Fiction or not, don’t we become, eventually, one way or another, our father’s executioner?
My colleague Erin gave me two days of open lesson planning when I substitute-taught her fiction workshop. “How about a lesson on flash fiction?” I asked, with two stories in mind. After reviewing some aspects of flash in class—1,000 words or less and “smart surprises”—the students broke into groups and discussed George Saunders’s “Sticks” and Lucy Corin’s “Miracles.”
“Is there a reason why you picked two similar stories?” a student asked. I chaffed at this. These were simply two excellent flash pieces that met the criteria I was teaching. I was familiar with the authors. I started to protest, but then it occurred to me. Yes, subconsciously, I guess there was a reason, I told them. Both stories focus on fathers, and I am writing a short story based on my father. The questions turned away from the texts and to my own experiences. But I had no good answers for these students. I’m still trying to navigate my way through this complex familial relationship. I can only look for directional signs and mileposts after I see what I’ve written on the page.
I do not understand my relationship with my father, no matter how long I’ve lived it or written about it. It would be easiest to settle on one side of the road or the other. But this road is comprised of two lanes, dotted yellow passing marks between them, potholes, no curb. If I swerve to miss one pothole, the story becomes about slapping and hair pulling. The other side of the road is my father at the kitchen table, head in his hands, crying.
Orner’s claim in Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live that eventually we all turn into our fathers’ executioners rings true. Saunders’s father attempts to make an apology in “Sticks;” the father is reduced to a public method of communication with his adult children by hanging signs on his lawn ornament after a lifetime of disharmony with his family. “He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE?” Saunders writes. Redemption never comes for the father. Instead, he dies alone in the hallway of the family home with the radio playing, transmitted voices his only company.
Redemption is slow coming for my father as well. I remember my smallness my first summer home from college, when I found my father clutching his head in his hands at the kitchen table. My grade report was in front of him: another semester of near-academic probation. What if he had pushed me too hard? he asked. What if I committed suicide? he cried. It wasn’t really an apology, but even so, I wasn’t willing to soothe or forgive him. I never said, “it’s okay, dad,” or “I promise I’ll do better,” or “don’t be ridiculous, I’m not going to kill myself.” I wanted to be mired in the what ifs of imagining his sorrow and regret for how he treated me, if indeed I wasn’t there anymore. Running away and suicide still seemed like possibilities back then. Instead, I simply stood there, fixed in place, and marveled that I had never seen my father cry.
Corin’s father fares better in “Miracles.” The father tries to instill a sense of natural wonder in his children after their mother, his wife, is classified as “stark raving mad” and is no longer living with them. His choice is a curious one—he captures a black widow spider and her egg sac in a jar and sits with his children watching the hatchlings emerge. “Do you remember if you were nervous with all those poison spiders radiating from the jar?” the narrator’s brother asks. The father eventually kills the spiders with hairspray: did the bottle belong to his wife? The narrator may have been more worried about the spiders if they weren’t already focused on the mystery of their mother. We see the exhausted and sad father doing his best, even if we don’t understand exactly where he is coming from or what he thinks is “best.” What were the signs I missed that my father tried to do his best?
I sit next to my doctor’s desk, sleeve rolled as he takes my blood pressure. Another visit to the doctor—the second in a week—for my ongoing upper respiratory infection and laryngitis turns into a regular physical, which I haven’t had for a few years. Oxygen good. Lungs clear. Heart regular.
“And your vision?” he asks. “How about your night vision?”
I’ve never been good at driving at night. How can I tell any difference between now and then? Every road is curved and dark. There are signs I can’t see until I’m upon them. Sometimes, the words of the sign do not make sense to me until I’m a mile or so down the road. With distance and only an image in my mind, the sign’s meaning usually becomes clearer. Maybe I don’t want to understand the signs. Maybe I’m happier remembering my own impressions and interpretations of my father rather than asking him directly about the specifics.
Missing or misinterpreting signs by fathers seems a common theme in my reading selections. I recently finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and continue to reflect on the secrets that families keep and the gaps in understanding between intentions and motives between the father and daughter. For example, the father only wants to encourage his daughter and help her realize a life that he did not get to live. She takes this as criticism from him and believes that she is somehow less than what he expects her to be. There’s an ongoing misunderstanding when he gives her gifts. He wants her to feel more comfortable socially and buys her the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. He wishes he had had this book when he was younger and thinks it would have helped him be less awkward. She sees this gift as her father forcing her to be someone she is not, which leads her to living a life of subterfuge. For example, she pretends to talk to friends on the telephone every night, satisfying her father that she has made friends. But she is listening to static on the line, making up these nightly conversations.
Like Ng’s daughter, I also misunderstand the words and actions of my father. I remember one late afternoon in August 1986. He didn’t hug me as he said goodbye, but shook my hand on the curb of the dorm after dropping me off at college. “Well. This is it. There’s no moving back home when you’re done. Get good grades, get a job.” I watched him drive off. At the time, I thought he didn’t want me around anymore. Instead, he didn’t want me to live and die in our hometown. It was only after he and my mother moved several years ago that he told me this was his own fear for himself—that he would never leave. I finally understood that this was his wish for me: to experience more of the world. But for twenty-something years I walked around thinking he was glad to be rid of me. Another sign not understood until I had put more than half of the country between us.
