I am trying to write a memoir about my relationship with my father and I keep writing variations of the phrase, “My father died almost eighteen years ago.” Why do I prefer this phrasing to “My father has been dead almost eighteen years?” Something active about the revision. Something alive: My father died. Even in that ending he was acting. To be dead is to be passive, acted upon by dirt and time. I am mostly fine telling people that my father died but I find every day, even eighteen years later, that I am just not ready for my father to be dead.
When I was a twelve years old, I found my grandmother sobbing in her bedroom. It scared me — she was a woman of exquisite restraint and composure — and I asked her what was wrong. “I miss your grandfather,” she said. Oh, I thought, is that all? I was relieved but confounded: my grandfather had died when I was eighteen months old. My only connection to him were some pictures of him holding me as a newborn and a pair of my patent-leather baby shoes in which, a month before he died, my grandfather drew a small, crooked smiley face in blue ball point pen, and scrawled, “Dear Sheila, this was the nicest gift I got. I love you. Grandpa.” When I hold them now, nearly 40 years later, I can almost feel the way his hand shook as he wrote — all the love and fear, all the tension and energy of living and dying inscribed on the dingy white insole.
Apart from the shoes, which I treasure, I have nothing tangible to remind me, no memories of him at all. I recall wondering how my grandmother could be that upset over something that had happened so long ago. I was foolish. Of course, my grandfather’s death was not a “something” but a “someone.” I was a child the day my grandmother sobbed quietly in her bedroom over the man with whom she had lived for 28 years, the man with whom she had conceived twelve children, the man who had mourned with her the one child who died nine days after he was born. To me, my grandfather was much the same as the pictures in my father’s National Geographic magazines of WWI soldiers or Chinese emperors of the Ming Dynasty. He was part of the Society of the Long Dead. But to my grandmother, his absence on that day was as near and real to her as it had been the day he died.
I understand this now. I know what it is to glance backward at five years or twelve years or more and see the landscape blur as it does from the window of a speeding car. To see it go that fast. I know how easy it is to conjure the dead, the past, the love, the skin, the warm smell of a man in a v-neck sweater. I am doing it right now; I cannot stop. I see him sitting cross-legged in a woven lawn chair in summer, drinking cold beer, eating deep-fried banana peppers and sweating from sun and spice. There he is pouring a second cup of coffee kissed with cinnamon from the pot I brewed for him. I am shaking through each of these sentences, stopping to remove my glasses and press my eyes so I won’t cry in this public place where I am trying to write, where Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson are playing from the speakers. I pause, listen, and think: my father loved this music.
My father’s picture hangs on what my husband and I jokingly call The Wall of Death in our home — a crisp and clear picture of a man whose very smell I can still recall, whose sensual essence lives on in me, in the rituals I’ve created, the tastes I savor, the meals I cook to honor and sustain him. But who is he to my four-year-old son and my two-year-old daughter but another member of that Society of the Long Dead? Quantifiable as fact. Static as biography. As dead as emperors and soldiers and great-grandfathers? Deader than dead. As dead as dead can be.
He died thirteen years before my son, who inherited his huge blue eyes, was even born. I try to tell him and his sister about their grandfather. I point out his pictures and tell them stories I think will charm them, make them laugh. “Your grandpa had a sweet tooth. He used to hide tins of Danish butter cookies he under his bed, but we always found them. And once he ate a plateful of Christmas cookies before realizing they had been painted with Elmer’s Glue to use as ornaments on the tree. He laughed when we told him, said they were the best cookies he had ever tasted!”
They are so young still and hardly understand what it means to live, let alone what it means to die. I want them to learn from their grandfather’s catholic palate, his delight in discovering some new fruit in the grocery store or an unusual preparation at a restaurant. I cherish this side of my father — this fully sensual, fully present, wholly animal element. But I know I can’t give my children the actual meals I had with him in white-clothed dining rooms and grubby pizza joints. They will never feel his hand reaching behind the front seat of the car to squeeze their knees, the way he did to my sister and me. But I have to give them something.
So I want this memoir to be horned melon and star fruit plucked from the produce aisle, salt-dough ornaments on a live tree sprinkled with white lights. Polished patent-leather and a message written in steady blue ink. Something they can hold in their hands. Something they can see and touch and feel.
I want to write about the meals my father and I shared because they were the glue that held our relationship together and because I have, in the eighteen years since he died, become the foodie that he was. In the last years of his life, my father had traveled all over the world for his job with IBM, bringing back ornately costumed dolls for my sister and me, and a taste for global cuisine.
I remember so much about the food itself, the way, for instance, the air in the first Indian restaurant he ever took me to was so redolent of curry and cardamom that my hair was perfumed by it hours after the meal had ended. I could write that scene now with little effort, describing a nineteen-year-old’s thrill of anticipation and slight terror at this new, strange food.
I could describe my mother’s hearty and delicious roasted chickens, baked zitis, and green bean casseroles laid out on the solid oak dining table in our blue-curtained kitchen, and then paint a contrasting image of the red and gold tapestries, the jeweled portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses that hung on the wall next to that restaurant table, how they glittered and swayed lightly every time the door opened to admit another hungry patron. I could talk about how the word “exotic” was the one playing over and over again in my mind as we ate crispy papadums and spicy Chana Dal cooled with raita.
