Jan 052017

lmdfamily-croppedAuthor with parents


About the time when my father, Abraham Morganstern, started to lose his memory, he began to sort through the household trash on a daily basis, picking out with surprising care bent hangers, sole-less shoes, cracked mirrors, unattached buttons, and other items he deemed worthy of resuscitation. His triumphant scavenging at first irritated my mother, Hadassah Morganstern, and me when I happened to return for a visit to the ever-more-cluttered house of my childhood, but after a while we both accepted it as a permanent facet of his new personality. I suppose if you are falling away into some sort of mental darkness, you hold onto anything concrete, even if it’s broken. It may also be his instinct to broker junk into something useful, now gone awry. My father is a self-identified junkman, the son of a junkman, himself the son of a Russian shoemaker, and before that who knows–the ancestral line lost in the rough and decisive Atlantic crossing. And Abraham Morganstern, in his heyday, was the King Midas of east coast junkmen, a working-class boy who, having lost his father as a teenager and finding himself responsible for a widowed mother and two brothers, had wheeled and dealed in paper, rags, cans, and cigarettes on the docks by the Chesapeake Bay and in the printing presses and paper mills of east Baltimore, until he assembled a small fortune. How massive his fortune, I couldn’t say, as he always retained a deep-seated sense of his lower-class origins and a childlike awe of those whom he considered truly wealthy. “That’s a self-made man, right there,” he would gush about the father of one or the other of my classmates at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, a private school loosely affiliated with the college, both having been founded in the late 1800s by M. Carey Thomas, a cross-dressing philanthropist with a passion for female education. “He’s made of money. And you know what–you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy. That’s the whole package. Me, I’m barely middle-class.” If his progeny, my sister Eloisa Isobel and me, applied themselves then, with the benefit of postgraduate education, we could ascend into the heights of upper class, and, he always added, take care of him in his old age. That old age confronted him far sooner than I had expected, as before his sixtieth birthday he commenced the torturous process of drifting away from himself. At sixty-seven, his mind seemed increasingly defenseless against the waters of Lethe, which flushed out all traits of tenderness and humor but somehow left the stubborn hell intact.

King Lear, which used to be my least favorite Shakespeare tragedy, began making sense to me after witnessing my father’s decline. He seemed to be lost perpetually in an erratic storm I couldn’t see. Sometimes he jumped back and shielded his eyes, as if in the wake of a lightening flash. And while he instantly forgot the anger that thundered through his body at unpredictable moments, it left us all awestruck at the strength still lingering in his failing body. The stress of soothing him through moods alternatively volatile and timorous became too much for my mother. She retired from her job as an English teacher to care for him but even then she needed to take breaks. During the winters she absented herself in Florida for as long as she could prevail upon my sister or me to take over as companion for him. A desire to relieve her for a bit, along with the lengthy vacations endemic to an academic career, has led me to spend increasing amounts of time with him. I spent nearly a month at home during my sabbatical, during which we fell into an unaccustomed intimacy, without the buffer of mother and sister and apart from the rhythms of work and school that had always held us in check from each other.


newyearsatthedinerAt the diner, New Years Day 2016

When my father, Abraham Morganstern, was fifteen, a Baltimore city bus rode over his right foot. He lost three toes, missed four months of his freshman year of high school, and was subsequently ineligible for the Vietnam draft. Being what he has always termed derisively a bleeding heart liberal, I can hardly regret that he didn’t have to suffer unendurable horrors for inexplicable reasons like many of his contemporaries and most of his high school friends, yet I’ve always thought he would have thrived in the army. He enjoys uniformity, regularity, conformity, and consistency. He is a man who possesses a deep-seated suspicion of the abstract, preferring newspapers to books, Norman Rockwell to Pablo Picasso, print to cursive, and dogs to cats. He has worn Docker slacks and Redwing loafers for forty years and only stays in Hampton Inns regardless of whether he is visiting Tuscaloosa or Paris. Alzheimer’s has only intensified the comfort he finds in the habitual. And thus, every night I stayed with him during my sabbatical, we ate dinner at The Acropolis, a twenty-four hour diner run by kind-hearted Greek emigres accustomed to my father’s habits.

Every night, we enacted the same rituals. My father introduced me to the waitresses and busboys, all congenial offshoots of the Greek diner familia, and we all acted as if it were the first time, as if we too had fallen into the minuscule eternity of a perpetual moment. “This is my daughter. She’s the professor,” he announced in delight, as we took our seats in the red leather booth next to the jukebox. The waitresses and busboys would wink at me and exclaim how smart I must be, how I looked just like my mother, and shake my hand to introduce themselves.

I always ordered for both of us. I varied my order between various breakfast foods but without fail he ate a turkey burger with onions but no lettuce and tomatoes and a side of waffle fries. Whenever the waitress brought us our drinks (Diet Coke for him, glass of slightly dreadful house red wine for me) I always watched him carefully fold up his straw wrapper with studied concentration. Only after he had placed it carefully in his back pocket would he turn to me, his face bright, shining, excited, expectant.

“Tell me what’s new!” he said to me one night at the diner. “I haven’t seen you in almost six months.” I didn’t protest although I had been home for about a week at that point.

“Well, I do have some good news, actually. I found out that I have tenure now.”

“That’s wonderful,” his smile split open his long freckled face.

“Thanks! Check out my business card.” Before leaving home I had stuffed a stack of business cards in my purse for precisely this purpose. He turned it over in admiration and asked if he could keep it. I had given him dozens over the two years since I had actually gotten tenure.

“Well, I am really proud of you. You are so smart.” He shook his head. “You must get that from your mother.” That was the wrong word at the wrong time. It triggered a reverberation of memory and betrayal. His face reddened and his voice grew thick with menace. “Where is your mother? I know she’s not here. Did she go away? Why didn’t she take me with her?”

I was afraid of him in those moments. Because I like things to be polite and calm and peaceful. Because he was still my father, and his flares of temper reminded me of the days when he and my mother had arbitrated morality, judgement, and penance, when I talked back, when I lost my retainer, when I announced I was majoring in medieval studies instead of something they deemed practical. Because his voice thundered too loud for polite conversation, and at that moment in the diner, people were starting to turn around, and I didn’t want him to reveal his weakness to a world that had always shown him deference.

“She just went off for a few days. But I’m here. And I’m here for almost a month,” I said quickly and brightly.

“Well, I didn’t know that. A whole month.” He shoulders relaxed and he opened up his copy of the Baltimore Sun. “Do you want the sports section?”

“Yeah, right.” I grimaced and held up a book on French convents I was meant to be reviewing for a tiny feminist medieval journal. I was relieved. If unchecked, his anger could flail out limitlessly. Last winter, he had chased my mother and sister into my old bedroom and punched a hole through the door. Now he wanders by the room in surprise, puzzling at the gap in the wood.

He held up his newspaper to the fluorescent lights, squinted, and then brought it close to his nose to sniff, as if he could smell the oil on the machines that pressed out the pulp and before that, the perfumes the wood had exuded at the moment of splitting. I had seen him repeat this action a thousand times over the years. Most of his business had come from buying and selling paper, and he understood and respected its shades and varieties. At my childhood birthday parties, he would carefully unfold all the wrapping paper I tossed aside in an ecstasy of anticipation and lovingly examine it like a Vatican official authenticating a sacred relic.

Despite that brief moment of calm, his body would stiffen again and again that night and each night, and I would watch his internal temperature drop or rise into anger, I was never sure which one. Anything could provoke the outbursts–the lack of industry in America today, his french fries touching his cole slaw, the price of gas. Regardless of the issue, his voice thundered like a minister denouncing Satan. I would speak in soothing tones, handing him my business card, creating word games to play on the place mats, pulling out my phone to show him pictures of my dogs, anything to coax him back into tranquility.


It seems to me that humans are obsessed with imposing order onto the rhythms of earth. Do we follow the pull of the moon, the cycles of the sun, calculations Julian or Gregorian? Is it a day of rest or a day of work? How do we steady ourselves upon this spinning world? Some internal clock had shattered in my father; all the calendars in the world couldn’t seem to ground him in time. He still knew who he was, and as long as he was somewhere familiar, where he was, but he could not grasp when he was and the impulse to remember left him frantic.

“What year is this? How old am I?” he asked me plaintively, on a loop, in the morning when he first awoke, during meals, during drives. If I was in the same room, I would watch him count the years on his fingers, his ring finger scarred from when it once caught on the roof of a truck he was loading with paper rolls.

“Am I sixty-six?”

“You are sixty-seven, Daddy,” I would call out, while brushing my teeth, or reading, or running the water for dishes.

He would launch into a lengthy explanation about how even though he was already eligible for social security he was planning to wait so that he could increase the amount so my mother would have more when he died. I always agreed with him although I never really listened. I probably should have paid more attention. He had always understood how to invest, how to profit, whereas I could never save a cent. But my attention always wandered, out of habit, as if he were instructing me about stocks and bonds and I was still a bored teenager nodding to keep him happy.

He was able to sustain the conversation for about five minutes before the cycle began again. In mid-sentence, suddenly, he would pause and ask what year it was, how old he was.

Why were we both stranded on different planes? I could move through the day as if through a museum, with paintings and sculptures by different artists from different ages, from golden icons to rotund Madonnas, changing from room to room. He saw each day, each cycle of a few moments, as one painting in a series of the same object, like Monet’s water lilies, going increasingly out of focus in an afternoon of lengthening shadows.


allandianecroppedAuthor’s mother and father

On the outside, the house my parents had moved us into when I was three years old still looks like a respectable suburban split level, but on the inside, it is decaying. The water from leaking pipes has bruised the first floor ceiling with purple water stains. A giant hole above the stairs exposes the skeleton of the house, aging and failing no less so than its inhabitants. Until sympathy for my mother’s cares had overcome my hygienic scruples, I had avoided staying at the house more than once or twice a year.