I avoid writing about friends and family as much as I can in my own nonfiction writing. I'm afraid I don't always understand their intentions or motives, and I don't want to misrepresent them. If everything is through my lens, I fear I will misinterpret friends and family, or, worse, be petty. However, in my fiction I allow myself the freedom of interpretation and a harsh gaze. There is also some hero-writing that happens; a semblance (if not all) of me as the main character who is the wronged friend and/or daughter surrounded by people who keep her from her dreams. Everyone misunderstands her genius. The highway sign for this is obvious—flashing orange lights and Emerson’s “to be great is to be misunderstood” aphorism. Myself as character must overcome these human obstacles to happiness. After all, don’t I still want to be the hero of my own stories, fictionalized or not?
Raymond Carver narrates his father’s biography in his essay “My Father’s Life.” Carver dispassionately tells the chronological story of his father’s life, occasionally interrupting his narrative with snippets of conversation. For example, his father tries to help him tell the stories of their family: “’Write about the stuff you know about. Write about some of those fishing trips we took.’ I said I would, but I knew I wouldn’t. ‘Send me what you write,’ he said. I said I’d do that, but then I didn’t.”
When Carver’s father dies, he asks his mother for a photo of his father: “I looked at it carefully from time to time, trying to figure out some things about my dad, and maybe myself in the process. But I couldn’t. My dad just kept moving further and further away from me and back into time.”
In my short story, “Disconnected,” the main character (a thinly disguised me) finds a trash can partially filled with family photos after the death of her father. In an odd turn of real-world events, my parents relocated a few years ago and subsequently brought me two “jumbo storage” Ziploc bags filled with family photos that I had never seen. There are photos of my parents posing alone, not together, through time. I pulled the photos out again recently to look at them. My father made silly faces; my mother always tried to hide hers from the camera. I sorted through the photos paying special attention to those with my father alone. The photos show him as a young man with a handlebar mustache posing with the spoils of our upwardly mobile life: new cars, a sailboat, the excavated hole for our swimming pool. Like Carver, I too look closely at these photos and try to understand my father and his life through time. In all the smiling and funny faces and objects from our middle-class life, he seemed happy. Was he? I’ve never asked.
Perhaps I am the only one surprised when Orner’s father dies at the end of Am I Alone Here? I keep expecting Orner to tell us of a happy ending. One where he picks up the phone, makes amends with his father, and understands a bigger truth in his own life. Instead, he makes it home only after his father’s cremation and, in his grief and loneliness, can only wonder about the physical inheritances not realized—“not a hundred bucks, not his watch.”—not realizing his own loneliness until talking about his father’s death with a friend.
My father has not died, but he has been diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, a form of leukemia for which there is no cure. The chronic aspect lulls me into believing I have more time than I really do. My relationship with him has become a series of shoulds: I should talk with him more, I should ask him about this life, I should try. I should try harder. Late into our relationship now, our differences have become surprisingly political. I find myself ready to fight with him about his every news story interpretation. He reminds me of a caller from a political AM radio opinion show, one we used to love and discuss, when our ideals were more aligned. He is rendered now as a simply a voice on the telephone, rather than a fully realized being who raised me.
I took the photos of myself from the Ziploc bags to post on social media around my 50th birthday. I realized that I was carefully selecting photos to narrate the already well-curated public image of myself and the story of my life. This is the self I have created online (and does her best to emulate in real life) who is funny and charming and doesn't spend time thinking about slapping or hair pulling, or of the awful things said, or of the sad, tense moments at the kitchen table. She doesn’t let herself get down about the past. The only stories she tells are of hard work mixed with some luck and a lot of good people who have pointed her in the right direction. And in her narrative of success, her father is not executed, but rather, like Carver’s father, becomes more and more indistinct and lost through time.
Orner confesses that he “thought reading would make [him] a better writer.” I guess I hope that if I keep reading stories about fathers and daughters, I will find the one that will tell me how this should all end. But, like Orner and his father, I suspect my father will die and I will realize as well that I still have questions to ask him and that I have things to say to him. That all along I missed the signs that told me when to turn down the road to compassion and understanding, and, eventually, forgiveness. I will find myself staring at a hermetically sealed ash box wondering why I never asked him for a map.
Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. Vintage Contemporaries. New York. 1983
Corin, Lucy. “Miracles.” Tin House. http://tinhouse.com/miracles-by-lucy-corin/ Accessed 20 April 2018
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. Penguin Books. New York, New York. 2014.
Orner, Peter. Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. Catapult. New York. 2016
Saunders, George. Tenth of December: Stories. Random House. New York. 2013.
Whicher, Stephen E. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Houghton Mifflin Company, Riverside Editions. Boston. 1960.
Stacy Murison’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, River Teeth, and The Rumpus, among others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Northern Arizona University, where she now teaches composition.