Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You Can Always Fry Eggs in Missoula, Montana: A Tribute to my Dad

My dad loves words. Language is endlessly fascinating to him, and as a child, heated discussions about language among my dad and his professor friends and grad students seemed like a really normal thing for grown-ups to do. Amid billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, cans of Old Wisconsin Club beer in their hands, Jim Rose and Bill Heilman and Bob Hammarberg and Deidrick Thede would “argue linguistics” at the wall-sized chalk board in our kitchen. Chalk dust would float in the air as they furiously wrote sentences on the board and then rubbed them out with the sides of their fists, too impatient for an eraser. I had no idea what they were arguing about, but they weren’t scary sorts of arguments, not like the kind Mom and Dad sometimes had late at night, when Erik and I would sit at the top of the steps, listening and fretting. Mom and Dad’s arguments were about things like “karma” (she thought it was a reasonable thing to consider, he thought it was ridiculous) and whether or not Dad helped enough around the house (“Hire a new wife!” Mom once scrawled in colored chalk on the long-unfinished dry-wall of the laundry room; the walls got finished and painted promptly, as I recall).

No, Dad and his friends weren’t scary when they argued linguistics, just passionate, and I could tell the difference. Mom didn’t participate in these arguments – not because she wasn’t qualified, but more likely because she generally put her head down on the table and went to sleep after a drink and a half, whereas Dad and his friends seemed to stay sharp long into the night, after many beers. I would listen in because things that I said or wrote – grammatical constructions from the mouths of babes – often made it onto the blackboard. The linguists also made funny noises they called diphthongs and clicks – all kinds of amazing sounds that my dad was really good at—and they talked about things like the Great Vowel Shift, which they called the Great Vowel Movement. I would also stick around because usually they would take breaks to play poker, and then Dad would let me sit in his lap and put in the chips for him, which I would do with great care, counting out exactly the number of blue and red and white chips that he told me.

Among the words my dad loved were swear words. When I was growing up, he swore a lot – both as casual commentary and out of real anger and frustration. “Sommanabitch” he would say in the way some fathers might say, “Well, what do you know about that?” But mostly his swearing involved blasphemy of some kind: “Jeee-zus Cher-ist!” was fairly mild and very common, as was “God DAMN it!” “Jesus H. Christ!” expressed considerable more exasperation, but sometimes only “Jesus fucking Christ!” would do. I blame my father entirely for my inability to swear with feeling without taking the Lord’s name in vain. I generally am able to satisfy myself with a mild “Good Christ!” – but honestly, sometimes only extreme blasphemy will do. My mother’s cousin Ge, who was fluent in at least German and English along with his native Dutch, maintained that it was impossible to really swear effectively in another language, and I’m sure he was right. The language of swearing in my family was blasphemy, through and through.

Swearing was a lesson my younger brother learned early in life as well. In kindergarten once, Erik was hammering away at a little toy tool bench and swearing up a storm. I didn’t go to kindergarten at that school, so I don’t remember his teacher, but I have no doubt that she was a prim and proper, elderly maiden lady, because almost all of the teachers at Highland Elementary were. Even without the swearing, Erik must have been a somewhat alarming child: he had long, shaggy, white-blond hair, piercing blue eyes, an impish smile and a taste for trouble. And he was unbelievably smart. No doubt alarmed by this picture of a delinquent in the making, Erik’s teacher immediately alerted my mother to his blasphemous tirade at the carpentry bench. With equal amounts of amusement and satisfaction, I’m sure, Mom calmly explained that Erik simply thought that swearing was what one did while one was working in a woodshop.

When I was growing up, my Dad was a die-hard atheist, having rejected Episcopalianism as incompatible with the intellectual awaking he had experienced as a first-generation college student. He was an open-minded and respectful atheist, though, and offered to send me to Mass with Bill and Trish Heilman when I expressed some curiosity about religion (I declined; I was quite the little atheist myself as a child). I recently learned that in high school, Dad was an observant Christian, saying the morning office every day during Lent; because we are so much alike, it isn’t surprising that my own spiritual practice revolves largely around liturgy. Perhaps Dad unwittingly set me on this path when he read the Lord’s Prayer to us over and over, first in Old English, then Middle English and finally in contemporary English. This could possibly be the most boring thing a child could endure on the knee of her father, but Dad had a way of making it endlessly fascinating.

