Until I was old enough and sufficiently well informed to engage in arguments with my father, we did not have a lot to say to each other. On their wedding night, my father said to my mother, “I don’t know anything about girls. You take care of the girls. I’ll take care of the boys.”
I do wonder how he managed to grow up in a cramped, two-bedroom house alongside eight siblings, four of whom were sisters, without developing some insight into the female experience and although I have early memories of him reading the Hardy Boys to my older brother and me, his ruling over who would be raised by whom probably accounts for the lifelong state of unease that existed between us.
It was important to my father that I remain healthy and do well in school but I never sensed additional interest in the fact that I was taking ballet lessons or earning my Brownie Girl Scout Wings or swimming at the Y on Saturday mornings or spending most Sunday afternoons visiting the snakes in the reptile wing at the Staten Island Zoo.
I don’t recall talking to him about whether I was adjusting and making new friends whenever he moved us to another town or which scientific principle I planned to demonstrate at the science fair or how I was going to choose between being an actress, an archeologist or a psychiatrist when I grew up. He could be familiar with my three brothers, but when it came to my sister and me, he was gentlemanlike, aloof and shy about knowing too much.
One day when I was twelve, I flopped down on the living room floor with a notebook and pen to catch up on my diary. My father sat in his chair on the other side of the room reading the newspaper. He was always reading a newspaper. Once, when deliveries were delayed, he drove fifty miles through a blizzard to score a Sunday Times.
I enjoyed a close relationship with my diary. Although I dreamed of being different things when I grew up, I never dreamed of being a writer, for the simple fact that I was a writer. It was what I did. I wrote. I had just completed my first novel.
Something—what, exactly, I’ll never know—compelled my father to look up from his newspaper and ask, “What are you doing?”
Since his eyes darted straight back to the paper, I am sure he didn’t see my mouth drop open at this extraordinary display of interest in my life. I may have squirmed as I answered, “Writing in my diary.”
“Are you keeping a diary?” he asked.
“Yes.” I could not be sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, so I left it at that.
“That’s great,” he said.
“Because you never know, do you? The world could end tomorrow. But maybe centuries from now, maybe thousands of years into the future, when everything here is ashes and dust, beings from another planet will discover Earth and start digging things up. Their archeologists could dig up your diary and find out about life on Earth in the twentieth century. You could be making a real contribution to the scheme of things.”
I believe he got up and wandered off at this point. I know he did not see the mix of fear, astonishment and elation on my face. I had never heard my father imagine such a thing. He was a Harvard-educated, man-in-a-gray-flannel-suit type of guy, a public relations executive who read murder mysteries to relax and, to stay informed, 800-page tomes on history or current events.
He did not read science fiction, which might explain why he didn’t ask by what miracle, fluke, or technological wonder the paper and ink of my diary would survive centuries or how these aliens would happen to understand English or why my loose-leaf notebooks would be the only account of the twentieth century to have withstood the nuclear or environmental holocaust that destroyed Earth. These things did not matter. It was the thought that mattered.
This was a time in my life when my fear and loathing of death had achieved tortuous proportions. I frequently woke up in the middle of the night trapped inside the void, gripped by the ultimate, absolute, inescapable horror of death-as-nothing-forever. If death was the end, then life was pointless. Period. On the nights, and there were many, when I feared falling so far into the void that I would never return because I’d either be dead or insane, I would go to my parents’ room, and shake my mother awake, weeping and asking, “Why are we here? What’s it all for?”
I don’t remember what she said. (Maybe I can find it in the pages of my diary.) What I do remember clearly is how my father’s vision opened up the universe for me. The possibility, although remote to the point of silly, that my diary might survive some immense stretch of time until beings from another planet turned up our remains, that my words might be found like an arrow head or a pharaoh’s tomb and communicate something of value to another time and civilization felt oddly reassuring. It closed a loop somewhere. It brought me into the world and connected me to other times and places, no matter how distant, no matter how far. And so I continued to write.
Possibly, however, what impressed and pleased me most was the fact that my father had taken something I did seriously.
Years later, as my father lay dying, he prepared final requests for each one of his children. My mother called them our marching orders.
“Write,” he told me. “Write seriously. Write novels.”
I was amazed because my father and I had spent the past twenty years arguing over the fact that I was trying to be a writer instead of something sensible. As I sat with him during the last four hours of his super sensible life, he amazed me even more and broke my heart to pieces when he said, “Think of me from time to time.”
As if I wouldn’t.
There are many reasons for wanting to write. For me, high on the list, perhaps even higher than the chance of being discovered by aliens wielding hand brooms and trowels a hundred thousand years from now, is a desire to write for, and sometimes about, a difficult, complex, and vulnerable man who did not wish to be forgotten.
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