The house had always been cluttered, although generally sturdy. For years it was the repository of familial possessions from both sides. When my father’s uncle Sheldon had a heart attack at the Pimlico racetrack, his Dinah Shore records, his roll top desk, and his threadbare plaid suits infused with cigar smoke, all ended up in our living room. Esther Collector, my mother’s mother, couldn’t abide possessions, and over the years she had sent her diminutive good-humored husband to our house laden with Wedgwood sets, teak end tables, and porcelain planters, all of which had ended up in the hallway in wobbly stacks. These shabby heirlooms gathered dust side by side with sheets of bubble wrap, disembodied and translucent like antique wedding veils, cans sticky with soda, my sister’s college futon, outdated copies of the Baltimore Jewish Times in tenuous heaps. The clutter had built over the years, forming archaeological levels–Level 1 1980-1982 AD, Level II 1982-1984 [early, middle, late], each level built on the rubble of the previous years. The present level existed in some late decadent age from a civilization in decline, fraught with invasion and decay. Of course, I thought wryly, even the Germanic barbarians had maintained the Roman baths. Out of three bathrooms in the house, only one still has a flushing toilet and running water in the sink. The shower is entirely off limits. If you turn on the water, it runs through the floor into the living room below. My father and I conducted our ablutions as best as we could in the one sink, which drained poorly and bore a lingering patina of hair and soap suds. The other two bathrooms had become glorified storage closets, full of mildewed towels and empty bottles of anti-aging creams.

I had avoided coming home for years because I had found my efforts to fight the chaos continuously frustrated. It was far easier, I realized, to accept the reality–the hordes of newspapers and old litter boxes and the styrofoam cups towering unsteadily to the ceiling. With no working showers, I just gave into the grubbiness and settled in among the disarray. It was glorious, in a way, to simply become the body I already was, without fighting the daily onslaught of effluvium and odors. My pillows smelled sour from my hair, and when I sunk into the sheets at night I breathed in a nutty fragrance, as if I was stretching out on a forest floor. What did it matter, really? I drove to the library each morning and then accompanied my father to the diner each night. I moved through the grocery store and the post office anonymously. My rhythms were entirely his. I half slept at night, alert for his turnings and grumblings, his faint sleepy cries in the early morning– “Hadassah, I hurt so bad.”

I slept in my sister’s old room, since she had rendered my own uninhabitable when she moved home two years ago, moved in her kitten, and promptly moved out my old bed, ripped off my Pre-Raphaelite posters and playbills from high school triumphs from the wall, and then moved back out, leaving behind the detritus of a shopping addiction and a cat with a urinary tract infection. She was two years younger than me, a short plump brunette who had recently moved to Boston with grand promises of becoming a freelance fashion writer.

My mother kept the door to my old bedroom closed, so Capricious the cat didn’t disappear inside. I did venture in one time. The light bulbs had burned out, leaving the ridges of possessions cast in grey light through the shuttered windows. My sister had left in a hurry, as if fleeing a war zone, abandoning piles of shoes and leather purses. The dresser was stacked with towers of Starbucks cups with lipstick rims and half-filled water bottles. An acrid smell in the air indicated that she had left a full litter box under old boxes spilling over with tissue paper. Somewhere beneath all that were my old dolls and books. She had attacked the room with a certain hostility indicating she had never forgiven me for existing, for enjoying the bigger room throughout childhood, and for resembling the fair-haired slender Collectors rather than the stocky Morgansterns.

She possessed far less patience for my father now than I did, which was surprising, given that she had always been the Daddy’s girl growing up. They rode bikes together, shot baskets for hours on end, told jokes and sang song lyrics in the car. Their clamorous antics embarrassed and annoyed me. I was very much my mother’s daughter, which meant I was quiet and absorbed in my own world. My father and sister were more sociable creatures. They possessed matching unpredictable tempers and were partners in rage as well as play. I knew I loved him (I wasn’t so sure about her) but I did spend a lot of time wishing him away, willing the house into quiet and calm. “You’re too loud with her. She doesn’t like it. Can’t you see that?” I remember my mother chiding him over the years.

In return, he courted me, stilling his loud, clumsy attentions and approaching me with a kind of reverence. He presented me with small offerings of books and ideas, usually age-inappropriate, gleaned from conversations and articles and radio shows so that at six and seven I read Clan of the Cave Bear and War and Peace and a scintillating host of Jackie Collins novels. I remember one glorious yard sale where he bought me a biography of Anne Boleyn, a biography of Queen Victoria, and a battered copy of a book about girls who went to summer camp and learned how to make voodoo dolls, and after reading all of them in furious delight, I decided that I was going to become a writer, and a historian, and go to camp the next summer. He watched me fill up a series of floral-covered bound notebooks with fledgling biographies of queens and stories about girls going to summer camp, and then he brought me home a gleaming electric typewriter.

“And why does a ten-year-old need a typewriter?” my mother had demanded sharply, but fondly.

“You’ll thank me when she gets into Harvard,” he responded smugly, watching me enthusiastically hunt and peck on the shiny black keys. “She’s smart, like you.”

I didn’t get into Harvard, but like almost all graduates of the Bryn Mawr School for girls, I ended up at a reasonably rated four-year college, and my father spent a sticky August afternoon in upstate New York moving endless boxes into my fourth-floor dorm room. After a trip to Kmart to buy an area rug, a mini-fridge, the dorm-authorized sticky gum that wouldn’t leave marks on walls, and all the other forgotten extras, my mother headed to the car, exhausted, for the seven-hour drive back to Baltimore, and he stayed behind for a moment. I had been nervous and impatient all day, by turns clinging to them and encouraging them to leave. We stood looking at each other in this room newly hung with specially purchased Pre-Raphaelite posters, and surrounded by standard wooden furniture into which I had to unpack all my clothes and books and suddenly, with his eyes still fixed on me, his body sagged and slumped and finally ruptured into sobs such as I had never heard before. Spontaneously, as if mirroring him, I cried furiously, hot with resentment at this assault on my shaky confidence in my new life. After a few moments, he gasped in a way that was almost a wail, and then turned on his heel and stumbled out of the room, and I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving.


Every night, blue light flashed from the TV down the hall, and I fell asleep listening to the spluttering and popping of gunshots. My father watched old cowboy movies late into the night. He found comfort in the familiar plots and the simplistic binaries of good and evil without any moral ambiguity. In between the shrieks and the shots I could hear him murmur to the cat, “You’re my favorite daughter. I hope you know that.”

One night after I had been home for about a week, as I rolled up in an old bathrobe and a crocheted coverlet, drifting off to sleep, I heard his bed creak. The floor groaned as he made his way to Eloisa Isobel’s old room. He lingered in the doorway, his tall body drooping, his face growing so long and thin it seemed to disappear into the hollows of his throat.

“What’s going on, Daddy?” I murmured, sleepy, but alert.

“What do you think of that cat? She’s really something, isn’t she?”

I agreed with him, somewhat irritably. No one would believe it, but he had never even liked cats until a few years ago. My sister and I had begged him for a pet for most of our childhoods, to no avail. Now Capricious had become the one creature to whom he was always kind, to whom he always spoke softly. He stood in the doorway and kept talking while I wished he would go away so I could fall asleep. When I think about these moments, I wish I could have been more patient, the way he must have been with me when I was a baby and interrupted his sleep with my nonsensical noises.

He came and sat on the bed and groaned. “I’m falling apart,” he proclaimed. He wore a frayed yellowing undershirt and underpants full of holes that hung off his hips, heedless of modesty. I wondered at this frail failing body, and I thought how impossibly strange it was that he had once been a young man, that this body had once conceived two children in desire and raised them up in hope. This whole thing baffled me—the way the image that sprung into my mind when I summoned the word “Father” had shifted over the years from a red-headed giant who could repair, lift, or solve anything with which the world confronted him to a shadowy being who I needed to protect from that same world.



There is one picture of my father and I taken when I was about five, that remains my favorite. It’s a close-up of the two of us, his arm is around my waist. I’m in a blue checked dress with a white lace collar. My hair was lighter and his was darker, so we both have matching copper curls. His face is unlined, heavier, his smile is so wide it practically splits open the picture. I remember that day in diffused dreamlike scenes. He had taken me to a house where there were girls my own age. I think they were the daughters of his college friends visiting from out of town. I was supposed to be playing with them, and for some unknown reason, a sense of dread palpable even today, I refused to leave his side. I clung to him all day long, despite his attempts to nudge me in the direction of the other girls. It may have been a dream I imagined to explain the picture. But what I remember is this desire for him to shield me from the unknown. Somehow he had become the unknown, with his quicksilver moods and his storms of anger. That father to whom I had clung with such adoration was gone already, lost to the shadows that pulled him further into another world. It was as if he was stuck between those two planes of existence, and the result was mental and physical chaos. What I couldn’t decide was whether I still wanted to cling a little bit longer, how quickly I hoped he would disappear entirely into wherever he was meant to go.

Laura Michele Diener


Laura Michele Diener author photo

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.



Jan 042014

Dad photo

“Saltwater Cowboy” is a sharply perceived portrait of an extraordinary father, a man who served in the Navy, served on ships, all his life and left his son an indelible image of competence, courage, devotion and panache. Joe Milan lives in South Korea; this is his second contribution to NC. It’s a wonderful addition to our growing collection of fatherhood texts (we have a series of set essay topics — see them all here at Numéro Cinq Anthologies).


My father said his life started at nineteen, the moment he decided to join the Navy. On a muggy August afternoon, he was sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on a porch with a guy everyone called Bud. About halfway down the bottle my father blurted out, “Let’s go join the Navy.” They roared down the country roads in my father’s 60’s Datsun truck with holes in the floorboard, over the low hills of houses and trees where there are no dogs – only hounds — between the square plots of soybean and cotton, and into town to the recruiting office.