It didn’t occur to me until middle school that grammar was a bad word, something to be dreaded. Starting in seventh grade, each year we began on page one of Warner’s Grammar with the parts of speech: a noun is a person, place, or thing; a verb is an action or linking word; an adjective describes a noun and an adverb describes a verb; and so on and so on. We would be tested on the parts of speech long into the first semester, and my classmates would, invariably, year after year, answer the question “What is a pronoun?” with the wrong list: “is, am, was, were?” Finally, in tenth grade I rebelled and told my English teacher Laura Baker that I refused to start again with “what is a noun?” What was the point of this, after all, and when were we actually going to write something, I asked? Upon learning that my father was a linguist, Mrs. Baker gave me a little workbook on generative grammar, and let me work my way through it with almost no oversight. It wasn’t the pedagogical revolution I had hoped for – “This stuff can be really interesting, just ask my Dad!” – but it was better than nothing.

Dad also loved the things words could do, especially poetry. He would read us Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and we were there, hearing the harness bells shake and the raven’s “Nevermore” with chills running down our spines. Dad has long passages of poetry committed to memory, things his high school teachers and college professors made him learn, and which he has never forgotten. Having a memory like a sieve myself, I have always been wildly impressed with this feat.

Our house was always full of books, and the beautiful bookshelves Dad built to house them. One bookcase was designed specially to accommodate our double volume of the OED, with its onion skin pages and tiny print. I didn’t know exactly why, but I knew it was a prized possession, and I loved reading the words through the magnifying glass that came with it. We also had a full set of Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume The History of Civilization, and my mom prized the hand-written note she received from Will Durant thanking her for correcting an obscure error she had noted in one of the volumes. Books were everywhere in our house, and someone was reading all the time. When I was in middle school, my eighth grade English teacher asked me to baby-sit her two little boys (a dollar an hour until midnight, two dollars an hour after), and I remember wandering around after getting the boys to bed, searching in vain for the books. How could you be an English teacher and not have books? She was kind to me, and watching her boys became a regular gig, but I never quite forgave the dearth of books in her house.

I will always think of the summer of 1974 as the summer my parents abandoned us to Watergate. It was the summer between third and fourth grade, so I was nine years old. I would have thought we didn’t have a TV that summer – ours broke sometime in elementary school, and we were without TV until we moved in 7th grade to a house where the previous owners left a working set behind. It must have been sometime later that year that it broke, though, because the televised Watergate hearings figure so prominently in my memory of that summer. My folks and their friends seemed glued to the set, where men in suits sat behind green-topped tables and said very serious things I didn’t understand. I had no idea what Watergate was all about, but it was an article of faith in our house that Nixon was a Very Bad Man. I had cried the night McGovern lost several years before. I was only seven, but I adored my parents, and would passionately carry whatever banner they handed me. Later that year in second grade, I got in trouble when I defaced the photo of Nixon in my Scholastic Magazine, adding a pointy beard and mustache, and blacking out the President’s eyes. Denise Miller told on me – her mom had a bouffant blond hairdo and was the president of the PTA – and Miss Ruth reprimanded me, saying we must show respect to the President. It’s one of a handful of piercingly humiliating moments seared in my memory from childhood. As I recall, I did not argue, but in my heart, disrespect for the President burned proud and bright.

Politics was nothing new in our house. Among my earliest memories are marching against the Vietnam war as a pre-schooler in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my parents were both graduate students. I remember one march where the police wouldn’t let us carry signs on sticks (because they could be used as weapons?), so my parents put Erik in a baby back-pack and attached their sign to his back: “Will He Go Too?” I remember Dad telling stories about how he was at a party with Jane Fonda once, and how the marches would start at the sports stadiums right after a big event let out, to swell the numbers of protesters immediately.

My parents, I guess, were sort of hippie intellectuals. As I recall, there wasn’t too much turning on or dropping out, but they certainly had the hippie look going in the late sixties and early seventies. From my earliest recollection, my dad has had a beard; I’ve seen pictures of him as a clean-shaven young man, but I honestly don’t know if I would recognize him immediately if he shaved his beard. Now he keeps it very neatly trimmed, and his hair short and combed, but when I was a kid, his beard was bushy and wild, and his hair brushed his shoulders. He kept it out of his eyes with a bandana tied around his forehead, and he always had a carpenter’s pencil – shaved with a knife, not sharpened – behind his ear. He wore jeans, and pocket tees. Mom had black cat-eyed glasses, and wore her already-graying hair pulled all over to one side and clasped in a pony-tail under her left ear. She mostly wore batiked, flowy tops, reminiscent of her childhood in Indonesia, where my father had also spent time researching for his dissertation.

