If I were a different person, I’d start by parodying every other writer whom I have admired. Their lines rush through my head and cram into my fingers. Turns of phrases drip from my broken nails. The problem with being a lover of words lies in the propensity to lose one’s self in their fluid movement across the page. The story recedes; only the lyric flow of its telling captures my attention.
I’m not a Garrison Keillor fan, per se, but whose ears don’t prick when you hear him say, It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town.
I sit at my desk in Kansas City eating leftover roasted root vegetables and drinking yesterday’s coffee from a stolen mug. The strands of Barbra Streisand float through my mind. I’m wearing second-hand hats, second-hand clothes, that’s why they call me, Second-Hand Rose. . .My father would play that song, over and over, and tell me that I was his Second-Hand Rose.
The idea of fathers has haunted me this week. Stories of other people’s tragic relationship with their fathers engulfed me, a tidal wave of emotion that pulled me under and threatened to dash me against the rocks. If I did not love anyone; if the peace of their spirit meant nothing to me; then whether they resolved their anguish over an absent or terrible father would not trouble me. If I had not spent sixty years resolving my own grief about the failings of my father, I might feel smug when I hear their stories.
Instead, I find myself searching through the discard pile for a little anecdote about a forgotten child; a remembered gesture; a half-raised hand. A phone call: How much did he weigh? What will you name him? Is he healthy? A friend sitting by my hospital bed with an affidavit across which a name has been carelessly scrawled. He will come. But then: I don’t believe it. I’m not even sure the signature is real. But I eagerly gobble the reassurance, which makes the disappointment even harder to bear. Disappointment mingles with love and hovers over the innocent, sleeping child. My heart breaks.
I wanted him to have a better father than I did.
Scientists crook their eyebrows heavenward when we cling to the pureness of our memories. But here is a memory by which I will swear. . .
I’m six or seven, I think. I have two long fat braids on either side of a wide freckled face. My sister Adrienne says that I have a button nose. My legs stumble in their heavy shoes. A plaid dress skims my hobbled knees, one thin, one swollen. But my white socks have been neatly folded over my ankles and my hands are clean.
I’m standing in my backyard. My mother herds the boys in the direction of the picnic table while the older girls sit neatly on their side of the bench. My father leans over the stone fire place and pushes a hot dog away from the heat. His fork pierces its skin and juices run over the grill. Flames spit and I step back, but not too far. Horrified and mesmerized in turns: I cannot blink or rub the smoke from my eyes. I clutch a paper plate onto which my father eases the hot dog.
Go get a bun, Mary, he suggests, in a gentle voice. I raise my face towards his. He nods. Then go ahead inside.
He knows that I don’t like to eat outdoors. As I go over to the table and fix the hot dog with relish and mustard, my brothers start to tease me. I’m wearing a dress. I washed my hands without protest. I hold the paper plate as though it were china. Miss Priss! they call. Mary Mary Quite Contrary! one of them says. My mother tells them, That’s enough, but they jeer louder and louder until my father snaps. Leave her alone. His voice holds promise of serious repercussions for defiance.
They fall silent. I walk away, towards the gate, my little shoulders hunched and still. I don’t want to stand with my father against my big brothers. It’s a dangerous alliance. There will be dark hours when I need the boys’ protection from his drunken wrath. But neither do I want to sit in the sticky July heat swatting at yellow jackets. My dad’s permission lets me slip inside to eat at the table. I go. But I make it only as far as the back porch before I start to cry. As I struggle through the screen door, I hear my brothers’ laughter rising on the summer air, mingling with the haze, crackling in the shimmering sun.
For years, I could not sort the tangled mess of the threads which tied me to my father. Nor had I been able to sever those binds with even the sharpest of scissors. I let the snarled ropes drag my pace. I got used to manipulating the mess as I maneuvered through life. But one day, when I was not looking, those lines went slack. I took a few timid steps, astonished, disbelieving. I eased away from the sackcloth to which those threads had been sewn, letting it fall to the ground.
I continued my journey, onward, upward, no longer fettered by that careless, terrible shroud, no longer dancing to the jerk of the strings by an unseen hand. I’m still amazed at the incredible lightness of my body, the sureness of my step, and the unbridled joy of soaring. It’s a little frightening, to be free of the burden which I carried like a sacred duty. But I fly. I fly! And, oh, how glorious it feels!
BARBRA STREISAND AT CENTRAL PARK, 1967