is that memories seem to reside in layers: write the first layer down, and the next layer arises. Right now there’s nothing in my head but a headache and some feelings that I wish I could carve out and throw away. But I think of my daughter, Maud, and a picture of her—her recent self, smiling—arises.

The fact is, though, that I could write volumes of memories about Maud: I could start with a day, close to thirty years ago, when her dad and I, just three months into our relationship, sat on a wall in Bend, Oregon, on a summer day, and watched somebody else’s little girl run across a lawn. She had crazy curly hair, and she was a spaz. Andrew said to me, something like, “Our daughter could be like that. We could call her ‘Daffy.'” That was the beginning of Maud, who, when she was born, was anything but daffy. She was too smart, right from the start, to be daffy. She was too sensitive, too clear, and too penetrating.

“Mama,” she said to me one day, playing on the floor of her bedroom when she was about five. I was sitting on her bed. “Is ‘idiot’ a bad word?”

Well, I said, or something like it. It’s not exactly a bad word, but it’s not anything you want to call anyone.

She thought about that. She went back to playing.

A couple of minutes later she said, “Mama?”

I said, “Yah.”

And she said, “Is ‘fucking asshole’ a bad word.”

It was kind of like Scout, when he’d stuff a pair of dirty socks in his mouth and walk by me slowly, looking at me out of the whites of his eyes. It was a joke, those dirty socks in his mouth, and a funny challenge. It said, Come and get me.

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Dad Memory #4: Magician

I have no idea whether I was there, or my mother told me about this, or if I completely made it up: My dad came down to dinner in our dining room in a top hat and tails. Even if it didn’t happen, I believe he was like that: showily romantic. One time, at a banquet at Green Hills, the gold club he owned in Greenwich, he put a chair in the middle of the dance floor while members were eating, put my mother in the chair, and sang her a romantic song. Because I remember a couple at the club who were ancient (the man was always pulling quarters from behind our ears, and smiling into our faces as if his face were a full moon), I imagine that everyone witnessing this event was elderly. This can’t be true, though: it was not a club for seniors.

Here’s something I’d like to float by you: there is something brewing in me about the texture of the world—the feel of the wind, the rustle of leaves, the quality of light from moment to moment. Different people relate to this texture in different ways. Some people, like woodsmen, snuggle in like barnacles; others, like fat ladies with frizzled hair, have no idea it’s there. Some people, like fashionistas, think they’re outdoing it; others—great artists, dancers, musicians, writers—express it in ways that get you closer to it.

I think there is magic in the texture of the world, and I believe my father may have been a magician. Or maybe that’s how I saw him when I was a little girl: the beach on which lived, the beauty of our glass-backed house? He made them. He made the gulls who flew high and dropped clams; he made the eels that washed ashore. He made the sparkly rocks and the snow.

Why did he go away without saying goodbye?

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