My dad was quite a drinker in my early childhood. They all were, my Dad and his friends. I have no doubt my mom would have been too, if she could have stayed awake long enough to have more than a drink or two. My parent’s parties were legendary, and no one loved them more than me and my brother and the Hammarberg kids, Nik and Mia. Nik and I were the same age and were “the big kids,” Erik and Mia were the same age and were “the little kids.” Everyone else was “the grown-ups.” While the grown-ups partied, we were sort of feral children, with the run of our huge Victorian house and the wooded ravine behind. Sometimes the parties were at the Hammarberg’s house, and for a while Bob was part of a mock motorcycle gang called “Hell’s Tuna’s,” consisting mostly of academics and folk musicians, and they also had rollicking parties.

But mostly the parties were at our house, which pulsed with people and music – the Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, some Stones, but mostly the Beatles. The soundtrack of my childhood can be found on two Beatles Greatest Hits double albums, one red, one blue. On these albums there are two almost identical photos of the Lads, leaning over the railing of a balcony, I believe, but in one they are clean-shaven, and in the other, hairy and wild. The theme song of my childhood is “Back in the USSR,” which the four of us thought hilarious, and we would move the needle on the record player back to that track over and over, jumping around the living room in a manic air guitar parody, screaming at the tops of our lungs, “Hey! I’m back!” The best part of the parties, though, was when the stereo went off and Bob Hammarberg got out his banjo. Sometimes Dad would play along on a little ukulele, and Mom would noodle around on the harmonica. We had a repertoire of songs to which we were devoted, including “Waltzin’ Matilda,” “Oh Mah Darlin’ Clementine,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and our all-time favorite, signature song, “Halleluiah, I’m a bum! Halleluiah, bum again! Halleluiah, give us a handout, and revive us again!” When the grown-ups got a bit more lubed, they would sing bawdy songs like “Friggin’ in the Riggin’” and “Roll Me Over in the Clover.” There were rousing choruses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and rounds of “Fish and Chips and Vinegar/Don’t Throw Your Trash in My Back Yard/One Bottle of Beer, Two Bottles of Beer…” In mellower moments, Dad – who directed and sang in church choirs as a teen-ager, and who has a beautiful voice – would lead us in rounds of “White Sands and Grey Sands” and “Tell Me Why the Sky’s So Blue?”

My parents’ parties always ended with us four kids pretending to be asleep in the hopes of being granted a sleepover. Once Nik and I convinced the little kids that their exaggerated mock snoring wasn’t helping our cause, we were generally successful. Our biggest sleepover coup was election night, 1976. We were at the Hammarberg’s watching the election returns because we did not have a TV, and the returns were very late in coming. We woke the next morning, joyful at the news that Carter had won – but the real thrill was waking in Nik and Mia’s room on a school day!

My partner Julie and I share a philosophy of parenting we call “benign neglect,” which I am proud to say is a direct inheritance from my own parents. My childhood was marked largely by enormous freedom, bounded just enough by high expectations and unconditional love to make it feel largely safe and happy. We were a little bit wild, my brother and I, with dirty fingernails and messy hair – Erik’s was always too long and in his eyes; mine had a permanent rat’s nest at the base of my neck. Periodically, Dad and I would sit on the front steps, and he would spend hours with a comb, untangling it. Erik and I had the run of the neighborhood, including a wooded ravine behind our house with a bicycle bridge across it, a corner drugstore three blocks away that sold candy and gum for a nickel, a wooded convent five or six blocks in another direction called “Bishop’s Hill,” where we played in the leaves in the fall and sledded in the winter. We even walked all the way downtown to go to the movies, where a quarter got you something at the concession stand, and if you pooled quarters with someone else, together you could buy a big box of candy.

My memories of my dad from my early childhood are almost all of how fun and present he was. I read somewhere that great moms are rarely remembered vividly from early childhood, because they are ubiquitous, the air we breathe, whereas dads are remembered in much greater detail because dads are fun! and do special things! I suppose this is true in my family; my mom was certainly the sun around which we all revolved, but I don’t remember playing tickle monster with her on the Persian run from Amsterdam (the rug that is now in my living room), or carving Halloween pumpkins, or listening to rain on the tin roof of the sun porch; and the thrill of sitting in the front seat with Dad on our cross country camping trip when I was four (while Mom attended to the toddler Erik in the back seat) is the main thing that makes that trip memorable.

