Sunday, November 27, 2011

Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon

My father bores me to death.

That's a shitty thing to say, isn't it? By and large, he doesn't have conversations, nor does he ever seem to have a destination in mind when he starts to ramble. A few years ago I spent Christmas with my folks at my younger brother's house. At one point my brother went into the kitchen to baste something, and my mother -- perhaps without malice but I prefer not to be presumptuous -- decided to go help him, leaving me alone in the living room with the old man. And he started talking (or probably kept talking, about whatever he'd been verbalizing before he lost two-thirds of his audience), and I stretched out on the couch, closed my eyes, and steadied my breathing, throwing in the occasional light snort, because I am, allegedly, prone to snoring, and I wasn't leaving anything to chance in selling this bit. To his credit, the man kept right on going. More recently, I abandoned my daughter at my parents' house for about an hour, but that was entirely her fault. She and I were sitting in the screen house with the old man while my mom was inside preparing something that would eventually be part of our dinner. After no more than ten minutes of being sequestered in that plotless tomb, my daughter, that lovely little coward, stood up and announced that she was going to go see if Nana needed any help. I shot her a look the significance of which could not be missed. Even with her back turned to me, I could tell she was smirking, the little shit. I sat there and took it, alone, for another twenty minutes -- my mind churning the whole time, trying to conjure a graceful escape plan or, failing that, willing a sinkhole to open in the earth beneath either my chair or his (but good god not both) and swallow one of us up -- when I finally hit upon an idea. It still took me ten minutes to get even a small word in edgewise, but I finally said, "Hey, I need to run down the road and talk to Hank about work on Monday." (Note: I sometimes paint with Hank, and he does indeed live down the road from my parents; I did not, however, need to speak to him about work on Monday.) I drove down the road, Hank handed me a beer, and then another, and I smoked many cigarettes and breathed the refreshing air of the sort of banter I can sink my teeth into: multi-voiced, wide-ranging, inclusive. I returned to my folks' place just as dinner was being put on the table. My daughter shot me a dirty look, and I shot one in return that said, "See what you get, you gutless chimp?"

From as far back as I can remember, I thought of my father as a storyteller. He has some stories, he's seen and done some things: I know this because every once in a great while over the last forty years I've heard him start to tell a story that made me sit up and pay attention. But then he gets distracted and sidetracks the story, and it ends up being about how someone else who was there confirmed to my father's satisfaction that whatever went wrong, it wasn't my father's fault. There are some compelling family secrets I've stumbled across, legacy type stuff, but I only know the titles of these stories because they're not the stories he tells. Instead, he tells stories like the time he was driving an eighteen-wheeler along a dark country road in northern Maine and he saw a deer in the road -- if you can believe that, a deer in the road in Maine -- and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to avoid the deer, afraid he was going to either imbed the thing in the grill of his rig or go off the road trying to avoid it. But by the time he saw the deer it was too late for him to do anything to alter the outcome, so he held onto the wheel and hoped for the best. And guess what happened? Nothing. The deer took three easy strides and my father went past without incident. That deer lived, but it cost me twenty minutes of my life I'll never get back.

I never met my father's parents. His father was gone long before I was born and sometime after that his mother moved to Florida, remarried, and then died when I was three or four. By all accounts she was a terrible person, mean and selfish and petty. But who knows? She found two men who were willing to marry her, and it certainly wasn't for her money, so she must have had some redeeming qualities. Or maybe she was just irresistibly charming when she had to be. I've never even seen a picture. He's never talked much about his mother, but the way he does speak of her is telling, never referring to her as anything other than "my mother" -- which is even more revealing by contrast to how he has always referred to his father: he calls him "Dad." "I pulled into the driveway and Dad was standing there with a live chicken in each hand and one squeezed between his knees." Tell me more . . . Seriously! What happened next? Well, whatever happened next, that wasn't where the story went. Guh. It's infuriating. Which is my way of saying that my bygone sense of my father as a storyteller was entirely misguided: my father is not a storyteller, he is a talker.

