It’s mid-June, and Father’s Day is upon us. As I work in our gardens, my thoughts revert to my early life with my father. Each year for the past few, I have planned to sort out my feelings about all this and write something. I’ve started and stopped several times. It’s not easy to get it right. I don’t think I’ve got it right this time, but it’s a start.
I had a complicated relationship with my father. I don’t believe he would have remembered it that way. He doted on me, an only child, except for a much older half-brother, who did not live with us.
He was involved with all my activities, and was instrumental in directing my choices. No cheerleading. Not dignified. No “hanging out” with the other girls from school: “A waste of time.” No “popular music.” Trash. He did want me to learn to play the piano. I took lessons for 12 years. Now I find it hard to find the motivation to take it up again. He wanted me to learn to figure skate, and I eventually joined the Skating Club of Boston. For me, it was for the joy of skating. For him, it was so I could meet “nice people”. The club at that time had a restrictive policy towards many ethnic and racial groups. That was just fine by him.
I recently read the best seller, Girl Gone, by Gillian Flynn. It is a rather far-fetched story. Did the husband kill his wife? Or did she just disappear? I didn’t particularly care for the book, but one part of it resonated with me: the part about Amazing Amy. The parents of Amy, the “Girl” in the novel, are the authors of a popular “Amazing Amy” children’s book series. The title character is modeled after their daughter Amy, but where the real Amy comes up short in whatever activity she takes up, the Amy in the books comes through with flying colors. Of course this creates discomfort in the real Amy, and leads to the way things turn out for her. I identify with that girl. Dad always compared me with acquaintances of mine who were more attractive, dressed better, were more popular, got better grades (I got a “B” once in high school) and on and on. I felt that I never quite measured up, though I don’t think he really saw it that way.
Recently I read an article about a group of fathers and daughters making a pact that the daughter should refrain from any sexual activity until she married. Pictures that accompanied the article showed the father and daughter with arms around each other, pledging faithfulness and trust towards one another. If such a movement had existed when I was a teenager, I sincerely believe dad would have considered it a great idea. I’m not sure what I would have thought back then. I do know now that I felt severe constraints on my dating activity, but, looking back, I think it’s one of the reasons I caved when the question of whether I should live at college or commute from home. I commuted. That way he could supervise my every move, and be sure that I’d come close to the Amazing Amy profile.
And college. I can’t recall ever actually choosing to go to Radcliffe College (now Harvard). My dad told me he regretted not enrolling me at Radcliffe when I was born. I resented the very idea, but when it came time to send in applications, Radcliffe was my first choice. I got in. Looking back, I believe I would have been happier elsewhere.
Now, still, everything reminds me of Dad. He’s still looking over my shoulder. I think about him every day, although he died in 1976 at the age of 89. Just recently I saw an HDTV production of Wagner’s Parsifal. That was one of dad’s favorite operas, especially as he got older. He loved opera, and especially adored Wagner. Every Saturday afternoon he would listen to the Metropolitan Opera Radio Broadcast while Mother busied herself with some household chore and I did homework or something. He explained to me the convoluted stories of many of the operas. Our house was filled with music, not just on Saturdays, but nearly every day. It was indeed a part of my life. I’m sure that’s why I love opera, and especially Wagner, now.
Dad held very strong opinions about nearly everything. He would argue, heatedly, with anyone who would listen to him to push his point about ridiculous things, like how mosquitoes got into the house: through a hole in the screen? Down the chimney? How long, or short, to cut the grass? His surviving neighbors still chuckle about these things.
But his opinions about what was “worthwhile” in life are the ones that have stuck with me. For example, his opinions about the arts: literature, music, fine arts. Pop music he dismissed as “junk” and I was discouraged from listening to Frank Sinatra and other luminaries of the day. We had a huge record collection of classical music, all 78’s at first, and then “long play”. He taught me themes from major symphonies when I was a little kid. We had a book that put words to many of the themes, and I still remember most of them. “Schubert will soon come in; let him in, let him in.” “Jove, great Jove, mighty Jove” = Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.
He had strong opinions of what he called “modern music.” He liked Stravinsky and Ravel and maybe Bartok, but anything more “modern” (Roger Sessions, Neilsen) was not worth listening to. He and Mother had a subscription to BSO, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and once in a while I would go in Mother’s place. A member of the second violin section, Melvin Bryant, who lived around the corner, and husband of my perfectionist piano teacher (but that’s another story) used to drive us downtown for the concerts. It was interesting to get his take on a program. Mr. Bryant did not care for Leonard Bernstein’s habit of conducting from the piano.
My parents’ living room bookcase held leather-bound, gilt-edged sets of Thackeray, Trollope, Sterne, and Dickens. I used to look at the titles, but never took even one of them out to read. They seemed too precious. I bought paperbacks of these same novels to read when I was older. Dad told me the stories of many of Dickens’s best known novels, and I read them myself when I was old enough. He took me to see the David Lean movie version of Great Expectations, and I’ll never forget the impact that had on me. I’ve watched it many times since then, and have read and reread the novel.
I did my undergraduate honors thesis on “Symbolism in the Novels of Charles Dickens.” (I had transferred to The U of P for my senior year. I got married to a Harvard pre-med guy at the end of my junior year at Radcliffe. This guy came with my dad’s seal of approval. Eventually the marriage did not work out, but again, that’s another story.)
One outcome of all the Dickens reading and study has resulted in my now husband Bob’s and my yearly trips to Santa Cruz, CA to attend the Dickens Universe at UCSC. A Dickens novel is chosen for study each year, and scholars come from all parts of the world to present lectures. Last year’s novel was Edwin Drood, along with The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, a friend and colleague of Dickens. My dad loved Dickens, but I can’t imagine him sitting through the rather abstruse lectures at the Universe.
I recently read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. A product of her own time, Tomalin focuses on Dickens’s real-life relationships with women, and how those relationships shaped his portrayal of women in his books. It has come to light recently that Dickens had an affair with a much younger woman, Ellen Ternan, an actress, and that his involvement with Ternan precipitated Dickens’s ditching his wife of many years. His wife, Catherine, had borne him 12 children. I wonder what Dad would have thought about that. I’m sure he would have had an opinion.
And then there’s gardening. Oh, boy. That’s when Dad haunts me as I dig up weeds and plant new stuff. He was a great gardener. Every time I put in a plant, pull up a weed, or try to deal with some bugs, I can hear him telling me I’m not doing it the right way. Sorry, Dad. I do the best I can.
I think this is Part I of a much longer piece. I’ll see where this leads me.