In retrospect, I don’t think my elementary years were a particularly healthy time in Dad’s life; he drank way too much, and I think my parent’s marriage was strained in ways I only dimly understood as a child. (At one point in elementary school, they separated for a time, and Dad had a small attic apartment across town, and when we visited, he took us to the light opera, and we made rock candy on strings and Boston brown bread in tin cans. I can still feel the exhilaration of finding Dad’s long, green, leather-topped footstool in the foyer when I arrived home from school one day, because I knew it meant he was coming home.) But for me, my early childhood memories, including my memories of Dad, are vivid, and, for the most part, awash in sunlight.

Vietnam protests, Watergate obsessions and election-night cliff-hangers notwithstanding, my dad was not really so much of an activist as a homebody, like me, and I sometimes wonder if he missed his calling as a homemaker, in the broadest sense of the word (again, like me). It never occurred to me that being a girl was a liability or limiting in any way, but looking back on my early childhood, it seems that my parents were, despite their best intentions, unable to escape gendered expectations for their own lives. In those heady, early days of the women’s movement, my life was full of smart, strong, and independent women – my mom, of course; and Gitta Hammarberg, a Russian scholar; and Bernadette, who spearheaded the local recycling drive and who, along with her husband Dedrick (a grad student) lived in an apartment my dad had renovated in our attic. Terry the red-headed lesbian lived there for awhile as well; Betsy Henry’s mom, who lived down the street from us, was later an editor at Off Our Backs; and even the school marms at Highland Elementary had forsaken family life for their careers, and to me they were nothing short of heroic (even Miss Ruth, whom I adored despite her defense of Nixon).

My mother was a disaster of a homemaker – our house was always profoundly messy, and the meals she cooked were perfunctory and obligatory. Her years of being a part-time grad student while raising me and Erik – she got her masters when she was pregnant with me, and her PhD when I was a sophomore in college – were not particularly satisfying for her, I think. She typed my dad’s dissertation and left a PhD program to move to Lafayette when Dad got his first academic position. She continued her graduate work at Purdue, but was never really fulfilled until she quit pursuing a university career of her own, and went back to teaching high school when I was a teen-ager. She loved having a job, bringing home a paycheck, being involved with people and making a difference out in the world. And she was very, very good at it.

On the other had, I think Dad did not enjoy the pressure of having to be the breadwinner, but his homemaking abilities are legion, beginning with his skills as a master carpenter and cabinet maker, which he has used to build and/or renovate and furnish five homes in my lifetime, including my own little rowhouse in Philadelphia. There is almost no corner of my current home that has not been touched by Dad’s hands, including its most beautiful feature, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling built-in cabinets and bookcases in our living room, which Dad built from ash and walnut trees he harvested from his farm in Indiana. Upstairs, oak cabinets, shelves and cubbies wrap around two walls in our bedroom. My daughter Trixie does homework at the oak desk my dad made me as a child for Christmas one year, and all of her prized collections grace the matching oak bookcase that came a few years later.

When I was a child, we lived in an old, rambly Victorian that my dad was always in some stage of fixing up. I went back recently to discover that our neighborhood has become one of the most posh in Lafayette, Indiana, but at the time, it was a pretty working class neighborhood that was considered by most of the University folks to be on the wrong side of the Wabash River. Where there was a town/gown split, my parents felt far more comfortable in town (some of our friends in West Lafayette always had a classical radio station on in their house; Dad thought this was pretentious, not because he didn’t appreciate classical music – indeed, he had ruined his hearing listening to it much too loudly as a young man – but because it was not, in Dad’s mind, background music, but something that should really be listened to). Our house was huge and airy, full of beautiful trim and musty carpets and a kitchen that was the center of our family’s universe. Dad tore down walls, renovated the attic, built a greenhouse off the back and a new porch in the front. In my mind’s eye, there is always a cement mixer in the driveway, and a pile of gravel, and some sort of project underway. The most memorable of the projects involving cement was the new sidewalk he poured, with a hopscotch etched into the surface. When I returned to look at the house a few years ago, it was still there, nary a crack nor buckle to be seen some 30 years later, and kids on their way home from school still hop their way across 914 Highland Avenue.

