My father could spin garbage… into gold. He could transfigure a room with the smallest offhand flourish… he was an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a Daedalus of decor.
Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit. Sort of like a still life with children.
I developed a contempt for useless ornament… If anything, they obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies. My father…used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable.
…his absence resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence… But I ached as if he were already gone.
It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with The Addams Family…The captions eluded me, as did the ironic reversal of suburban conformity. Here were the familiar dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings of my own home.
Joan drove home with me and we arrived that evening. My little brother John and I greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.
You would also think that a childhood spent in such close proximity to the workaday incidentals of death would be good preparation. That when someone you knew actually died, maybe you’d get to skip a phase or two of the grieving process… But in fact, all the years spent visiting gravediggers, joking with burial-vault salesmen, and teasing my brothers with crushed vials of smelling salts only made my own father’s death more incomprehensible.
My father’s death was a queer business—queer in every sense of that multivalent word…but most compellingly at the time, his death was bound up for me with the one definition conspicuously missing from our mammoth Webster’s.
I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy… I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit.
The line that dad drew between reality and fiction was indeed a blurry one. To understand this, one had only to enter his library… And if my father liked to imagine himself as a nineteenth century aristocrat overseeing his estate from behind the leather-topped mahogany and brass second-empire desk… did that require such a leap of the imagination? Perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing, so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense… and becomes, for all practical purposes, real.
I think what was so alluring to my father about Fitzgerald’s stories was their inextricability from Fitzgerald’s life. Such a suspension of the imaginary in the real was, after all, my father’s stock in trade. And living with it took a toll on the rest of us.
I employ these allusions… not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.
My parents met, I eventually extracted from my mother, in a performance of The Taming of the Shrew… It’s a troubling play, of course. The willful Katherine’s spirit is broken by the mercenary, domineering Petruchio… Even in those prefeminist days, my parents must have found this relationship model to be problematic. They would probably have been appalled at the suggestion that their own marriage would play out in a similar way.
Proust would have intense, emotional friendships with fashionable women… but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender—the narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.
I sensed a chink in my family’s armor, an undefended gap in the circle of our wagons which cried out, it seemed to me, for some plain, two-fisted sinew.
In an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed.
As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl… “John! C’mere! … Call me Albert instead of Alison.” My brother ignored me. But looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition…
Our sun rose over Bald Eagle Mountain’s hazy blue flank. And it set behind the strip mine-pocked plateau… with similar perversity, the sparkling creek that coursed down from the plateau and through our town was crystal clear precisely because it was polluted… wading in this fishless creek and swooning at the salmon sky, I learned firsthand that most elemental of all ironies… that, as Wallace Stevens put it in my mom’s favorite poem, “Death is the mother of beauty.”
…The most arresting thing about the tape is its evidence of both my parents at work, intent and separate… It’s childish, perhaps, to grudge them the sustenance of their creative solitude. But it was all that sustained them, and thus was all-consuming. From their example, I learned quickly to feed myself.
…I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals—and not just in a perfunctory way. Then I’d bring one of the three bears to bed with me, alternating nightly between mother, father, and baby… I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years.
…How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true? My simple, declarative sentences began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst. All I could speak for were my own perceptions, and perhaps not even those.
This juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.
In a photo taken a week before the play opened, she’s literally holding herself together. But in her publicity shot as Lady Bracknell, she’s a Victorian dominatrix to rival Wilde himself.
I had recently discovered some of Dad’s old clothes. Putting on the formal shirt with its studs and cufflinks was a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught. It felt too good to actually be good.
We grew closer after I went away to college. Books—the ones assigned for my English class—continued to serve as our currency.
It was not… a triumphal return. Home, as I had known it, was gone. Some crucial part of the structure seemed to be missing, like in dreams I would have later where termites had eaten through all the floor joists.
What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.