|Grandpa in WWI uniform|
|Dad in WWII duds|
It was August 1977 when I returned home from a tour promoting my raunchy novel “Dry Hustle.” I immediately launched into composing material for the NY Public Theater workshop of “Sleeparound Town: Songs of Puberty.” At the same time my father came back early and alone from a sabbatical in Paris while my mother and sister stayed on.
So for a month we lived in close quarters: I in a detached studio, and he in the house where I’d grown up. I could hear him practicing his flute, and he could hear me raging away on the piano. I could tell he enjoyed rattling around his house in solitude because he stopped wearing anything but underwear. (There was a heat wave.) He also applied himself to a favorite hobby, writing dirty limericks. Here is my favorite, composed much later after he retired from teaching law:
Directions for sex may be found
In any old phone book around.
You connect with a dame
Who is ready and game
And then you press ENTER and POUND!
Sometimes we would get together for dinner when I would cook for us (he dressed for the occasion). I used the opportunity to pump him for information about Grandpa, though it involved delicate footwork. By now I knew that my mother had told Dad that his father’s ghost was making regular visits to me, but he considered her to be mildly bonkers and me to be habitually overwrought. I did catch him checking me covertly now and then to see if any more screws had worked themselves loose.
I kept my questions to personal history and avoided the paranormal. Dad and I were enjoying our time together, and any mention of ghosts would have ruined everything.
The Holy Ghost would have been enough to set him off on an atheistic rant. I wondered privately if his big problem with God was “Our Father.” Merely the word “father” triggered such aversion that he couldn’t get beyond it. Since he perceived his own father as distant, negligent, frivolous and lazy, why sign up for an even bigger dose of bad parenting from God the Father?
One night at dinner, I remarked about the coincidence that both he and his father had given up seriously composing music after returning from wars in Europe. Neither of them had seen combat but worked in liaison and operations. What happened over there, to make them turn them away from a vocation they loved?
“I can’t speak for my dad,” he said. “I just remember after coming back I felt very depressed and lost and I had no confidence in myself. That’s when I went into psychoanalysis.” (It had been thirty years since the war ended and my father was still going to an analyst five times a week.) “I didn’t think I could succeed at composing. I’m sure I got that from my father. He never offered one word of praise for my music.” He told me about a time when he was a teenager, when he wrote a minuet for string quartet. A friend of his father’s, a cellist, liked it so much that he arranged for some professional musicians to play it as a surprise at his dad’s birthday party. The guests applauded enthusiastically and then demanded the quartet to play it a second time. Afterwards they clustered around my father, congratulating him and calling him ‘another Mozart’ – and through it all his dad said nothing.
“But then he never had much to say about my music and never asked to hear it.”
“Do you think he might’ve been threatened by you? He wasn’t writing music anymore, and you were showing him up.”
“I don’t really care. Actually he never showed much interest in anything I did.”
Dad set his jaw grimly. I could tell the subject was closed, he’d had enough.
Then I felt the most extraordinary pressure build up around me, as if I was being crowded out by an intentional force. The words were pushed up my throat, making me open my mouth to say something so invasive and presumptuous that I knew it might drive a permanent wedge between us. I blurted:
“He wants me to tell you that he’s sorry.”
I was miserable, seeing Dad’s expression change. Not only was he angry at me, but also I’d confirmed his fear: his daughter was certifiably delusional.
“It’s a bit late for that,” he snapped.
As he got up and left the table, I wanted to beg him, “Please don’t blame me! Grandpa made me say it!” But that would hardly have helped my case.
We avoided each other for a few days.
And then one day he suddenly crossed the lawn and tapped on my door. He had something in his hand to show me. It was a music manuscript. He’d just completed a song, with piano, vocal and lyrics. It was the first song he’d written since he’d come back from the war: a despondent and anxious young man, for whom music was out of the question.
(To be continued.)