Since I can remember, Dad has been an organic gardener, way before organic gardening became trendy, when the magazine Organic Gardening was just a little bigger than a trade paperback and had a decidedly unpolished look. Our backyard in Lafayette was entirely roto-tilled and planted in vegetables, which we ate all summer and canned and froze for the winter. When I went to college, I learned that asparagus is considered something of a delicacy; I always thought it was just what you ate every day in April until you were so sick of it that you were glad another year would go by before it was in season again.

Though Mom did most of the day-to-day cooking, Dad was by far the better cook. Often my parents’ parties would start with a big Indonesian feast of nasi goring (fried rice) and bami (fried noodles), each in a huge, cast iron wok, which we called by the Indonesian name, a wa-jong. There would also be chicken satay with peanut sauce, and fried shrimp crisps which we called kru-puk, and sometimes even fried bananas, if we were really lucky. When supper was ready, Dad would call out, “Mah-kahn, mah-kahn!” which meant, roughly, “Supper’s on, come and get it!” in whatever Indonesian dialect he had studied as a grad student. Sometimes Dad would jokingly suggest that we should say grace, and then he would say “Grace!” and dig in. Or he would say, “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat!” And always, in any lull in the dinner conversation, he would declare, “I’m not talking while the flavor lasts!” Occasionally we would go out to eat – always on payday, and always to one of two places: Ponderosa Steak House, where Dad got steak, I got fried shrimp (Dad hates seafood, so this was my only chance), and kids got free refills on soda; and the Peking Chinese restaurant, where we ordered spicy kung pao chicken, moo-shoo pork, and egg rolls. On the way home, Dad would always say, “Well, that was a great appetizer, how ‘bout we pick up some pizzas for dinner?” And we would laugh and laugh every time.

Dad also made candied popcorn balls as Halloween treats, date-filled cookies and fruitcakes at Christmas, and for many years during my childhood, fresh bread every week. His schedule as a professor allowed him time during the day some days, and there was nothing better than coming home to the smell of Swedish limpa filling the house. When Terry the red-headed lesbian lived with us, she and Dad often baked together, and they had written in the recipe, during one of the rises, “open a can of beer.” When we arrived home from school, they were probably on beer number two or three, and they were buttering warm bread as an after-school snack.

In Messages from My Father, Calvin Trillin (whose “Deadline Poem” I read every week in my Dad’s gift subscription to The Nation) says that upbringings have themes. Trillin’s theme was an immigrant version of one of the grand American promises: “We have worked hard so that you can have the opportunity to be a real American.” I would say my upbringing had two distinct themes: “You can be anything you want to be (except a Republican or a born-again Christian; a lesbian, vegetarian Peace and Global Studies major is fine);” and its corollary – something my dad used to say -- “You can always fry eggs in Missoula, Montana.” When I decided to leave a promising and highly lucrative career in the law to stay home with my kids, keep house, garden, preserve food, read books, and volunteer with my church and my kids’ schools, almost everybody thought I had completely lost my mind. Everyone except Dad. I think Dad was a little relieved; it was the law firm that had confused him – although he would never say so, because one of my Dad’s best qualities as a dad is that he understands my life is mine, and he doesn’t judge, or even comment. But he has always taught us – by word and example -- that you can do anything with dignity, that likely you will land on your feet, and that an interesting life lived with integrity is far more important than money or prestige.

I believe he loves the life I’m living now, but clearly not because he has a limited imagination of what a woman can and should do. Rather, he loves my life because I have chosen all the parts of his life that he loves best – the parts that are about integrity, and sustainability, and “quotidian mysteries.” Dad may be an atheist, but he understands our need for daily bread, and the festivals that mark the turning of the year, and our need to be connected to creation in intimate and daily ways that leave you with dirt under your fingernails, and something beautiful and lasting you can call your own. This is my heritage, and it is indeed goodly.


Patrick said...

What a rich essay this is! Have you read Annie Lamott's 'Bird by Bird'? Your description of your parents' linguistic discussions over beers sounds similar to a story she tells about her father and his friends. I knew you and I had much in common but this reveals even more than I was aware of previously. A goodly heritage indeed. Thanks for this glimpse of it.

Java said...

You write incredibly well. It is a joy to sample snippets of your childhood and memories of your Dad.

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