The recruiter showed pictures of girls and oceans and beaches and elephants of the Pacific and had them take the test and sign the papers. Two days later, after his family disapproved and said they wouldn’t let him go – “try to stop me” – my father and Bud were on a bus to Chicago and boot camp. They stayed the night in a motel along the way, and in the morning when my father woke, Bud was gone. Bud went home.

My father always left out everything that happened before that moment on the porch. For me, scraping the memories for stories my father told me when he had too much to drink, the moment my father’s life truly started was in a break room in a factory. After dropping out of high school, he worked at a rubber plant, constantly bombarded by chemical dust that stuck to his skin like paint. Once in the break room during lunch, a co-worker, who had lived his entire life in town working at the rubber factory, stood by the punch clock for a long moment. He looked around the room at the men in overalls, then down at his timecard. He muttered and then dropped to the tile floor, dead. Stroke.

* * *

Bedtime stories for me were Navy stories. Often they started when I asked about his tattoos, the cross anchors on his hands, the ships at full sail and winking girls in scanty sailor uniforms on his arms and shoulders. “Well, I got this one when we were pulling liberty in…” I heard about Singapore, Subic, Perth, Bangkok, well before Washington DC or New York. Every room was smoky. Dust trailed the speeding jeepnies and tuk tuks. Gun shots rang off in the distance. Men with names like Dirty Dan, The Fighting CB, and Matta gulped burning whisky and broke the empties on the dirt road and howled at the sky. Men fought over pool games and threw each other out of windows that had already lost their panes.

“Why, Dad?”

“That’s what young men do, have a good time,” he said. “It was fast living, boy. Real fast.”

My father, adventuring through these places, was as mythical to me as a Hollywood cowboy. And like a cowboy, he told me about vastness of space – blue fields of ocean instead of the prairie. The ocean could be as still one moment and stampeding over the deck the next. My father lived in the thick of dangerous waters and tumultuous towns.

At work

If my father had faith in anything, it was that he could handle ships. There could be a twenty-knot wind out of the west, the port engine could die on the ship, the navigator could panic since the pier cleats weren’t where they were marked on the chart, and my father, looking out the window, could drive an eleven hundred foot carrier along the pier softly. “It’s what I do,” he would say. Within ten years of joining the navy, he had moved up the ranks from a sailor mop jockeying on the deck to a harbor pilot who docked ships into port and sent them out to sea.

Sometimes, when I was about ten, my father brought me to work. I rode the tugboats that dropped him off on Trident Submarines that he guided out into the dark tree-lined fjord of Puget Sound. When the job was done, the tugboat would come alongside the moving submarine and he would jump, without a lifejacket, back onto the tug as if it were nothing. As if one slip couldn’t send him under the icy water and the wake couldn’t suck him under to the propellers.

On the way back, my father would ask the tug captain if they’d let me on the wheel. I never wanted to be on the wheel. But soon I was grasping onto the wood handles, trying to not to hold my breath, steering the boat. “Just follow the wake of the other tugs,” he would tell me.

Advice from my father was always the same. On jumping from the high dive, “Just jump. Just go and do it.” On going to college, “Make it happen. Go and do it.” On becoming a writer, “Well, go and do it. Write.” Sometimes he added, “The worst thing you can do is overthink it, boy. Educated people sit around asking why the wind is blowing you toward the rocks. You don’t have time to ask. You just look out the window and react. Make a decision. Life doesn’t have time for you to worry it right. You just go out and do it.”

* * *

When my father retired from the Navy they gave him a party, a handshake and a shadow box filled with his service ribbons and brass plates recounting my father’s time in navy, most of it as a pilot. Piloting was what he wanted to do again. He studied charts, took tests and improved his maritime licenses. He applied for piloting jobs and flew out to Florida and Virginia for interviews. Each time he came back disappointed. And so we stayed near Seattle, not far from my father’s last duty station. Waiting, my father worked part time jobs, as a captain or a mate on ferries, tugboats, and science ships in the icy waters of the Northwest. There were a lot of days he didn’t work. On those days with a coffee in hand, he sat on the porch and watched the neighbor’s cat hunker behind the cul de sac sign and take a dump.

That’s also when people my father knew started dying. Bud was first, lung cancer. My uncle, my father’s brother, cancer. That one startles me even today. For the first and only time in my life I saw my father cry. After he hung up the phone, he clung onto my mother and me in the dark end of the hallway of our house. His face was hot and he heaved for air. My uncle died at fifty-four.

After eight years of trying, and waiting, he became a pilot again in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was an October evening in 2003, after docking a couple of ships my father came home and had his first heart attack. On the phone he talked about his cholesterol levels as he would with tide tables or how much draft a ship had. Only when he had a physical would he signal his worry with a sigh and a “I gotta go, boy.” On the next call, “Boy, have a drink on me. The doctor said I’m in better shape then those twenty year old skulls on the ships I pilot.”

My parents came to see me in Korea to find me battered in the hospital. I had flown off a mountain bike crashed into a tree leaving my chest and spine a tangled mess of rattling broken bones to be fastened back together with bolts and plates of titanium, and someone else’s bones. The doctors told me I was lucky and I was: I would walk. I was alive. My father sat next to my bed, quietly rubbing the tattooed cross anchors on the back of his hand. Finally, he struggled out, “Sometimes a man has to know his limitations.” A line from Dirty Harry.

Rope ladder

* * *

After my parents separated, my father told me about a dream he kept having about a ship he had served on before he became a pilot. My father had taken the old and mothballed ship out to be sunk for target practice. The ship went down, then his shipmates from my bedtime stories – the same ones from that very ship – started dying. Diabetes. Suicide. Heart attack. It wasn’t just his old shipmates. A pilot from a nearby port in Hawaii fell off a rope ladder while boarding a ship and was sucked under the waves. My father started wearing life jackets. My father hated life jackets.

“I keep seeing it,” he told me over the phone, “just like it was after we had hung off the sides and painted it. I’m there on the pier with my sea bag over my shoulder and I’m about to go up the gangway and the old chief stops me. ‘Sorry boats, Milan,’ he tells me, ‘not your time.’ I can see them, my shipmates, hollering at the seamen, getting them heaving on the lines, the boatswain whistles blowing. Then I see them all go, steaming away, leaving me alone on the pier with the seagulls dropping clams.”

Then came the skin cancer. Small spots like freckles on his bald head got radiated, leaving little pink scars. It also had burrowed into his ear canal. The doctors took it all out and covered his earhole with a flap of skin from his leg. “They might take my job from me. Might say they I’m not fit to pilot,” My father worried over the phone. I told him if that happened, we’d just open a bar in the Philippines and drink cheap wine. “I wouldn’t survive a week.”

The last time I visited him in Hawaii, we went shopping at a maritime store for fishing caps to keep the sun off his head. He would try a hat on and look at the mirror, shake his head and put it back. I said that we could get a sombrero. He could be the Mariachi Pilot. Then I asked him, “Do you feel like you’ve lost something? Like you’ve lost a bit of breath?”

 He caught me off guard. “I don’t know, I guess. It’s like I lost something I can never have back.” He picked up a yellow fishing cap and looked in the mirror. He looked pale. He looked scared.

* * *

In college, I worked in film production. After the movie sets were torn down, when the only remains of the spectacle were naked concrete and traces of sawdust and sand, I’d always get a feeling that I was tiny and couldn’t say where the props had really been. I got that same feeling at my father’s memorial. There was a photo of my father from the bridge wing of a ship, grinning while looking down at the camera. He looked so happy. Yet, before I noticed the grin, I saw the life jacket.

One day I sat down at my desk and wrote this:

As the last hours of streetlight sliced through the blinds, my father stared up at the ceiling. Old photos in clean picture frames look out from the shelves. His shadow box is gathering dust. After a few sips of Kona decaf coffee, he sat and took his blood pressure. The machine groaned and tightened. It beeps and he wished he could still hear it without the muffle. The numbers say it’s a little low.

The harbor’s July air is thick and full of salt and diesel exhaust. The roads were still black from the morning mists. The waters rippled off the piers and the docked ships. From the wheelhouse of the tugboat steaming through the channel toward the job, my father didn’t notice the Arizona memorial raising its flag above the sunken hulk. His thoughts were on the job, and the depths of the harbor, the draft of the ship, and the breeze from the northeast. 

A cargo ship deep in West Loach waited for him. It was a complicated job that would need all his focus. His strategy is to pull the ship from the pier with tugs, back slow and turn the ship 90 degrees, using the tugs, avoiding the other ships and the unseen shallows. Once the ship was in the channel he could drive the ship past the last turn and out to sea. The job was like moving a semi-truck  out of a full parking lot, on ice, without brakes, with ball bearings instead of wheels, and little go carts pushing the trailer to keep it between the lines.

As he climbed the rope ladder to the access hatch in the wall of the gray hull, he clenched his teeth. Men can fall off into the green abyss. Big ships like this give men heartburn. They can smash into the pier or run aground. Lines from the tugs could part and whip back onto the deck. Anything can go wrong; everything can go wrong.

The sun broke through the clouds and it was hot under his life jacket.

 On the bridge, my father smiled, and shook the captain’s hand. Harbor Pilots are faces of calm. The ship’s engines hummed and the crew checked the computer screens and hustled the lines. From the bridge wing, the tugs were small, as if they hadn’t grown up yet. He swallowed, keeping in the tension, focusing on the images burned in his mind of where and when each movement would begin and end.

The tugs heaved and the ship growled and shuddered as propellers started backing. Coffee brown silt swelled up staining the water. The ship had a deep draft and the bottom wasn’t much deeper. Lines moaned, water churned, radios crackled, my father’s forehead beaded with sweat. There was a knot twisting and tightening inside him.

