Wednesday, June 24, 2009


My father wanted to be a writer. When I was little he had a typewriter. I remember a black and white photo of him in shorts, shirtless, at a card table, bare feet, a typewriter, his hair thick and black.

I don’t remember seeing him type. I saw some of the thick books of typed onionskin that he’d had bound many years later.

One set he gave me, three long essays, almost all of it trying to make points about economics and government, material that was impenetrable to me. But here and there would be a glimmer of something softer, and more personal: the mention of a coffee shop on Wall Street, the mention of a child at a window. He wrote one piece called Suddenly Late Summer. He wrote it in the late fifties, at the real end of a real summer – I have always imagined he wrote it in the bare-bones farmhouse in Columbia County that we owned for a few years, driving up from Yonkers. It was a place of bare wood floors, card tables and rhubarb growing wild that my mother would exclaim about and cook.

Suddenly Late Summer though was another treatise and after an opening paragraph of readability drifted into techno-talk I couldn’t read. The title has stayed with me though and the feeling it evokes.

He wrote a book in the seventies, spent more money than he had to have someone publish it. It was supposed to make him famous. When I went to see him the first time in Budapest after he moved back, I saw a copy of the book, shrink-wrapped, lying by itself on a small round table. In Budapest, it looked pretty good. If I were a not-too-savvy Hungarian I’d be impressed by this man who’d had a career in the States and a book in English to prove it.

In 1981 when I was living in NYC, when I’d just quit my publishing job to be a writer though I had no idea how or where to begin, I wrote two pages that I liked. The piece was called Small Runaway and it was about a morning I spent in Van Cortlandt Park, taking the #1 subway up north as far as it would go and then wandering for a few hours in woods. I wrote about what I saw – the pencil-yellow leaves on the ground, sitting while it rained, “tented" under a poncho, an abandoned car, a menacing woman in a black tee shirt.

I gave it to my father to read. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of his response – where we were – but I remember him going through it and pointing out his favorite phrases. He took it seriously.

Again, in the late nineties came a burst of writing and I sent him two poems.

I did not show writing to my mother like this, in the same way. I did read her a short story about being molested by a stray farm boy while visiting her relatives – an event that happened completely on her watch – her response was only an uncomfortable and incredulous, “That didn’t really happen, did it?”

My father liked the poems and again wrote me something about them in which I could tell he chose his words carefully – partially because he had a real interest, partially because he likes to be a man of letters.

I haven’t re-read the letter he sent last week though I have noticed it several times, lying on my desk.

But when I read his sentences about “reading carefully” I again felt his great respect for this thing of writing – as if he were a fellow worshiper at my side.

We rarely liked the same books. When I grew up I realized suddenly that his tastes were much lighter than mine – Somerset Maugham and Iris Murdoch. He always read, always read slowly and now that I think of it I imagine he is underlining throughout my book, something he did obsessively, hardly able to read even a newspaper without Mont Blanc ballpoint in hand to underline not just points he thought well made but just phrases that he liked.

As a teenager beginning to challenge him I would sometimes open a book he was reading and say, “But Dad, why did you mark this?” and I would read out loud a random selection of words he had marked. My father would look at me almost flirtatiously, and laugh – he didn’t know either, but he liked creating mystery and mystique. He wanted to be a personality, which created a huge impassable barrier to who he really was, something he didn’t really want to know.


Anonymous said...

Been following your work. Thank you for the insights. Gosh, like me and my life with a parent, I see how you, too, are living out your father's dream to make a mark in this world. I can relate to doing the same thing. I loved "He wanted to be a personality, which created a huge impassable barrier to who he really was,something he didn't really want to know." Again I can identify! Sounds like that's what you're working on, too, as you dive into your past again and again in effort to get pass your impassable barrier. I see how I, too, just like you and your dad, created a separate personality when I was a child. And it was I who created that barrier. I've understood that, but you've expressed it so I can see it from another angle.I 'hear' in your writing the same fear you saw in your dad and the same fear I also face....not really wanting to know. But that seems to be where the answer is....knowing ourselves.

Thanks for the insight.

MartaSzabo said...

Thanks for reading so closely. I appreciate it. And thanks, too, for writing your thoughts & response.
with warm wishes, Marta