Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Solitary Journey

Last week my long-time college friend, Bruce, wrote “My brother died this morning.  I tell you because you are my oldest friend, and also, because I sat down just now in front of our fireplace with the logs burning and read On Growing Old and remembered that we memorized that poem together.”

My first thought was of Camus’s novel L’√Čtranger which I read in French in school (alas, no longer have any ability in that beautiful language). But those haunting first words sprang to mind: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”  There is finality about it.  This is part of life.

I also remember memorizing John Masefield’s great poem On Growing Old with Bruce.  We were romantics back then and Masefield wrote so poignantly about what we thought was the unthinkable in our youth.  I wrote something about that experience on my 70th birthday which is now more than a half decade ago. 

I bring this up because last Saturday night I had to go to the local hospital ER.  I had been on antibiotics and Prednisone for a bronchial infection and late Sat. night I could hardly breathe, persistent uncontrollable cough in the chest in spite of all my medications.   Pulmonary Embolism?  Congestive Heart Failure?  That was the motivation to go.

My wonderful wife, Ann, was with me every step of the way but eventually, when they get you in that ER bed, everything is out of your control and even trying to explain my complicated health history seems of little interest except for recent medications. 

She was exhausted by midnight and as our home is five minutes from the hospital, I asked her to go.  And so, alone.  Then I was sent off for tests, x-rays, CAT scan, blood tests, finally being admitted to a room at 3.00 AM.  Indeed, a solitary journey.

Hospital life: constant interruptions, no rest with nurses and Doctors (most of whom I don’t know) popping in unexpectedly at all times.  Nighttime is the worst.  TV is useless of course so I brought one book in particular that turned out to “save” me.  It calmly and poetically put living (and dying) in perspective.

It is a recent book by one of my favorite writers, Richard Ford.  I wish I was writing this blog when his earlier Frank Bascombe novels were published, but I covered his last, Let Me Be Frank With You,which is actually a collection of novellas.  As I said in that entry: “I feel I know this person as I knew Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.  Frank is four years younger than I and Rabbit ten years older.  But the times recounted by these characters are of my era.  No wonder I’m so familiar with the landscapes of their lives.” 

I also loved his last novel, Canada, which was not from the Bascombe line, but Ford’s voice is unwavering.  I thought it one of the best novels of the year.

His latest work is essentially a memoir Between Them; Remembering My Parents.  It was particularly affecting reading it in my hospital stupor and I felt that Ford drew me away from the illness into the very private lives of two ordinary people, who did the best they could, swept along by the rivers of time and chance.  Edna and Parker marrying early in life, both from the deep south, building their lives as a partnership, accustomed to living on the road together as he was a salesman, even successfully surviving the depression.  It was just the two of them until later in life (in their 30s) along came their only child, Richard Ford.  The title of the book is particularly revealing.  It was in effect a life separately lived by the parents, and then Richard coming between them.  It changed the formula and as life dishes out the unexpected, so we make our adjustments.

Parker, Richard, and Edna
For Richard, this meant having a part-time Dad, who, even when he was in Richard’s life, wasn’t particularly interactive with him.  Neither was my father, who I loved dearly, and although he returned from work each night, he lived in a marriage which was essentially unhappy.  At the end of this entry I am pasting the brief essay I wrote about my own father.

What stunned me about Richard Ford’s sparse lapidary memoir is he poses as many questions about the multitude of blanks, things he could not even conjecture at, regarding his parent’s relationship.  Here he shines as a creative writer, while this blog, which is fundamentally an ongoing memoir, is the work of an essayist.  Ford engages the reader to think about those blanks as well, whereas I’ve tried to define some, probably woefully incorrectly.  Memory is so faulty, so fungible.

My mother carried most of the fury of my parent’s marriage.   My father was the “beaten” one emotionally. One neatly fed into the other.  But Ford’s memoir, reading it while I lay vulnerable in my hospital bed, reminded me there was another side to her.  The loving one.  Memories swelled, one’s I’ve forgotten. 

Silly ones, like the time we were driving back from my cousin’s house in New Hyde Park to our home in Queens one late Sunday night and my mother and I asked my father to stop at a drug store as we both were dying of thirst.  We jumped out of the car and in the paperback rack I saw one of the then best-selling books, Don't Go Near the Water, a 1956 novel by William Brinkley.  I showed my mother the cover as we were asking for water and we began to laugh so uncontrollably that those in the drug store probably thought we were wacky.  Funny how a memory like that, unlocked for years, could be unleashed in a hospital bed in the middle of the night while reading about someone else’s parents. 

In Ford’s skillful hands, the very ordinariness of these two forgotten people, his parents, is elevated to a kind of tribute to the human condition: the solitary journey we’re all on.

Some other writer’s memoirs emphasize how they developed as writers, influenced by parents, particularly mothers.  Ironically, I read the late Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life after emerging from open heart surgery now seven years ago.  His mother used to read him Gone With The Wind, instilling a love of reading.

I had no such mentoring and apparently neither did Richard Ford, although Ford supplies a teaser on that subject.  One day the young Richard and his mother were shopping at the “Jitney Jungle grocery,” and his mother asked him to look at a woman in the store.  Richard looked and saw “someone I didn’t know – tall and smiling, chatting with people, laughing." His mother said, "‘That's Eudora Welty. She's a writer,’ which was information that meant nothing to me, except that it meant something to my mother, who sometimes read bestsellers in bed at night. I don't know if she had ever read something Eudora Welty wrote. I don't know if the woman was Eudora Welty, or was someone else. My mother may have wanted it to be Eudora Welty for reasons of her own. Possibly this event could seem significant now, in view of my life to come. But it didn't, then. I was only eight or nine. To me, it was just another piece in a life of pieces.”