For an hour my father crisscrossed from the port bridge wing to the starboard and back again, gauging distances, calling corrections to conn, and to the tugs. He fought sudden breezes, the ever-changing depths, the weariness of his body. Then finally, it happened. They cleared the tight loach and were moving toward the channel to the last turn and the ocean.

With the job essentially done, he looked down from the bridge, past the anchor winches and the stanchions of the deck to the dark green water just ahead. This is when he would laugh. A country boy from the fields of Tennessee had moved a mountain of steel.

But as the adrenaline faded, he didn’t laugh. When the ship made its last turn at Whiskey point, the point where the harbor opens up to the unending field of green then blue water of the Pacific, where the white caps clapped all the way to the line where the water splits with the cloud splattered sky, he looked up and knew he had gotten the ship out safely. And that was it.

Whiskey PointThe approach to Whiskey Point

—Joe Milan


Joe Milan 3

Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. He is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program.

Jul 042013



George Axelrod was a great Hollywood screenwriter who defined highbrow comedy and male-female relations for an era. In truth he may not have so much defined male-female relations as reflected them, the last “classy” gasp of the postwar male dominance in a culture that was fast changing. NC Contributor Steven Axelrod offers here a gorgeous addition to our Fathers Series, his loving but frank look at his father’s life and legacy, a monumental essay from the guy who knew because he watched, as only a little boy can, his father bestriding his world like a god, like myth itself, and finally crumbling from the pedestal.




My father,was afraid of everything, and he passed most of his fears down to me. Some of them remain latent, drugged guard dogs stirring in their sleep at a snapping twig or a heavy footfall: moments of agoraphobia checking into a big hotel in a new city. I consider hiding out in the room, I inventory the miniature bottles of booze; then I button myself up to the neck and the feeling passes, like a chill. I hesitate before boarding an airplane, flinch before walking into an elevator and I feel the ghosts of my father’s phobias haunting me, like his voice in the back of my head, that wry half-drunk ongoing commentary: “That was a room-emptier, dear boy.”

Yet he was capable of convulsions of courage. After stalling for weeks, my step-mother Joanie running interference for him with the studio or the producer or the star (“When I say I have sixty pages, it means I’m about to start”), my father would lock himself in a room and work for thirty hours straight until he finished the script, turning it in on time and camera-ready. It might seem like mere mulish persistence, but nothing frightened my father more than a blank page and a deadline.

working dad-1

In high school he sat with the visiting football team’s fans and cheered on the opposition. Then he took a bat from the athletic department, arming himself against the drunken jocks he knew would storm his room, seeking revenge. He never graduated from high school, though he told me his P.E. teacher there gave him the best advice of his life. “You’re useless at sports,” the man said. “You should play with the girls.”

Dad told me: “I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Women never scared him, I have to give him that.


A Self-Made Man

cool dad-1

He arrived in New York City before World War II, with no credentials, no real education and a family who disapproved of his ambitions. He walked into radio writer-producer Goodman Ace’s office looking for a job. The interview was a brief one: “Come back tomorrow with ten jokes.”

He worked for several years on “Mr. Ace and Jane” and “Easy Aces” writing the type of malapropisms that would be associated with another cunningly professional air-head, Gracie Allen, years later: “He lives on the poor side of town, in those Old Testament houses,” and “You could have knocked me over with a fender.”

My father always had faith in his own talent. He never had much beyond it to trust. His grandfather was a tyrant, his father was a tyrant’s prey who gave up his own career in show business under the threat of disinheritance. His grandfather, Jacob Axelrod, was the son of a Silesian rabbi, a Tzadic of the Hasidim, and Jacob was next in line. He fled that responsibility and arrived at Ellis island with fifty cents in his pocket. But of course he also had the steel to stand up to the absolute ruler of his fiercely insular religious sect, the arrogance to defy his father and the courage to sail away into the unknown, owning nothing and knowing no one. Fifty years later he was a different kind of king – a real estate maven who had bought and sold dizzying amounts of property in lower Manhattan. No one knows quite how he did it; or why, ten years later, he threw himself off the roof of one of his own buildings.

When my kids were little, my ex-wife took them  to the refurbished Ellis island, where my daughter found old Jacob’s name on an interactive computer list of 19th century immigrants. “That’s Daddy’s ancestor!” she said.

“Yours, too,” her mother reminded her. It was a stunning moment for a twelve year old girl. She asked me about Jacob, but I never found out much myself – how he created his empire, or came to regret it so profoundly. But his son Herman, who attended Columbia University with Oscar Hammerstein and collaborated with the great lyricist on some collegiate Varsity shows, received  an ultimatum from Jacob: if he didn’t abandon show business and join the family real estate firm, he would be disowned and disinherited. So he knuckled under.

Interestingly, Hammerstein’s father was similarly hostile to his son’s career choice. But the old man died  before Oscar graduated. Herman had to wait another thirty years for his own freedom. The day after Jacob’s funeral, Herman quit the real estate business and took up painting and sculpture. His work had been exhibited in a dozen museums by the time he died.

Unfortunately, he never learned the essential lesson about parental tyranny: quarantine it in your own generation. Almost against his will, it sometimes seemed, he passed the paternal cruelty down the line, along with his brown eyes and his creativity.

He sent George to the Hill School which the boy hated; just as George sent my brother to Hotchkiss, which was just as bad. This heartless dictatorial compulsion loomed like a Biblical curse over all of us, and my brother never had children partly because he feared it so much. Would he have sent his own kids to military school and threatened them with exile if they didn’t join the family law firm? We’ll never know. But none of us would have been surprised.

So my father launched himself away into the unknown just as his grandfather had done. Unlike Jacob, he had no gift for intimidation, no uncompromising greed, no lust for power – just a wry sense of humor and a working typewriter. It turned out to be enough.

“Just finish something,” my mother told him. “You’ll sell it.”


The Best Day

So he did, which led to one of the great high points, the days he always rated ‘10’, in his life. This was the best one of all.

My father’s play, The Seven Year Itch, had opened and by the time rehearsals were finished he was sure he had a useless mess on his hands: snappy first act, weak second act, disastrous finish. Emlyn Williams  — best known for writing The Corn is Green — was performing in a play about Charles Dickens a block away and helped trim Itch with something he called  “interlinear cutting”: taking out individual words, clipping the play sentence by sentence without losing any major scenes. It worked. The play improved. It got tighter, and most of all shorte, but it remained flawed. My father was terrified of the reviews, and he stayed away from the traditional Sardi’s vigil of getting quietly drunk and waiting for the New York Times to hit the street. He left the theater after the first act and went home to bed.

He woke up the next morning to find no food in the refrigerator. My mother, two months pregnant with me, was busy with my brother Peter, fussing and colicky at age four. Their bank account was over-drawn, so he pulled on his Burberry raincoat, too thin for the early winter chill, and walked out into the spitting wet snow to beg a small cash advance from the box office.

The date was November 20th, 1952. The time was eight thirty-five in the morning.

He arrived at the theater, shivering, and just stood across the street, staring at the vision of his life from that moment on, absolutely and irrevocably transformed. The line stretched from the box office down 46th street, all the way to Eighth Avenue and around the corner, men and women in their bulky coats, shuffling in the wind-whipped sleet waiting for the box office to open two hours later. The first of them must have arrived before dawn.

itch playbill-1

He stood a watched them for a long time. Then he got his advance and took a cab home to read the reviews.

Six months later he was in Hollywood.

A year later he was divorced.



George  Axelrod and Marilyn Monroe

“People often ask me, which is more rewarding – parenthood or writing,” he used to tell me. “It’s funny because you and The Seven Year Itch were born in the same year. Itch is more successful than you, funnier than you, richer than you, more popular than you. It’s held up better than you. I’d say it’s no contest.” I tell people that anecdote and observe with detached amusement the shock on their faces. The remark was only incidentally cruel; much more than that it was simply an irresistible joke, one which he knew I’d get, and more importantly, one aimed more devastatingly at himself than at me.

He was a bad father, I suppose. But I inherited from him a need to be entertained and a delight at being amused that rendered his mundane failings irrelevant. He could always make me laugh.

Almost twenty-five years after Itch’s triumphant opening, he failed in his struggle to get another play, Feeling No Pain, mounted on Broadway. The gimmick of this new musical was that the protagonist had rented the theater for the night of his fiftieth birthday, to review his life in front of an audience of friends and enemies, colleagues and critics, before committing suicide on stage in the dramatic finale.

He wrote the lyrics for the songs, whose titles reveal his state of mind – “Are you Gonna Change” (The answer, emphatically no); “The Ladies Love Me” and the title number.

Jerry Lewis was committed but backed out. Jack Lemmon signed on but begged off when his wife Felicia balked at moving their kids across country for the length of the  run. With no star the project fell apart. I may have the only extant copy of the play, and even that manuscript remains incomplete.

The partial script gives some hints about why his first marriage failed. Richard Bender, the protagonist, imagines the relationship as a serialized radio soap opera. He brings out the performers and the mikes in the stripped-down stage version of a radio station recording studio:


Okay, take it. We’re on the air.

(An ORGAN PLAYS a RADIO THEME; in the manner of radio actors, they drop the pages to the floor as they finish them)


(As the announcer)

Ladies and gentlemen, once again we take you down Fifth Avenue to the corner of West Eleventh Street, up three flights and into apartment D for another heart-warming episode of ‘Our Gal Sarge’, a story which poses the problem: Can an attractive, well born, socially conscious young housewife, mother and ardent worker for the League of Women Voters find romance and happiness married to a handsome but frivolous and dissolute comedy writer so lacking in political awareness, that he would not even work for Henry Wallace?


(He puts his hand over the mike and speaks to the audience)

These things were always written from the woman’s point of view.

My mother’s point of view? “I stuck it out for his psychoanalysis, but he wouldn’t stick it out for mine.” In fact, she thought my father’s psychiatrist was the heart of the problem. His solution to the problem of George’s phobias was “Just take a drink, it’ll calm your nerves.”