When I was a junior in college, my other grandfather died after seven years of slow, painful decline. He was the last of my grandparents, and because he was my mother's father and I tend to be more sensitive to that which affects my mom, I was more than usually engaged in this particular family event. Fortunately I chose to attend college very close to where I grew up, and so I was around all week as the preparations were being made. There were two nights of "viewings" (a ridiculous ritual, I have to say) at the funeral parlor, and I was there for my mom, chatting with relatives I barely knew and fielding questions from complete strangers who had known my grandfather decades before I existed (I resemble my grandfather, which was endlessly and, in fairness, not unreasonably fascinating to those curious mourners). At the close of the second wake, I found myself in the car with my father and brother, waiting for our mom to finish saying her goodbyes. Apparently there had been a woman there that night, someone my father had known in grade school or junior high, and sitting in the car with two of his sons, waiting for his grieving wife, my father was inexplicably talking about this woman -- inanely, really, because, whatever else he is, my father isn't stupid, nor is he unkind, he's just occasionally remarkably oblivious -- and at one point my father said, somewhat wistfully, that had things worked out differently, that woman could have turned out to be our mother.

I was, of course, only half paying attention, and so maybe I missed some useful context, but those last words struck me and for the next several moments I pondered the strangeness of this perspective: the notion that if he had married some other woman, we still would somehow have ended up being his progeny rather than our mother's and whomever she ended up with. I wasn't sure how to tackle that question: it seemed overwhelmingly multi-faceted, but more like an amoeba than a D&D die, with nothing concrete to put my finger on. I was still turning it over in my head when I vaguely heard my brother ask the old man how his father had died. "By his own hand," our father replied.

Several beats of silence later I said, "Wait, what?"

"He went out to the back field with his gun," my father said, "and that was that."

The passenger door opened then and Mom climbed into the car, shaking off the cold. Under the circumstances, with our mother preparing to watch her father be lowered into a hole in the ground the following day, I knew we wouldn't be discussing the topic of my other grandfather any further.

That happened more than twenty years ago, and not once in all that time have I managed to find a way to ask about my grandfather's suicide. At first it was because I had no idea how to approach a person who has lost someone in that way, and regardless of the fact that the person is my father, we'd never had the kind of relationship where we talk about anything important or meaningful -- we've never really talked about anything, actually. He talks, I endure. When I talk, he changes the subject, and that's another part of why I haven't broached the grandfather topic in the subsequent years: inadvertently or not, he's a rude and self-absorbed conversationalist. He doesn't appear to care about what anyone else is saying, unless they're talking about him, and even then he'd rather do it himself. But mostly I just don't have the stomach for listening to him anymore. I am reluctant to ask him anything because I can't bear the thought of being trapped in one of his meandering journeys through conversations he recalls verbatim with people he always thinks I know but whom in truth I've never even heard of. And that really is a terrible thing, people, because he's my father, and he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, and he could almost certainly use some company once in a while (my mother appears to be his only consistent friend). At the very least, I suppose I should take some of the heat off of her, now that they're both retired. I'll take that under advisement.

Here's the thing, though: my father and I have nothing but blood in common. I mean, yeah, I grew up in his house, so we shared some experiences. One summer while he was the keeper of the town dump (that was his job for several years when I was a kid), he let me go to work with him and dig around for bottles and cans so I could make a little money, enough to buy a pair of sneakers come basketball season. We spent a fair amount of time together that summer, and I'd say we probably had some yucks, but mostly I was left to my own devices to wander the piles and think my deep thoughts. I suppose it's a little sad to think the only good times I've ever had with my old man were spent at the dump. But it would be sadder if we didn't even have that.

I often tell people that my father never taught me anything. Part of me suspects that's not true, and I imagine a day in the future, maybe after he's gone, when I'll recall some valuable technique or life lesson he introduced me to. I can say without reservation that, entirely incidentally, he did bestow one gift for which I am grateful: he demonstrated by default how to be a good father. I'm far from perfect as a dad, but goddamn do I find my kid interesting, and I let her know that in no uncertain terms on a regular basis. As much as I rue the prospect of finding myself the sole beneficiary of my father's endless blather, I experience an equal but opposite sensation at the prospect of listening to my daughter's voice. She and I just had lunch, and she told me about her Thanksgiving in New York, why she dug the Seurat painting she saw at the Met, how much she loved her first experience with soup dumplings, how she met B.D. Wong at the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. She told me about the play she's auditioning for this week (Into the Woods), told me in a firm, unyielding voice she will be Cinderella. She recited from memory the poem she read at her school's Poetry Out Loud competition. She even told me a tiny bit about the boy she likes. She's a cool chick, and I feel pretty lucky that I get to be the guy sitting across the table from her, listening to her stories. And I feel bad for any parent who never manages to find out how cool his kid can be. Sucks to be you, Dad. But thanks for the perspective.

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