I have a cassette tape, marked only “Holiday Dinner,” that holds just over twenty-three minutes of conversation, mostly me with my dad as the rest of my family finishes what I think was a Christmas dinner in the background. The recording was part of a series of interviews with my dad for the book I’m still circling.
I was trying to nail down some details about my dad’s history, descriptive things, mostly, as I was struggling to recreate scenes of his childhood. As the tape starts, and the clinks of plates and silverware skitter, I try to ask my dad to describe his friend, Vol Potter, while my daughter Sofia, probably two years old at the time, yells something very loudly. “That’s enough, honey,” I tell her, but the present me thinks, keep going Sofia, what are you yelling about? What are you thinking?
But the me on the tape who thinks he knows what he’s after stays doggedly on track. “What color was Vol’s hair?”
My dad says, “Brown,” not very into it. I can almost hear his shoulders shrug. Then he remembers something worthwhile—Vol was tough. Tougher than my dad. Country boy tough. And my dad then remembers that he once shot Vol with a BB gun. I looked for a connection to the toughness—was the shooting meant to be a test? My dad just laughs and remembers how mad Vol was. “Those things sting,” he says between laughs.
He blows off the physical descriptions and launches into a time when he and Vol worked at a dude ranch—“We thought we were going to be cowboys, but we were hauling garbage. The boss’s daughter was cute, though, and we made eyes at her all summer.”
The essence of history is not hair color.
While I keep asking my dad to describe this and that—St. Louis was smoky, another friend was tall—he keeps trying to tell me more interesting things. And behind the more interesting things are the voices of my wife, mother, daughter, brother, niece, and sister-in-law, and I can’t stop straining to hear their conversations. The actual history of that moment, now fragmented into audible slivers, wants to push aside the lame attempts to interview. My mom gently cracks on my dad for scarfing down his desert candies early (he claims that I ate them), Angela riffs on the term “gene pool,” the girls complain and bargain.
Written history, colored as it is by the writers and the victorious, boils down to big events—the crushing, the exciting, the monumental—but most of our lives are strung-together twenty minute segments of ordinariness, the magic of which usually escapes me as it happens. But presented with this one segment on flimsy tape, I feel desperate to capture and preserve it. I feel how history is solid and real and equally gone. I think of how so many times like this one have sucked out the back door of my brain, never to return. I feel overwhelmed by all this history we keep making, all these days and dinners and love and loss of love and what in the hell am I supposed to do with all this shit?
Because I don’t know what else to do, I write it. I try to represent my own age, which seems to be the age of the small, close family, and I keep finding that when you don’t have many people, and those people took good care of you, their value eventually towers over everything else. If this is true for you, carry a tape recorder or get out your camera and video everything you can. You might be after something unimportant, like descriptions of your dad’s friends, and find out instead that because he was the youngest of his crowd, your dad sometimes didn’t understand the neighborhood jargon, and used to yell “Beat it raw!” at passing cars, knowing only that it was an insult.
On my tape, the women seem to have found a better place to go, possibly due to the “beat it raw” story. My dad gets back to his buddies and describes a scary zip line they made in the woods, called “The Boovum.” We’ve heard about The Boovum many times, how frighteningly high up in a tree it started, how a neighbor girl knocked out all her teeth riding it, but during this particular telling, my brother Matt asks my dad about the pig he tied to a rope to test the safety of the ride. My dad is confused, and Matt is adamant. “Wait a minute,” he says, indignantly, as if all credibility has been lost, “you mean to tell me you never tied a pig to a rope and hauled it up a tree?” We all realize after a minute that there was no way they could have done this.
On the tape, we laugh nearly to tears at the thought of the pig and of Matt believing the story, which my dad doesn’t remember telling. My dad did crazy shit. Some of it is hard to believe. Some of it might not even be true. But history is a big fat pig hurtling down a zip line in the woods, and you’ve got no choice but to open your arms and lunge.
Brian Simoneau’s poem, “Lowell National Historic Park,” examines, in churning, rhythmic tercets, the chasm between the intimate history of our own place and the broad strokes with which others paint it. Simoneau, as should we all, takes up the mantle of the nameless and marginalized, chooses the raw and specific over polished generality.
We’re running two superb flash pieces by Rebecca Meacham that place themselves in historical context with dated titles (and, interestingly, lists of artifact ingredients). “Countenance,” 1958 evokes late golden era Hollywood and the strange relationship between a dramatic aging starlet and her makeup artist. Mid-nineteenth century America, a time when death loomed much more closely over life, provides the background for “Family Portrait,” 1860. Both pieces discover human truth— the layers and masks we wear that hide and reveal us, a boy distracted by interest while his sister is consumed during tragedy—in relationships with a tough, clear eye.
The narrator of “Fields of Sheep,” a short story by Lori Toppel, remembers being warned by his grandmother not to throw away a picture for fear of losing his history. This same narrator describes himself as “a private man, a man of muted shades,” and Toppel creates a compelling piece with a retiring character at its center. His inner life and voice are rich; they provide a contrast to the extraordinary events/losses he experiences in this psychological drama. Toppel also shows off some sharp, assured prose.
Photo By: Amy Rauch