He took the advice and it almost killed him.

My mother wanted him to write something great; she wanted him to stop drinking and save his money. He wanted to write sex farces, get bombed and when he ran out of money just make more. My mother was a depression baby; my father  just thought she was depressed.

Joan Stanton, the stunning blond he met on a Fire Island beach that summer, saw things his way. When the call came from Billy Wilder, inviting George out to Los Angeles as the Seven Year Itch movie screenwriter, my mother begged him to save his soul and stay in New York.

Joanie at the B&W-1

Joanie booked the plane tickets.

She was always good at handling the details.


The Golden Age of Hollywood

They lived quite a life, and I saw brief glimpses of it on school vacations: sitting around the pool with Tony Curtis, planning “Gemini” birthday parties, spending money in style, with houses at the beach and in town,  freezers full of steaks cooked on the built-in electric charcoal grill, the screenings and openings (Though he had to get drunk to attend them); and the movies themselves, on which his reputation still rests – Bus Stop, Breakfast and Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, How to Murder Your Wife. The banner quote in the Life magazine article about Murder, summed up his attitude in those days. Was Italian newcomer Virni Lisi a star? ”SHE’S A STAR BECAUSE I SAY SHE’S A STAR.”

Murder one sheet-1

The embedded video is from home movies taken by Roddy McDowall at Dad’s Holmby Hills house in the mid sixties. This was his glory time and you can see it in these silent sun dappled moments caught by Roddy’s ever-present 8 mm camera.

Glamor floated in the air like pollen. But it rarely merited more than a sneeze. I remember one afternoon, inspecting the wedding invitation from Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow: a big glamor portrait of them, with the date and the RSVP inside. Mia Farrow’s mother was Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in a series of Johnny Weismuller Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations. Somehow this detail crystallized the absurdity of the affair for my father. He laughed and said “Me Tarzan, you Frank Sinatra’s mother-in-law.”

It was an immensely attractive world, a privileged realm of celebrity, warm winters and ripe orange, a sunlit David Hockney world of pale blue swimming pools and cool Mexican tile. An Architectural Digest world of dinners on the patio with views of the city lights, brilliant nights of conversation with the startlingly life-sized people most people would never meet, cashmere against the desert chill; palm trees swaying and bougainvillea blooming red among the faint smells of cut grass and eucalyptus. “One of the great pleasures of success in the movie business,” my father said to me on one of those evenings, “Is that the people you most want to meet want to meet you just as much.”

It was paradise. But it couldn’t last.

murder cartoon-1

My father started directing his own scripts, resulting in a brutal pair of flops. First came the quirky masterpiece Lord Love A Duck (“An act of pure aggression”), which “went from failure to classic, without ever passing through success,” as he liked to put it.

Roddy McDowall played Tuesday Weld’s  high school fairy godfather in that odd dark film, guiding her with faultless cynicism through the obstacle course of teen-age life, even organizing the death of her odious step-father. Ruth Gordon played the batty mother-in-law whose tart “In our family we don’t divorce our men, we bury them” summed up her caustic point of view. Ultimately Mollymauk, as Roddy’s character calls himself (“A bird thought to be extinct, but isn’t”) engineers his protégé’s rise to movie stardom, in the appropriately titled “Bikini Widow”.

The scene where Mollymauk teaches Tuesday Weld’s character to manipulate her father into buying her a load of cashmere sweaters is worth the price of admission all by itself. There’s a simple equation to remember, he explains: father + divorce x guilt2= sweaters to the 12th power.

Then came The Secret Life of an American Wife. My father judged movies by their titles as he judged champagne by how hard it was to get the cork out, with equal success. Even he knew that the film’s clumsy name boded ill. He preferred The Connecticut Look but studio marketing people worried that foreigners wouldn’t understand it. , (“What do you think she’s talking about when she refers to her ‘rapidly spreading Connecticut behind?” I remember him shouting at some studio bean-counter)

Except for a lovely one act chamber piece between Anne Jackson and Walter Matthau buried in the middle of the picture, it deserved the ignominious fate that spiteful critics and an indifferent audience forced upon it.

With the drinking getting worse and the failures piling up behind him, even Joanie, who was so good at manipulating people and bullying them, couldn’t get my father’s career back on track. She used his friends and colleagues to build her own decorating business, and would gladly tell anyone who asked (and some who didn’t) that she’d been the real breadwinner in the family for decades. She owned a shop in Beverly Hills called The Staircase, which featured the circular staircase from The Seven Year Itch as its main decorative motif. She sold Porthault sheets there and expanded her business exponentially with a Who’s Who of Hollywood celebrities. She had the glow of a pregnant woman when she was in the middle of some massive Bel Air renovation; my father used to say “She’s lovely when she’s with house.”


“What Have You Written Lately?”

And so, after raising two children (one from Joanie previous marriage, and a daughter of their own), after flipping twelve houses (including one on Carbon beach they sold because Joanie couldn’t stand the sound of the ocean), after their opposite career trajectories, hers to the top of what you might call celebrity interior design, and his to the bottom of a world he had owned in another era, she handled his induction to the Bette Ford Centre, and paid the bill for his rehab.

They’d been separated for a while before that, and Dad had been living a different version of the high life, a mockery of his earlier glory, paying a spectacular Las Vegas hooker full time wages to act the part of his girlfriend, and later, moving back to London, almost killing himself in a savage bender after a battle with the Grosvenor Estates over the matter of a bicycle left in common hallway.

He returned from his ordeal in Palm Springs hurt and humbled, beaten but not broken, determined to stay sober for as long as he could. And I couldn’t help thinking of Neil Simon, with whom he’d toiled in writers’ rooms in the late forties, with whom he had clashed over Dad’s miscasting of Simon’s weakest play, during the winter of 1966. Walter Kerr memorably began his review of The Star Spangled Girl this way: “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.”

As alcohol scuttled my father’s career in the seventies and eighties, Neil Simon steamed along imperturbable and majestic, like some Cunard luxury liner of comedy. Even his wife’s tragic death and his private struggle to start living again generated a hit play.

Maybe his shrink said “Man up” instead of “Hit the bottle.”

It was a peculiar sad time, those decades of ruminant sobriety between Dad’s stay at Bette Ford and his reversion to white wine on his death bed. He was struggling  to start his career again, taking meetings just as I was, doing odd writing jobs for mentally defective, drug-addled producers, just as I was doing. He was a has-been, I was a never-had-been, but nevertheless, we had a lot in common.

One incident in particular sums up that era. It was the spring of 1978. He was called into a studio meeting “with a bunch of twenty year olds” who told him they wanted to do a glamorous World War II period piece thriller, full of romance and intrigue, set on a train. He told them, “It’s been done. The picture is called The Lady Vanishes.” Blank stares. “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock?” Nothing. He told them to screen the 1938 classic and get back to him. Sure enough, they called the next week and set up another meeting. “We loved it,” they told him. “It was awesome. We want you to write it.”

He explained that it had already been written, generally the first step in the film-making process.

“No, no,” the twenty year-old VP development told him. “The movie’s in black and white. We want you to write it in color.”

So he did, carefully annotating the green plush sofas and the red wine.

Dad was flown to the location to coach Cybill Shepherd on her line readings, but his ideas didn’t register and his opinions didn’t prevail. “Let’s see what she brings to it,” the director finally decreed. “As far as I could tell,” Dad told me, “She brought a nice head of hair and a Porsche.”

The near-misses and dead-ends continued: the script he wrote with Joan Rivers that the fine intellects at Universal determined to be ‘too vulgar’ (but wasn’t that the point?); another original that featured an impossibly boring Secretary of Defense (Even when warning the president of imminent threats, he’s so dull that the President nods off, the  red telephone “slipping through his nerveless fingers”). The man happens to be a separated-at-birth triplet. One of his brothers is a brilliant stand-up comedian, the other a drunken, gambling addicted sociopath. When they all get together, hi-jinks ensue. It was called The Importance of Being Irving, and like so much that Dad wrote, it fell apart in the third act. He knew it, and tried to get various writer/stand-ups to help him revise and star. He said he was ‘too proud’ to ask his pal Steve Martin, who would have been perfect for the role and could have helped with the writing also. Too bad: I really wanted to see that one.



Then there was Grandpa. Like so many abortive projects, this could have been the one that turned things around for him. He described the origin of the project in one of his famous one-page letters:

Dad's letter-1

What could go wrong? It started with a few months of radio silence from John Hughes, then a full page ad in Variety clarified the situation. Hughes was making Home Alone 3, and the subtitle was Lost in New York. Hughes had taken what he needed from George’s idea and left him with the unsalable remnants. Or so it seemed to my father. He no longer had the heart to begin again.

In 1988 my step-brother Jonathan organized the re-release of The Manchurian Candidate, and the video below — a round-table discussion with star Frank Sinatra and director John Frankenheimer — gives an invaluable glimpse of my father during this difficult period.



Twilight of the Gods

George and Joan were back together after his boot camp stint of high-toned rehab in Palm Springs, and  the Sunday lunches remained a pleasure, a luxurious testing ground of excellent food and sophisticated talk. To this day I judge people at least part by how well they would have fit into those long tipsy afternoons overlooking the smog-bound clutter of the city and the blue desert of the Pacific. Would Joanie have said of this girlfriend or that one, “Charming girl, very bright. Wonderful addition to the life.”? Would my father have flirted with her shamelessly, asking her his patented trick questions (“When did you know you knew?”), while Joanie sipped white wine, and watched out of the corner of her eye while she discussed the seating hierarchy at Morton’s? I often think about that question and I always know the answer.

