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Tag: missing my papa

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

maybe i should pretend….

picture of dad, taken from back cover of his book.......

i’m typing this a day before i usually type. because tomorrow, friday, at this lovely hour, i’ll be feeling my heart plunk though my chest. i’ll pretty much be wishing i was anywhere besides where i’ll be: sitting in a grand dining room, with white-jacketed waiters scurrying like flocks of plate-bearing birds. knives and forks will be tinkling. i’ll be wishing that every wine goblet at every place was sloshing and swiftly being drained. i’ll wish for delirium to sweep across the room, and everyone in it to drift into ether-land. i’ll wish, quite frankly, to be knocked out myself.

it might extinguish the angst.

as the clock ticks toward 40 minutes after 12, i’ll be calling on angels and saints to lift me and carry me through the next 35 minutes.

you see, i’m slotted to get up, before a crowded dining room, in an old-guard chicago club, and unspool a few wisdoms.

which — if you know me even a wee little bit, this should come as no surprise — scares the behoozies right out of me. oh, i’ve been practicing a good bit of late. it’s what comes after you spend a few years sitting alone in a room, typing your heart out. all of the sudden, they (those faraway someones in the towers of publishing) glue all that typing together, put a pretty cover on it (in my case, a vase of what my little one calls “the dead flowers”), and then they make you get up and talk about those words. out loud.

which, pretty much, is my definition of living-breathing fear. it’s so far outside my comfort zone, i find myself dreaming of rocks i could hide under. examining closets for the extent of their “hide-ability.” my recurring nightmare, just before i wake up on the dawns of the days when i’m slotted to “book talk”: it’s me being toppled by tidal wave after tidal wave. complete with slimy sea shimmerers.

but then, each and every time i stand up — certain my knees will give out, especially if i’m teetering on the skinny little “kitten heels” my fairy godmother in book touring told me i needed to buy (“everyone looks at your feet while you’re reading; you need something excellent for them to look at,” she instructed, in no-fooling terms) — each and every time (so far), i’ve been overtaken by the intoxicant that swirls through the room. the one called love, pure and simple. i look out into a crowd peopled with faces i love, even faces i’ve never seen before, and suddenly i am soaring. no longer the terrified typer, but suddenly afrolic, to make up a word, one that for these purposes we’ll define as in the midst of frolicking. frolicking in waves and waves of laughter and tears and words tumbling on words.

but here’s the problem: i can tell, by the toxins that build by the hour in the hours and days leading up to every one of these podium moments, that i have clearly not inherited the microphone gene, the one double-dosed in my father, that jolly fellow above, the one who looks as if the mike is a plug that literally fills him with high-voltage current.

my papa never met a podium he didn’t love. heck, he traveled the world seeking out podiums. told us umpteen thousand times his fine little podium trick: just look out and picture everyone in their skivvies (that’s vintage 1920s talk for undies).

frankly, it’s never worked for me. i’m too scared to picture anything, let alone fruits-of-the-loom, and tattered stretchy sports bras (if my undies drawer stands as template for this).

so it came as something of a surprise — perhaps a hand reaching down from the heavens — when, a few hours ago, hard at work rinsing gunk from the kitchen sink, i suddenly was struck with a novel idea. one that in alllllllllll my years of being allergic to podiums and microphones has never before leapt into my braincells.

what if i pretend my papa is sitting there? smack dab in the very front row, all pink cheeks and twinkling gray-blues, drumming his fingers in that way that he did, that way i still can hear in my head.

what if i channel that jolly old soul who lived to tell a great tale, who wrung every drop of guffaw out of a punch line, who couldn’t care less how corny it was, long as it erupted the room in knee-slapping, tear-swiping, catch-your-breath laughter?

my papa lived to make people laugh. my papa lived to delight the ear with the tricks of his tongue and his tale-telling superpowers.

i’m a dialed-down version of my papa. what i’m aiming for, first and foremost, is to make it through alive. or at least not collapse in a heap, my little black dress and kitten heels the only discernible survivors. oh, i love a good laugh. i swell to it, like any living-breathing soul of irish descent.

but when i feel heaven and earth intermingling is when it’s so very quiet you can hear breath flowing in, flowing out. when you look into faces, rapt. maybe a tear, maybe streams of tears, messily making their way down cheek after cheek.

that’s the magic that propels me out of my seat. that’s the one and only reason i’m mustering whatever it takes to stand up and teeter on wobbly knees, wobbly ankles, curled-up toes: i’m aiming for the pulsing heart inside each and every one of us. i want our hearts — for as long as we can stretch it out — to beat in the blessed unison, the deep-down understanding that we all, every one of us, are searching for the sacred stitch that draws us together, that animates the whole of us, and lifts us to a plane of higher purpose.

and, maybe, if i pretend my papa is there, in the very front row, all dapper in his brooks brothers suit, the one with the buttoned-up vest, the one he wore on the most special occasions. maybe if i pretend he walked across chicago’s loop from the glistening tower where he typed for all those years — maybe, just maybe, the god-awful worry will melt away.

