My father’s apartment overflows with books. There are wooden bookcases against every possible wall space, stacks of books piled on the top shelves, books crammed into the spaces between the bottom shelf and the floor, and books in cardboard boxes in the attic. There are also several stacks of four or five books each next to his bed, on the dining room table and on top of the upright piano. Most are worn paperbacks. Later, when he finds out he is dying, he buys heavy hardcover books in shiny jackets, credit card receipts marking his place. “This is your inheritance!” he jokes, throwing his arms up wide. “Books and dust.”
A teacher of politics and a writer of political commentary, my father considers fiction an important way of getting at the truth. He is shocked to find that most of his contemporaries, men in their 50s and 60s, read only non-fiction.
“I said to Lou Swartz the other day, I said, ‘Lou, just reading nonfiction is like walking into a restaurant, taking the menu, and ripping it in half. Why would you go through life with no dessert?'”
In the early 70s, we lived in a commune in Upstate New York with several other left-wing families. In my memories it is a place of golden light, a run-down mansion with window seats and hidden closets with a pear tree and vegetable garden in back. Later, my father told me that some of the adults wanted to be more radical, wanted to escape all of the trappings of the bourgeois nuclear family, by giving up individual ownership over their children. “They wanted to take turns reading bedtime stories to the kids,” my father remembered. “I told them, you aren’t going to keep me from reading my daughters their bedtime stories. I’m not interested in rotating that.”
My father’s bedtime stories were funny. Our edition of “Hansel and Gretel” had weirdly stylized drawings that gave the characters eyes and dot noses, but no mouths. He referred to them as “no-mouth Hansel” and “no-mouth Gretel” and described the poignancy of children without mouths finding a house made of candy. “Oh, Daddy. That’s not how it goes!” we shrieked, delighted. Years later, I overheard him reading a “Hardy Boys” mystery to my little brother. “Then Tom Hardy wrestled the mysterious man to the edge of the cliff,” he read. “They both rolled off the cliff and died. And now the rest of the books are called The Hardy Boy Mysteries.”
On his bookshelf, among books on the rise of fascism or grass roots political movements, I stumbled across James Baldwin, Edith Wharton, Vladimir Nabokov, and Raymond Carver. Books were just there, the way that dinner is on the table. The first book my father gave me is Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? I was lanky and shy at 13 but starting to notice the way that older boys eyed me at the local pool. Oates’ thick paperback described the private world of teenage girls, a world of dreamy promise, menace and aching change. It seemed remarkable to me that a grown up’s book could capture my own cloudy, secret yearnings. I loved curling up on the couch and escaping into the imaginary world of The Hobbit and The Secret Garden, but this was different. Now I realized that stories tell the truth.
My father prodded me to write fiction. “That would make a good short story,” he suggested after I sobbingly describe how Luis, my boyfriend of eight years, folded his clothes into tight, meticulous squares the day he walked out on me. My father was particularly taken with the idea that I write about living in Montana, when I just wanted to escape. “Write a short story about each person you’ve gotten to know and call the collection ‘The Montana Stories.'” We were driving south on Highway 51. It was dusk and the last light of the day cast that golden pearly light over the fields of cattle. “This isn’t interesting to me, this isn’t material, this is my life!” I shouted.
I turned onto the rutted dirt road leading to the small white house that was originally a hunting cabin. To the left of the road dipped the valley and the red brick buildings of the college. To the right was the uneven silhouette of the Blacktail Mountains. “A place never feels like home until you’ve fallen in love there,” my father mused. “After that, every street, every store becomes invested with meaning.”
During a routine procedure to install a feeding tube, my father developed an allergic reaction to the local anesthetic and stopped breathing. Panicking, the doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy, slicing across his throat in one swift, deep cut. Waking up in the ICU, my father discovered he could not speak. He scrawled on a small pad of paper in uneven, shaky letters, “Where am I?” We told him what had happened, that he had almost died, that he was okay now, and that he would not be able to speak for many days. He insisted on writing a letter to the male nurse who took care of him in the ICU. “You were very kind to me,” he wrote. “You touched my forehead during the night and your presence was very comforting.”
When friends visited, I translated for him. My father told me later that I was uncannily accurate in translating his facial grimaces and gestures into words. I joked with him about our one-sided conversations. “Dad, I really think these are the best talks we’ve ever had!” He rolled his eyes and smiled. A gentle Israeli woman with a lilting accent brought him a butter-colored lap blanket. My father unfolded the soft fabric and smiled, pantomiming his pleasure. It was a thoughtful gift, since my father had lost one-third of his body weight and was often cold. I decided to joke, “Dad is trying to say, ‘What the hell is this shitty thing?’ ” His eyes opened wide in mock consternation. Across the room from one another we were ventriloquist and dummy.
My sister and brother asked me to speak at the university’s memorial for my father. There was nothing I wanted more than to speak about him, but I felt guilty. As the eldest, I knew I had done more than my share of the talking. “Are you guys sure neither of you wants to speak?” I asked. My brother looked terrified, “Are you kidding? Please, you do it.” My sister waved her hand in front of her face and shook her head.
The memorial itself was disappointing — the room was nondescript and the crowd thin — but I was touched by the odd assortment of those gathered. I saw several former students of my father, now middle-aged men; my favorite English professor, my father’s college roommate, a neighbor. I wanted to make a grand speech, one that would sum up my father’s life, one that would match his easy eloquence. I considered quoting from Orwell or including a passage from a Sharon Olds poem. But in the end, I wrote nothing down.
Five minutes before the service started, I felt surprisingly calm. I turned to take my seat and then was suddenly face to face with Luis. He was broader now and wore a dark gray suit. He stood facing me and cried without embarrassment. All of my hard-won composure dissolved and I burst into tears. One of my father’s friends leaned over to my sister and asked who I was talking to. My sister told him and he nodded his head, “Oh, so that’s Luis.” Later, my sister and I laughed, realizing that almost everyone in that room knew the intimate details of our lives. We were our father’s stories.
Calm again, I began my speech, “Others here will speak of my father’s pedagogical and political integrity. I am here to speak about his integrity as a father.”I stood with my shoulders back, facing the room. “I used to call my father at 3am–” An unexpected thickness choked me. My face flushed and my eyes watered. “I asked my dad once if he worried that I cried so easily.” A gray-haired woman I didn’t recognize looked stricken and I looked away. “He told me, no, it’s a sign of sanity to cry when you’re sad.” People’s faces relaxed and they laughed lightly. For the next ten minutes I described my father, my long arms waving in the air, my eyebrows raised, my voice deep and rich. The similarity of our gestures could turn my features into his. Afterwards, people touched my arm, held my hand, and embraced me as if they were touching my father. But it was my voice now and these were my stories.