Of course Joanie ruled those gatherings with her perfect social graces and her iron will. But she let George hold court at the table. She ruled him in every way, until the very end, when she gave him an order he couldn’t follow. Dying of cancer just after the 9/11 attacks, she wanted him to take a Krevorkian-style cocktail of drugs and die with her. I know it sounds like something out of a gothic novel or some camp film with over-the-hill movie stars, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, perhaps: a deranged, wild-haired Bette Davis, screeching “we’re going to die TOGETHER!” But if you knew Joanie, nothing could surprise you.  This was a woman who could break the lock of her teen age daughter’s diary, breeze past the pathetic note asking her not to read further, and then not only read it cover to cover, but declaim the dirty parts aloud, to her daughter’s hated boyfriend,  the next night at dinner.

My father managed to refuse her somehow, despite the giant force of her will. She actually was weakening at last, like an exiled dictator or a great writer falling into dementia, and he lived two more years after she died. They were bedridden years,  he needed help with the mortifying basics of life, but he was still able to fly an entourage of medical personnel with him to  Las Vegas for a final gambling blow-out, still able to make me laugh over a good bottle of  Pouilly Fuisee.

Of course I couldn’t help thinking that he was burning through the last of what would have been my inheritance – money saved and still coming in from both his work and Joanie’s, as projects she had initiated – like the new nursery wing in Norman Lear’s Vermont mansion – rolled on without her.

And then he died and I flew out to Los Angeles for  the memorial service.

I knew I was going to speak in front of the gallery of his surviving friends and I flew out a week early. I spent the time writing and memorizing my eulogy. I could feel the ghost of my father’s own nervous panic addressing a crowd, and I fought it down just the way he did in his later years, when he couldn’t get drunk first any more: relentless preparation and unlimited effort in the name of making the excruciating look easy.

The euology isn’t much, really — just a hint of who he was, like the menu posted outside a four star restaurant or a photograph of the Grand Canyon.

This is what I said:


A Brief Farewell

Old dad-1

I’ll make this short, because that’s how Dad liked it. He had a rule at dinner. Everyone wanted to tell the story of the book or comic book they had just read, or the movie or TV show they had just seen. That was fine, as long as they could do it in three sentences. It was great – all you’d hear for minutes at a time was the sound of grinding teeth as various kids tried to boil down a Star Trek episode, or Lawrence of Arabia … or Moby Dick into three sentences. You could almost hear them: “OK – there’s this whale … no. There’s this guy who was chasing the whale … no, wait …”

It was okay. You were better off listening at that table, anyway.

You could learn a lot at dinner; sometimes meals turned into informal writing seminars. My Dad loved verbs, and he hated adjectives. Once he challenged me to describe something we were eating, some little meat pastry. I said it was flaky and savory and delicious.  Three adjectives: no good. He used two nouns and a verb: “calories, lashed together with garlic.” He taught me Logan’s Law: (The theatre director Josh Logan was a great mentor for him and one of his best friends for more than thirty years)  “A hit movie or play is a series of scenes culminating in a final scene through which the hero learns something about himself, always emotionally and always for the better. “ And it’s true – from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rocky to The Lord of the Rings. Dad said a great thing about cutting once that always stuck with me. ‘You turn the story upside down and shake it. All the loose stuff falls out.”

He was always proud that he put a phrase into the language with the title of The Seven Year Itch. But he put a lot more phrases than that into my language. To this day I can’t look at a fattening dessert without hearing him saying “..and the best part is … it tears the weight off you.” I can’t sit looking at a blank page without his credo coming to mind: “Will write, if cornered.” I looked at the airline meal on the flight out here, and heard him say “Toy food.”

And as for the word ‘totter’, they should just retire it from the language now that he’s gone, the way they retired Wayne Gretzky’s number when he quit playing hockey.

Dad could be a tough audience. I’ll never forget watching a young comedian trying his act on him one Sunday at lunch. Dad just sat there saying, “Good. That’s funny.” But he never even cracked a smile. Finally the comic got exasperated and said “Don’t you ever just laugh?” Dad shrugged. “No,” he said. “But don’t feel bad. My eyes are twinkling merrily.”

I wrote a suspense novel and asked him to cut it. He took more than a third of it out.  When I complained, he shrugged and said, “I could cut a minute thirty from the Book of Genesis if I really had to.” The edit was a huge job and a lot of work, taken from his own busy schedule. But the gesture was typically generous. My friends and I often heard him ask, “How much money would change your life?” If you thought about it and told him, he’d give it to you. It didn’t always take much. One night when my friend Stephen Salinger was broke and waiting on tables at Ma Maison,  my Dad tipped him a hundred dollars. It did the trick; Stephen never forgot that night. Dad once ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’59 in the Oak Room at the Plaza, just to show me what great wine tasted like.  When he knew I needed it desperately, he swept me off to London for my senior year of High School … and thirty two years later, it’s  still the best year of my life.  I learned much more from him than I did in school – antiquing on the Portobello road, or at the Turner show at the Tate. He had to drag me out to see the Noel Coward tribute at the British Film Institute. Hey, I was seventeen. It was a great night as well as Coward’s last public appearance ever.

It’s strange, standing in this house without Dad and Joanie here. Not even this house exactly… there have been so many over the years. This is just the most recent one. All of them, from 1018 Benedict Canyon to 301 North Carolwood, from 56 Chester Square to Malibu to Lloydcrest Drive, all had the same spirit. And most of them had the same bar. I got drunk for the first time in my life at that bar. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Anyway … for most my life these houses have been like the world capital of wit and sophistication.  If any of them are haunted, there are going to be some great parties going on, with some very classy ghosts.

Dad was a wonderful host, but he was cripplingly shy.

He was full of contradictions, mostly between the cynical things he said and the big-hearted way he lived. He used to say there was no one as tedious as a reformed drunk. But he was one himself for the better part of two decades with no loss of charm or style. An English magazine once asked him to comment on the phrase  “All the world loves a lover.” He said, “Funny you should ask. Right now my son is in love, my daughter is in love, my cook is in love, my secretary is in love, even the man who picks up my trash is in love. They stand under my window all night long, baying about it.  So in response to your question, I would have to say that all the world does not love a lover.  In fact all the world is bored to tears by a lover.”

This from a man who was married – with a one short break – to the same woman for more than fifty years. He had nothing against love. He just couldn’t take it seriously.

If there is a heaven, and I know he didn’t believe in that stuff, I can picture him at some celestial Ma Maison (The number is still unlisted), St. Peter bringing him  a bottle of white wine to the table instantly. Dad is ordering lunch – that was his specialty just like Patrick O’Neal’s character in Secret Life. There are some old friends around the table. Maybe he’s even pausing between courses, looking down on this gathering today, listening to my little speech. Not laughing, of course.

But perhaps his eyes are twinkling merrily.

Right now, I’d be happy to settle for that.

I tried to side-step any obvious sentimentality. He hated sentimentality. He used to say every Steven Spielberg movie could be titled with the prefix, “How I spent my summer vacation” (As a sharecropper, in a Japanese internment camp, hiding an alien, chasing a shark, saving Jews from the Nazis). He would walk out of a play if the curtain rose to reveal a refrigerator on the stage (he hated ‘kitchen sink’ drama) and once dragged me out of Man of La Mancha in a theater with no center aisle.

My stepbrother was brusque and succinct at the memorial service, my brother and sister read from prepared notes, though Nina’s gesture of chucking her cell phone into the swimming pool felt spontaneous. Our father hated the telephone (“For a dime anyone in this country can ring a bell in my house”) and he especially hated cell-phones.

Everyone seemed to think I spoke extemporaneously. Dad would have liked that. And I killed.

He would have liked that best of all.

 —Steven Axelrod


Steven AxelrodSteven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at Salon.com and various magazines, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.

Click here for the complete NC Fathers Series.

Jun 012013


“Love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind,” writes Byrna Barclay in her self-reflection upon this suite of poems upon, yes, her lost father. It’s nearly impossible to go mentally from the sweet photo above — father and daughter in a hammock, a book, the daughter sleeping safely in the cradle of his legs — to the idea that Byrna Barclay never actually knew her father, that he was dead before she was three. Byrna Barclay’s poems are poignant reconstructions of absence, they are like the light from a cosmic event millions of years old, the light filters through the universe but the star is gone.

Byrna Barclay lives in Saskatchewan. She is prolific writer of novels and short stories. She is not exactly an old friend. We shared a car ride from Saskatoon to Regina one summer day in the last century and managed not to keep in touch until Numéro Cinq brought us back into contact. A wonderful thing about the magazine is that it picks up lost threads.

See more work in the NC Fathers Collection here.


It seems to me that every writer has a Robertson Davies’ snowball, a traumatic event in early life after which nothing is ever the same again.  So many spend their writing life avoiding the telling, but that single moment not only informs their work but is the pressure beneath the lines.  It always erupts in imagistic and recurring threads, like dream.  Mine was the death of my father on the day before my third birthday.  That loss punctuates everything I write. 

Sometimes,  in the search for father one must go through the mother to find him.  The absent father.  So shape-changing he disappears at the point of contact.  Yet love bears the name of our fathers, of their leaving themselves behind.

—Byrna Barclay


From the Land of the Dead

I once knew a poet who took three naps a day
then wrote poems about his dreams.  Mine
are wild these nights, with flying
red tea-table chairs from my childhood,
empty closets, bookshelves bereft
of my father’s unfinished stories.

When I wake up I feel as if I’ve been held
by someone who didn’t appear in the dream.
How did that old song go?  Darn that dream.
I can still hear the sugar-sprinkled-on-cream-
of-wheat voice, but can’t recall the singer’s name.
I remember stories but forget the authors,
how between Great Wars a plum burst
in a poet’s mouth.

Tonight my mother takes my children
to the merry-go-round-man
I once wanted her to marry
so I could have all the rides she couldn’t afford.
Too much money spent on story-books treasured
in the linen closet.  I read my self to sleep.  At school

I made up the story.  The King of the Dead Sea
looked like my father & rode a seahorse out of clouds,
twirling a seaweed rope that turned into a ladder
to save trapped in the turret of the castle school
a pigtailed child who looked too much like me.