and i can pretend, tomorrow, that me and my dad are sitting alone in a very big dining room, and i am looking at him, straight into his heart, telling my very best stories, and unspooling a wee bit of wisdom.

miss you, sweet papa. see you tomorrow….

how do you talk yourself through the things that scare you to jitters?

coming home

as much as i loved tiptoeing down to the porch that wrapped around the grand old hotel, as much as i loved creaking in those old wicker rocking chairs, my palms wrapped round the mugs of first-of-the-morning coffee, the just-blooming, just-exploding viburnum and magnolia doing a perfumed waltz up my nose, i am home now, and already i’m thinking there is no place that soothes me quite like coming back in the door of the place that knows me, the place that i know, that i love, that keeps time right with my heart.

we took ourselves a little road trip this week. not too far. not too long. down to nooks and crannies of the southern midwest, to hilly southern indiana, near where it brushes up against kentucky, and on over to kentucky, too. to where my roots begin.

on a bit of a whim, we rode out to the itty-bitty country town of paris. yes, as in kentucky, 14 miles north and east of lexington. out to where my papa was a boy, out to the horse farms he knew like family, even though he lived in town, before they up and moved to the big city, to get my papa to schools his mama must have decided were a better fit for a boy with a school mind like his.

the closer we got to paris, the more i missed my papa, missed him like i’d just left him yesterday but couldn’t ever get him back. i missed him so much my heart started to hurt as we rode along the road they call the paris pike, where century-old stone fences line the farms that roll, acre upon acre, blue-grass mile after blue-grass mile.

i wasn’t quite sure how to get to the farm that we claim as our own, the one whose name you might find on the can of baking powder there at the back of your pantry. calumet is the one. calumet farm. and my papa grew up there; his big brother, the one he loved who died in the war, he ran the place, and all these years later, when i sit down to watch the derby, the kentucky derby of course, i hear someone whisper “calumet,” or i see the crimson-and-white silks the calumet jockey always wears, and my heart skips a beat.

“our farm,” i think, as if a connection from back in the 1930s and ’40s, holds one drop of weight anymore. and sure enough, when we got there, the crimson iron gate was closed, all but locked. and the fellow who came to the phone let me know i wasn’t someone for whom they’d swing it open. place was closed for the day, he said loud and clear, made sure i heard it all the way at the end of the very long drive, even though we were talking over the dial-up intercom planted there by the gatehouse, and i heard every word all right. so i stood there on the outside of the locked, lacy ironwork, feeling quite wholly my place in its history: shut out. an insignificant afterthought. nothing more than a nuisance, there where they won’t let you in.

but before that, when i’d stopped in the offices of the town newspaper, and told the nice ladies that my papa grew up there, and i was looking for calumet farm, well, they couldn’t have been kinder. they all but pulled out the kentucky pie, and a plate and a fork. all but poured me a cup of afternoon coffee. instead, they asked me my papa’s name. then they started to tell me all about his family, where they lived, where they went to church. i tell you, no one with his last name has lived there for a long long time. but in little towns like paris, kentucky, they remember. make you feel just like family, there in the newspaper office on main.

but not at the gates of the farm now owned by someone altogether new. someone from far, far away, i’ve been told.

for four days and four nights, i slept in beds that don’t know my particular lumps. drank coffee that wasn’t brewed in my pot. i walked and looked and listened, and found myself quite content, out discovering a part of the middle of america i hadn’t seen in a long long time, and other parts i’d never seen before.

i do love mucking about, discovering, finding the familiar far far away.

but, once again, as always, i discovered just a short while ago that the familiar that i love best, the familiar that soothes me through and through, is the familiar that i know by heart: the particular tick and tock of all our old clocks, the pit-a-pat of the old cat’s paws as he ambled down the steps once he heard us there in the kitchen.

why, i love tossing old car-bumped apples back in the bin, finding everything there in the fridge where i left it, only a bit more wrinkled and the milk gone sour. i even found myself humming as i threw the first load of road-trip clothes into the wash, the machine whose groans and burps i know inside and out.

coming home will always be the closest i come to purring, pure and simple. give me the floorboards that creak just where i know they will. give me the garden whose every bulb i tucked in that holy sacred earth.

i’ll miss those front-porch rocking chairs, come morning. but the coffee will be just the way i like it, with two or three shakes of cinnamon, there on top of the mound before i close the lid and wait.

back home in my kitchen, humming.

what do you love best about coming home? or are you a travelin’ soul? 

and just in case you are interested, that lovely porch and those rocking chairs can be found at the west baden springs hotel, in west baden, indiana, just this side of the hoosier national forest, not far from brown county, a place worth a road trip, indeed.

one last bit of homecoming joy: my mama, closest thing i know to a saint plenty of days, she came by to stock the fridge and leave two fat bouquets of viburnums on the countertop, right beside the kitchen sink, so when we walked in from the road trip, first thing i inhaled was the viburnum waltz, same as the one that made me swoon back on the west baden’s wrap-around porch. oh, i wish there was a smell button here, so i could waft it right by your nose. you’ll just have to close your eyes now, and pretend. try this: imagine what heaven would smell like, if it bloomed on a bush.