I could even reflect studiously on my younger self, the one new to world cuisine, and observe that the perfumed air was actually heavy with oil and, in truth, quite difficult to breathe. Not, perhaps, the mark of an excellent restaurant. I could critique the ethnocentrism, the racism, even, embedded in my reliance on that word, “exotic.” I could be that self-aware. My problem is not in remembering the food or the senses surrounding it. It is in remembering my father as a narrative whole.
Last night in bed, I said to my husband, “I don’t have a very good memory.” I was recounting a conversation I had had earlier that day with a girlfriend in which we shared stories of some of the more difficult parts of our growing up — relationship stories about who did what to whom and when. As she was describing the current situation between her and her mother-in-law, it was clear that she was building her narrative, and thus, my ability to follow and understand it, upon details she had shared with me previously.
“I remember the first conversations,” I told my husband, “and I have a sort of diffuse sense that there is some trouble in that relationship, but no matter how I try, I cannot recall the specifics. The details are lost to me.”
“That’s just a different kind of memory,” he countered. “You remember so much about the way things tasted or felt or about the quality of sunlight on a particular day in mid-summer. Maybe what you have is a sensory memory.”
Yes, maybe. But I have been worrying that a sensory memory is not a complete enough memory to accomplish the task of this memoir. Whole conversations that I know my father and I had are more than murky. I can see us sitting in his car outside of my college dorm the warm spring day I had to leave, sobbing and ashamed, my suite full of girlfriends and get a “psychiatric single room” in a dorm on the far side of campus. I remember the feel of the black felted seats under my worrying fingers, and an overwhelming, surprising sense that he understood the exact shape and depth of my pain. But what did we say? Add to this the fact that my father was a terse, quiet man who largely kept his mouth closed unless he had something “important” to say, and what’s left is, at best, a silhouette, a profile, a shadow. I want his words to fill the picture in and they are precisely what I don’t have.
I began writing about my father at the beginning of my senior year of college, three weeks after his funeral on that blue-sky August day, and I spent that semester wandering around campus in a fog, sometimes making it to class, oftentimes opting to stay curled under blankets on the bed in my dorm room. I skipped so many classes in one course that by rights I shouldn’t have been allowed to pass it or graduate. Only the compassion of my professors and poetry buoyed me through. I wrote and wrote that year, a series of poems documenting the ten days my forty-six-year-old father spent in ICU with a rare brain illness before we turned off life support. They were savage things, pulsing with pain and confusion and anger. It was the sort of project I now steer my own students away from, cautioning them against writing while still so close to the locus of their grief. But my thesis advisor, a man who introduced me to the poetry of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath — poetry that dwelled in the body and all its rough textures — knew that I needed to immerse myself. Embrace grief. Ingest it in order to survive it.
When I was in elementary school, our family moved from Kentucky to New Jersey. I was so bereft at leaving my friends that I forced myself to recite their names every day, convinced that as long as I could say them out loud, I would remember them. It was the same principle: as long as I could conjure every wrenching detail of my father’s dying, as long as I could put myself back inside it, I would be able to keep him with me.
In graduate school ten years later, I was still writing about his dying, only now with more distance and, I hoped, more art. I was the Woman Who Wrote about Her Father in workshop. In three years, I don’t think I made more than a handful of poems that didn’t spring straight from those ten days I spent in the ICU waiting room, waiting for my father’s body to shut down. I was trying to capture him in words and I was failing. The poems kept trying to define and classify. They made sweeping statements about loss that I thought I believed in before closing themselves up into neat little packages of still-raw pain. I could not see their artifice until my thesis advisor, the man who introduced me to Lynn Hejinian and Claudia Rankine, poets of extension and non-closure asked me, carefully, “Do you really want to keep your father inside a poem?”
No. I write because I want to continue my father, not contain him. I write about eating with him to delay his induction into my grandfather’s dusty club, to keep him vital for myself and for my children. Because nothing is more open-ended than food. No matter how much we eat, we must keep eating. We will never, in this life, be sated.
In writing my memoir, I had almost convinced myself that the gaps in my memory, the silences between us, would mean my ultimate failure. I thought I needed his words to preserve him, but my father used words — spoken and swallowed — to keep all of us at a careful remove. To recall his words would be to recall a sound bite, a masterfully written script. An echo.
With each year that passes, I get that much closer to living longer than he did. He fades in and out like an erratic radio transmission, mostly weak and far away, but sometimes sharp and clear and nearer to me than my own voice.
When I cook and when I eat, I can hear my father — the self-made foodie who loved, as I once wrote in a poem, “all things edible, random and odd.” He speaks his signature superlative, “Tremendous,” while his thin fingers hold salmon sushi glistening between wooden chopsticks. I can taste turtle soup studded with sherry from a crystal cruet and seaweed culled from the beach outside our hotel in Hawaii — how it popped in our mouths like fish eggs, rolling over our tongues.
I can also remember his blue eyes shot with red from years of avoiding his glasses and the deep scars on his leg where a dog mauled him as a child. I can remember his arm thrown hard against my chest as he braked the car in front of a motorcycle accident, Jackie Wilson crooning as we passed the wreck. I can remember his preference for women with faces scrubbed of makeup and barber-short hair, and his penchant for wearing soft v-neck sweaters, jeans and brown leather deck shoes. I can remember what he smelled like — ‘Lectric Shave and cigarette smoke. Peppermints and cardamom and curry.
I can remember. I will. I do.