From the land of the dead my mother
lugs home my teacher father’s scarred desk,
his steamer trunk full of Dime novels,
his portable Royal typewriter, its red ribbon
shredded, even his ink blotter.  A feather pen.
She puts them in all the wrong places.

She brings me his manuscripts:
a radio play, a textbook on how to teach
Drama.  A story about Riel.  Rebellion.  His last
memory about his home in India: Ivory hunters
& elephants long walks, their struggle to die
in ancestral graveyards.

With indelible ink he signed his name.  Letters
squirm like unfolding larva, leap
to a height undreamed of by a moth,
final landing soft.  In my palm:
proof that my father lived, his ivory voice
no longer lost
among elephant bones.


Always, Father

More than I wanted the big kids
to boost me up to the window
so I could kiss Dougie
just back from the sanitorium
I wanted his sloe-eyed father
just back from the War
to marry my widowed mother
so she would stop her nightly fall
down a bottomless well.  Stop
screeching about boys spreading germs.
She made a doctor take pictures of sacs
in my chest the same way
Dougie’s shoe-salesman father
let me see how the bones of my feet fit
inside brand-new Mary Janes
through a magic box that made snow.

More than I wanted to marry Allan
when I grew up, I needed his shoemaker
father who hid red licorice in his leather apron
to marry my mother when his mother died.
In the pockets of his father’s pants
hanging on the line we found matches
and struck them on the stucco house.
His mother screamed and slapped Allan,
and mine warned me about the danger
of playing with fire.  She never knew
how Allan and I practiced for our parents,
he wearing his father’s airforce jacket and cap,
me trailing my mother’s lace curtain veil
in a ceremony fired by loss.

Years later, more than I wanted to marry
a man with the same initials as my father’s
I needed to get away from my mother.


Red is the Colour of Mourning

My father has finally come
not for me, twenty-one years older
than he was when he died,
but for my winter-weary mother.

He waits on the other side
of a window.  Large
so my mother can look out
at a changed world: Sun-grilled
dunes ripple away from scrub
towards a calmed river
as far-reaching as the sky.

Only three when he left,
I never knew him,
yet I’m awed by suddenly remembered
perfection of features clearer
than the line where a lowering sky meets earth.

Humped nose broken three times
on the rugby field.
Eyes as large and mild as a sacred cow’s
in the country of his birth.  He wears a red turban,
an out-of-place scarlet coatee
as if he’s just come from a ghat.

In India red is the colour of mourning.
Here, it’s the deep shade
of my mother’s passion,
of her anger at his leaving her,
of her forgetting his name.

I hear my father’s voice
modulated and muted
as if coming from the bottom of a river.
More than a call to my mother, or a comfort to me,
it’s the knowing: I heard this voice
before I was old enough to remember
a swaying hammock, his singing
me to sleep and every little wave had its night cap on…

I expect my father to come for my mother
in a winter caboose pulled by Clydesdales,
but he beckons from a refurbished roadster,
the one my mother crashed into a ditch
to avoid hitting the Rainbow
bridge where he carved their initials.
He won’t let her drive now.

Leaving me behind glass,
they’re away, river-bound,
with a salute from him,
a promise to return for me.


Love Stories You Just Can’t Tell

Your widowed mother picked up a stranger
on a train. He wore a suit just like your dead father’s.

She said she’d sub-letted her barn of a house
& you had to stay in a hotel until the renters left.

He said his name was the same as the hotel’s,
only backwards: George King.

When you fell asleep he was taking off
your father’s identical trousers.


Among My Father’s Curios

In this chanber of glass
this cabinet of teak carved
with thistles and flights of birds
I find the jaded head of the judge,
my father’s grandfather.

Against the scent of jasmine
against the blowing up of sand
his nose turns down. Brief & jagged
line of lip & curve of jaw
juts above his court tabs
stiff with starch. They say in India
he ordered hung sixteen sepoys
each mutinous day.

One severed lock of his powdered wig
lies safe in a silver snuff box
with monogram: W.L.H.

Here is a photo of my faher,
a sultry turbaned boy
astride a country pony. They say
he spoke only Hindustani. Forbidden
his grandfather’s English tongue
lest he speak improper Cheechee
learned from the servant holding the reins.

On the first shelf
a blue chiffon violet
folds its leaves
into a square of silk.
…………………………………………My first Elizabeth was my first love.
On the second shelf
in a curry dish
a single hook & button of jade
a wooden brooch: cherries
dropping redly
…………………………………………My second Elizabeth was the mother
…………………………………………of my children.
On the third shelf
a shop girl’s bright brass camel,
ivory tusks of her trade. They say
to her he left all his worldly goods,
disinheriting his children. My father.

…………………………………………\My third, Eliza, the delight of my dotage.
Beneath crossed sabers
…………….whips & spurs
I staring stand & dare not
touch the jade(d) head
sitting in judgement
on the skin of a leopard.

Did He Dance?

Dorothy told me they buried my father under the ice. She was four whole years older. She took me to her church after supper. The girl with the brilliant hair twirled, flimsy skirt flared. She’s going straight to hell, Dorothy said. The girl’s red mouth opened: she howled. She fell down and her hair hid her face. See? Dorothy said. She gripped my hand. The screen went dark, the lights came on, and Dorothy led me down the rows of bowed heads to the back of the hall. A woman in a blue dress made me kneel on the seat of a chair. The scabs on my knees hurt. Her father died, Dorothy said. They put him in a box lined with satin and buried him under the ice. Was he baptized or christened? the woman said. Did he drink? Did he smoke? Did he dance? Pray for your father’s soul! On the way home, crossing the skating rink, I twirled circles on the ice. I fell down. I brushed away the snow. The ice was clear and blue. I pressed my face into think snow, tried to see my father buried there, his last pale unshaven face, his last dance.

How I Want to Remember Them

1. I must forget how I moved
….in…. slow…. motion
through air white as a blank page.
So white. My father’s freckled face,
his raven-wing hair fanned on a pillow.

In my mother’s black photo album
he holds me aloft, as if awed
by his own small reflection.
This is how I know
………………………he knew me.

2. I must forget my mother’s death mask,
the sharp beak of a squab,
her hair cropped albino crow-feathers,
a crone’s toothless mouth agape.

This is how I remember her:
Saturday morning opera from New York.
Jan Peerce’s voice filled with light.
My mother’s let-down braids
the colour of sun’s early song, red
chenille robe whirling, me on her hip,
she dances me
………………….Till doors change places with windows.

3. Only a dream can give memory
to a child too young to remember them
together. I find them mirrored
in the silver tea service tray he gave her.
Every day he brought her breakfast in bed
until he fell ill, and she served him
while in the mountain ash outside
a robin sang of morning.

Picture them in pillowed bliss,
honeyed lips, a bit of döppa, dunking
thin strips of toast in soft-boiled egg
or in coffee made in the Swedish way
just for her. Braided life-
bread, sticky with icing and jam.
He won’t let her lick her fingers,
dipping the tips in a silver bowl,
then dabbing them with starched white serviettes
saved for these mornings reflected
in a silver dream she polished for me.


My Father’s Gloves

Found in my mother’s steamer trunk
the suede gloves she saved
have taken the shape of paws
yellow backhair curried
padded underside cracked
& each long finger
the curl of a claw.

I hold palm against palm
smell the dampness
of an old cave
into winter sleep.

My hands grow a second skin
yellow fur.

My Surrogate Father

I called him Uncle, my mother’s cousin, Karl Mauritz The Moose Millar. When he was thirteen and the eldest of ten, his switchman father died, and his mother left one porkchop on the window sill so the neighbours would think they hae meat for dinner. That night The Moose left home and didn’t return until he found a job as a stockboy for the Buffalo Nut & Bolt Co. He worked his way up to Vice-president, one of the last of the self-made men.

The Moose looked after everyone in the family. Leg braces for sister Maimie. Food for sister Violet when her steel-maker-man boozed away his pay cheque. When he found his first wife in bed with his brother he paid for her care in an asylum. He lost his son Missionary Bob to malarial anger, the chill of grieving too long for an absent mother.

Every week The Moose wrote to me, the Canadian half-orphan, stories about our great-grandmother who swept the streets of Ystad to pay their way to America, how my grandmother looked like the gleaner in The Song of the Lark. His own painting of her granary house failed when he forgot her woodflowers transplanted from the grave of her father to her husband’s beneath our Canadian cold-blue spruce. When I turned thirteen he wrote: Never dance with a kilted man. It all started when our Swedish ancestor, with grog jug in on hand and the hair of his woman in the other, dragged her up the Celtic shores.

The Moose gave me away when I eloped with the son of a Scot, his glasses splashed with old tears.


Love Bears the Name

I am the child lifted
onto my father’s heaving chest.
His raven hair sweeps back
into wings.
……………………….What’s going to happen
””””””””””””””””””’to my holy-hecker? His last words
beating through halls turning.
A dark-hooded woman leads me to another room
where stained glass refuses morning.

A box lined with satin
will hold his sleep.
I believe I took away
his last long breath.

He has gone to the War.
He floats under ice.
He has gone to Winnipeg.
I will find him if I reach
for the red sky.

I dream of the men who took my father away
on a bed with straps, away in a wailing car.
Into my hands my mother thrusts
a small red box. A snake
writhes around her fingers. In side the box
her wedding ring sinks into leaves soft as dust.
On a sleigh-shaped bed
my mother slides over ice.
She screams herself awake
from an endless fall.
Morning is the hardest.
Basement cold. Night ashes
in the furnace. No coal.
She struggles to her school,
falls on ice. And stars
stare down: red.

She tells me my father’s dream:
when his father died
he found him boarding a plane.
He couldn’t stop his father
from flying away.