In Ford’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book he gives thanks (among others) “to the incomparable Eudora Welty, who in writing so affectingly about parents, have provided models for me and made writing seem both feasible and possibly useful.”  So there is an arc there, from that vague memory of being with his mother to becoming a writer.  Although in the Afterward he says something that Updike might have said as well about writing: “Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness.  Most writers’ lives are.”

Unfortunately for me, I did not come from a reading family.  My father read Reader’s Digest Condensed books.  I can’t remember my mother reading anything but magazines.  But Ford and I share the fact we were poor students in high school.  He refers to a disability.  I had several, one an emotional one coming from a troubled family, feeling shame, and I was a small kid, trying to make up for it by excelling in baseball, and even basketball to a degree, anything to fit in.  But I also think I had a form of dyslexia.  My mother interpreted my disability as the need for speech therapy, which was also embarrassing as the speech therapist worked at the high school and I was still in elementary school, and had to walk through the halls with the high school kids, standing out as any young kid would.  I hated it.

And that of course was not the only problem.  My spelling was atrocious.  And as I said although my parents generally did not read to me as a kid, I do remember one that was read.  I loved to look at the pictures.  It was probably their sense of well-intended therapy: Boo Who Used to be Scared of the Dark.  I had reason.

In school I read only what was assigned and it wasn’t until I came under the influence of two great teachers in my life while a senior in high school that I discovered the joys of reading.   After publishing thousands of books in my publishing career, I guess I learned to compensate, word processing being a good crutch for poor spelling. 

Ford does not deal with the leap from his hardship in high school to his days at Michigan State to writer.  Not appropriate in this work as it is about THEM and less about HIM.  And there is yet another ironic thing we had in common.  He first thought of going into Hotel Management.  It is no wonder; his parents frequently took him on his father’s road trips, living in hotels all over the Deep South.  No such explanation for me other than Kent State had such a program and I vaguely thought of that as an escape route from my family (this plan did not work out thankfully).  I was flotsam in the tide of life.

Between Them is really two separate works, one about his mother which he wrote soon after she died, and the other about his father, which he recently wrote.  But you wouldn’t know it, as it flows with such continuity.  His prose is breathtaking.  Here is one paragraph that was particularly affecting (to me), about his father:

“But hardly an hour goes by on any day that I do not think something about my father. Much of these things I've written here. Some men have their fathers all their lives, grow up and become men within their fathers' orbit and sight. My father did not experience this. And I can imagine such a life, but only imagine it. The novelist Michael Ondaatje wrote about his father that ‘... my loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult.’ Mine is the same - and also different - inasmuch as had my father lived beyond his appointed time, I would likely never have written anything, so extensive would his influence over me have soon become. And while not to have written anything would be a bearable loss - we must all make the most of the lives we find - there would, however, not now be this slender record of my father, of his otherwise invisible joys and travails and of his virtue - qualities that merit notice in us all. For his son, not to have left this record would be a sad loss indeed.”

Yes, a sad loss, especially from such an exceptional writer, Richard Ford.  The book was a gift from my wife for my birthday and the coincidence of it landing in my hands while in the hospital, helped deal with the travails of my setback, and even more so with the ultimate philosophical question I’ve quoted many times before by Eugene Ionesco: “why was I born if it wasn’t forever?”   

I got to know two perfect strangers, now memorialized, and appreciate Ford’s writing even more.  I will always look forward to his next work 

As to my own brief essay about my father, I reprint it below as an appendage.  

An Unspoken Obligation

Up Park Avenue we speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaits us.

It is a summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

Me and my Dad
My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. They speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics disagreeing on most matters. Meanwhile I sleepily daydream about where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc, probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Lefferts Boulevard.

The family photography business was established right after the Civil War, soon after my great-great grandfather, Carl, emigrated from Cologne, Germany with his brother, settling in New York City.  Their portrait photography business at 142 Bowery flourished in the 19th century.  The 20th century brought a new focus: commercial photography which necessitated moving to a larger studio, better located, at 100 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 15th Street.  There the business remained until the 1980’s, occupying the top floor.

My father took it for granted that I was being groomed for the business, the next generation to carry it on. Uncle Phil was a bachelor and since I was the only one with the name to preserve the tradition, it would naturally fall to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation, that nothing of a formal nature such as a college education was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples, or for catalog display at the annual Furniture Show. As a youngster, I roamed NYC by subway and taxi with my deliveries without incident – after all, this was the innocent, placid 50’s.  Eventually, I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, later, as an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging negatives of a clients’ tables, lamps, and sofas to minimize any overexposures.

I see my father through the lens of his working life, revealing a personality normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed by a troubled marriage. My mother expected more, often reminding him of his failures. But strolling down the halls of his photography business he is a transformed person, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way. “How’s Geschaft?” he would say.

His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins preside over a sandwich and soda delivered from a luncheonette downstairs. I sit, listen, and devour my big greasy burger. They discuss the business among themselves. Osmosis was my mentor.

In spite of the filial duty that prompted me to continue learning the photography business, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would major in business. By then I think I knew going to school would be the first step away from the family business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

However, as silently was the expectation that I would take over one day, my retreat was equally furtive. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and yet continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew the outcome of the change, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were instinctively clear to me, in spite of the guilt I often felt. In the studio he was larger than life, the consummate photographer, but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He had bet the future on producing those prints for salesmen, discounting the impact of the developing mass media.  My opinion on the matter would mean little. After all, he was my Dad and I was his kid. So I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know, although I suspect he understood I wanted to find my own way in life. Ultimately, I married and found a job in publishing with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still occasionally joined him for that greasy burger at his office during those first few years of my publishing career, his greeting me with a smile when I arrived, “so, how’s Geschaft?