Hunting for the Plot will soon be available on Amazon in a paperback and Kindle edition. We have run into difficulties with the free Kindle offer, so instead we have decided to offer the book as a serial here on hints and echoes, a chapter at a time (shades of Charles Dickens).
I wrote this book mainly for myself, hoping to understand my parents (and myself) better. But as the book took shape over many years, I realized that I was also doing it for my children and their children’s children, to give them some idea of who they are and where they came from. My distant descendants may also recognize in themselves some characteristics of their forebears. Families are far more tightly knit than I once thought.
Sales from this book are not going to provide for me in my retirement. If that had been my purpose in writing it, I would have written about celebrities, zombies, or politicians. Nevertheless, my conceit is such that I think my book may hold some interest for people I have never met. They—you—have parents, too, whom they want to remember and understand.
Chapter One — My Father’s Funeral
Just when we begin to understand our parents, they die, leaving us knowing them better in some ways than we will ever know anyone else, and yet really not knowing them at all.
“I thought you was him!” cried the old man, seizing my arm.
“Him” was my father, whose corpse lay in the coffin beside us.
I concealed my surprise and said something appropriate. But later, standing before a mirror, I realized he was right. And I resembled my mother, too. It gave me a strange feeling. My primary aim in life had always been to be as unlike them as possible.
They drove my sister to drink, my brother to paroxysms of indignation, and sometimes made me literally sick—faintness, stomach cramps, and a low fever. My sister and brother left Kansas City to get away from them. I left the country. But no matter how far we went, they would come to see us, reduce us to emotional rubble, and then, after declaring that they were proud of us, go home, totally oblivious of the devastation they left behind.
We hadn’t turned out as bad as they’d feared, but we certainly weren’t the people they’d hoped we’d be. So when my father decided to set up a trust for his wife and children, he announced he was going to appoint my sister’s ex-husband (who had since remarried) to administer it. I told him that wouldn’t do. He was taken aback—hurt by my attitude. Neither he nor my mother were ever able to accept the fact that my sister was divorced.
Right after Sis graduated from college she went to New York and found a job as a textile designer. But her boyfriend followed her. He proposed and persuaded her to come back to Kansas City. As the years passed, she came to see herself through the eyes of her husband and her parents and to believe she was as helpless and ornamental as they thought she was.
Our parents could not imagine why she was unhappy. She had everything a woman could want: a big house, a car, a cleaning lady. When her husband filed for a divorce, they were sure it was she who had filed.
“He didn’t hit her, did he?” said my father.
“No, of course not.”
“I don’t understand,” he said and turned away. I was glad because I didn’t understand either. All I knew was that it was complicated.
My parents remained close to my sister’s former husband and tried to ignore her divorce. This became more difficult after both of them remarried, but even then, my mother could not bring herself to say “ex-husband” or “new husband.” She referred to my sister’s new husband as “this way” and to her old husband as “that other way.” Eventually, she conceded that something was wrong with my sister’s first marriage, but “that other way” remained her favorite.
My father had his trust redrawn but told my mother—who told me—that he couldn’t understand what I was objecting to. After all, my brother and I were teachers and my sister was a girl. What could we know about money?
Mother told me she didn’t understand either.
And of course, I didn’t understand what they didn’t understand.
So we left it at that.
After reluctantly naming me a co-trustee with his man at the bank, my father assured me “the bank” would take care of everything. That was fine with me. I forgot all about his trust. But now he was dead, and I had to consult my co-trustee and make arrangements for the care of my mother, which brought home to me that I didn’t know much about either of my parents.
Oh, I knew their preferences, mannerisms, and expressions. Early on, I’d learned to predict their behavior pretty accurately. But that was surface knowledge. Was there anything more to them—anything deeper?
Dad would repeat a few polished anecdotes about his childhood, but when asked for more information, he’d hide behind his newspaper and say, “Water over the dam, son.”
Mother was even less responsive: “The future is what counts. You aren’t inheriting anything, you know!”
And so my questions went unformulated, unasked, and unanswered. Was it true that my mother used to have a job downtown? How did she and my father meet? What did they see in each other? How come my father ended up working for a sash and door company? Had he ever dreamed of doing something else? Whatever happened to my mother’s unmentionable father? I didn’t even know his name—or those of my father’s parents and grandparents. And where did Gram and Auntie get the money to see five movies every week? As far as I knew, neither of them had ever had a job.
I never expected to learn the answers to these questions and didn’t think I cared to. But when my father was seventy, he surprised me by writing a short memoir. I urged my mother to write one, too. Alarmed, she pooh-poohed the idea. I appealed to her competitive instinct. She didn’t want Dad getting ahead of her, did she? Finally she came through. But unlike Dad, who wanted to get his story “on the record,” she wanted to get hers “off her chest.” He began his memoir, “Life has been good to me.” She began hers, “The only relative I have of note is my grandfather, George Wilson.” That was her way of putting her mother and her grandmother in their place right from the start. (1)
At the end of her short memoir Mother added (to my surprise): “Thank you, Herb [me, not my father] for pushing me into this. For too long I remembered all the wrong things. It has been gratifying to revisit all the wonderful people who have more than made up for any unusual situation at home. Truly, all things do work together for good.”
My parents did not even try to tell the whole truth about their lives. They had too much pride in the images of themselves that they had created to be frank about their origins. On the other hand, they couldn’t take pride in how far they’d come without revealing something about where they’d come from, and while they may not have remembered everything accurately, I’m sure they never lied. They believed a person had a right to be discrete but not to lie.
But since they were not practiced writers, they sometimes revealed more than they intended—hints that explained things I’d overheard when I was a child or that explained the existence of things that I’d found while exploring the attic—a book, for instance, called The Art of Drawing the Nude. In the 1930s that was not something that a boy could ask his parents about—at least not in our house.
After my parents wrote their memoirs, they could accept some questions about their childhoods, but they were still cagey. They didn’t mind questions like “What was a Fatima card?” or “What year did you run away from home?,” but they brushed aside questions about their feelings. They didn’t want to say anything that might be interpreted “the wrong way.”
Thinking about Dad after his funeral, I remembered a conversation we had in 1981. Mary and I had retired from our jobs with the Panama Canal Company and moved to western Massachusetts. My parents came to see us. As my father and I walked down Main Street in Great Barrington, we had the most personal conversation we ever had. It lasted no more than a minute. Mary and I had written a couple of books. He was wondering if I might be able to “do something” with his memoir.
I thought I knew what he had in mind—something on the order of Our Hearts were Young and Gay but set in the Ozarks—something that improved his stories without changing them. We were both acutely embarrassed. He knew as soon as he started talking that I didn’t think what he was asking was possible. I pretended to think it could be done. But he understood. On the other hand, I sensed that there was more to what he’d said than what I’d heard, and that night, with some distance between us, I realized what it was. What he was saying, though not in so many words, was, “Remember me.”
To Be Continued . . . .