Love bears the name of our fathers,
of their leaving

—Byrna Barclay


Byrna Barclay

Byrna Barclay has published a series of novels known as The Livelong Quartet, three collections of short stories, the most recent being Girl at the Window, and a hybrid, searching for the nude in the landscape. Her many awards include The Saskatchewan Culture and Youth First Novel Award, SBA Best Fiction Award, and City of Regina Award,  YMCA Woman of the Year, CMHA National Distinguished Service Award, SWG Volunteer Award, Sask. Culture Award, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.  In 2010 she published her 9th book, The Forest Horses, which was nominated for Best Fiction for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  Her poetic drama, The Room With Five Walls: The Trials of Victor Hoffman, an exploration of the Shell Lake Massacre, won the City of Regina Award.  She has been president of SWG twice, President of Sask. Book Awards, and Fiction Editor of GRAIN magazine.  A strong advocate for Mental Health as well as the arts, she served as President of CMHA, Saskatchewan, was the founding Chair of the Minister’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and for twenty years was the Editor-in-chief of TRANSITION magazine.  Vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board from 1982-1989, she is currrently the Chair. Mother of actor Julianna Barclay, she lives in Regina.

Apr 052013


Herewith a short fiction, a short modernist fiction, terse words carved out of the white space of the page, a dramatic meditation on fathers, marriage, and history splashed against a screen of absence, a gem of concision which is yet replete with place (that Ontario landscape reeling by) and literary reference. rob mclennan is a Canadian writer, indefatigable blogger and critic; we are both, coincidentally, in the current issue of Fencea serendipitous conjunction. It’s a great pleasure to introduce him to these pages.




 There is no such thing as fiction.

                        Richard Froude, The Passenger



In 1968, my father and mother drive west along Highway 401, towards Upper Canada Village. They have been married less than a year. He wants to show her something.

This happens in real time. They drive.

Both his hands rest on burgundy steering wheel, their cherry-red Ford. For the length of my memory, he owned and drove only Fords: the family car and the truck for the farm, upgrading every half-decade.

The wind through the open driver’s side window. His hair so black it shone metallic blue. It sparkles. A trick of the light.



It begins with a silence, seeking its source. With occasional birdsong, the pant of the dog, a tractor rolling along in the distance, the silence holds deep in its core.

We establish the fixed points: his daily routine, the pair of his and her Fords in the yard, the black Labrador mix.

Much of my childhood was punctuated by silence. Inherited.

The silence remains, holding court amid tenor. At first, you might imagine it is waiting for something to be said, or to happen, but it is not.



Their stretch of Ontario highway a madness of trees, awaiting development. Pitch-perfect birds and occasional deer. They pass farms and villages two centuries set. They drive west, into history. My father cities 1812 facts from half-remembered textbooks, mumbling dates and locations.

No, not awaiting. What’s the word? Dreading.

They are newlyweds, still. My father rests his left arm across the ledge of rolled-down driver’s side window. Air scrapes the length of his forearm.

My mother breathes deep, enjoys smokeless air.



This quiet between two is not absence, but slow comprehension. Each suspects what the other might say.

Years later, my mother would translate him, offering: your father is very angry at you for that thing that you did.

But for now, they are still learning. They react to cues, whether real or imaginary. They can’t yet read each other’s thoughts.



We could speak of the father as imagined figure, since he is not yet my father, or anyone’s father, beside she who is not yet anyone’s mother.

We pause, on the obvious: their youth, their half-restrained enthusiasms. One can’t help but compare. Basket of apples and peaches each nestled on the backseat. She has been wanting to replenish their supply of preserves. Applied correctly, wax seals freshness in.

Cellar shelves by the cistern. Fresh cobwebs and field mice.



The seven villages along the St. Lawrence Seaway he witnessed, drowned due to the Long Sault hydroelectric project, as he was mid-teen. Villages shifted, erased and rewritten, for the sake of the water. Buildings broken, and sold for parts.

A shed his father built from a former gas station, additions to the farmhouse made from what once a single family home.

The site of the War of 1812 Battle of Crysler’s Farm, half underwater. Inventing a pioneer village as a place-marker, upon the remains. A shoreline redrawn, by the flood.

They brought in buildings from across the area, including half a dozen from a two-mile radius of my father’s homestead. The cheese factory where his great-great uncle once worked, the one-room schoolhouse his own mother and aunt attended.

We shuffle history around.

The house he was born in, a century old by the time he was new.



A marriage: two merge, inasmuch as they individually change.

From the state of the farmhouse years later, it was as though she married, and left home with only the clothes on her back. Her wedding dress asleep at the back of a closet. She had little to nothing else pre-dating this, from her homestead to his. What did she bring but herself? What might she have left? What might she have meant to bring, but somehow didn’t?

A house sprinkled with archive: his rusted Meccano set, his preschool plush lamb.



In silent 60s-era Super 8, colours are brighter, illuminated. A particular era’s nostalgia in bright hues, glossy light. A quilt, stitching squares of mere minutes. They drive. The highway itself less than two decades old. So close to the lip of St. Lawrence River, a sequence of edited farmland and family estates scalpeled and shaped into two and four lanes.

Their fathers are both still alive. His, living years with cancer treatments, the three hour drive into the city. My father at the wheel, since his mother never learned.

He understands, distance.

He knows what lies across horizons, having been over every one.



Her father, chain-smoking. The entire household. It hovers around family portraits, Super 8 by the lake, where they cottaged. My mother, once married, would never light up again. She later frowned upon my own youthful folly. Looked upon with derision.

Her once-mixed thoughts on the move, shifting city to country mouse. Now she marvels at farmland, the open green stretch.

Rewind. Leaving the farm, the truck kicks up dust from the gravel, two miles to blacktop. She twitches from crunch and the dust cloud, anew. Mixed thoughts, but this, she loved from the offset: a jolt to a small, giddy leap as they start up the laneway. A schoolgirl glee and excitement the city could never provide.



My father, his hands on the steering wheel. The tan we now know as permanent. Melodic stretch of dirt road and gravel, of sonorous blacktop, that defy description.

From the Robert Creeley poem. Drive, she said.

—rob mclennan


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently lives in his hometown, Ottawa.




Jan 262011

Missing Dad

by Natalia Sarkissian

I can say I lost my father when I was six.

That was the year my parents separated. Although they weren’t divorced until a year or so later, I never spent long chunks of time with him after. I traveled from New York to Morgantown and later to Texas to visit him at Christmas and for two weeks every summer, but I was a kid. Instead of asking questions about his childhood (he grew up in Tehran, the son of well-to-do Russian émigrés) or his work (he was a professor of genetics), I roller skated in the driveway, swam in the pool at the complex or played Barbies in the bedroom with Rhonda, the girl next door. I didn’t know then that illness would cut his promising career and life short. And he never worried me with the fleeting nature of time.

(My father is the boy in the sailor suit, front and center.)

Maybe, if I’d had an inkling.

Maybe, if I’d been older.

I’d have sat next to his recliner in the den in Morgantown or the family room in Texas on at least one of those bi-annual visits and listened.

Dad died in 1978 when he was 45, from complications of multiple sclerosis.

Ever since I’ve lived with regret. What was it like growing up on well-heeled Jordan Avenue, Tehran, in the middle of an extended family of musicians, engineers and dentists? Did he ever go with my grandmother, Babi, when she taught piano to the Shah of Iran’s sister? Did he ever accompany my grandfather, Dida, on the civil works projects Dida oversaw for the Shah? What games did he play with General Norman Schwarzkopf (a classmate) before the General became a general? Who the first girl he ever loved? When did he know he wanted to be a scientist? Did he ever regret coming to live in America?

I will never know the answers.

(My father is center, back row with Norman behind him and to his right.

(My father is in the back row, center. Schwarzkopf is the blond boy to his right.)

But recently, through Numéro Cinq, I met Lynne Quarmby, a professor of cell biology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We ‘friended’ each other on Facebook, and began to correspond. One day, on a whim, I asked Lynne if she’d ever heard of my father. I’d been thinking of childhood and essays for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

“His name was Igor V. Sarkissian,” I wrote. “Back in the 60s and 70s he was experimenting on hybrid corn and beans (which is about all I know of his work).”

(My father in his lab in the 1960s.)

Lynne said she’d look and see what she could find out. A few days later she sent me this gift:

Dear Natasha,

So far as I can tell, your father published 91 scientific papers (there may be others that my searching did not uncover). He produced a solid body of work, taking a biochemical approach to an important agricultural and intriguing physiological problem. There was a peak of interest in his work in the 70’s (during which time his work was cited 50 or more times per year in the published work of other researchers). As is typical of virtually all scientific papers, the citations tapered off over the years. However, and this is the remarkable thing, his work is still being cited today. The field of biology, including plant genetics is moving so incredibly quickly that the vast majority of papers drop out of sight within a few years. To be cited more than 30 years after publication is a significant accomplishment and your father achieved that with 5 of his papers. Because he worked in an area somewhat distant from my expertise, it is difficult for me to provide a synopsis of his body of work. In lieu of that, I choose to focus on his mostly highly cited work, a 1966 publication – which by the way, has already received a 2011 citation in a review paper (this means that a current expert in the field has commented on the impact of this particular piece of work by your father).   –Lynne

Lynne then reviews my father’s 1966 paper, about hybrid vigor, translating it into laymen’s terms. I won’t summarize the 1966 article here—a future post—but the crux of the matter is this:

I’d had an idea that my father’s work had been important, but I had no idea as to its scope or that it was still generating interest. My father would be proud to know he made an impact.

When he found out, at age 24, that he had multiple sclerosis, he became single-minded, hoping to have enough time to be able to make some kind of contribution. And the fact that he was able to partially do so lessens the sadness I feel for his short and somewhat unlucky life.

–Natalia Sarkissian