I’m writing this sitting up in bed. C is napping beside me with Dede curled into the curve of his body, purring softly. Dad is napping downstairs, lying on the couch in front of the sunny window, his book open on his belly. It’s a perfect summer day—light, cool, cloudless.
We’ve been working like demons these last few days, especially C, getting the house ready for Dad’s visit. There was the 4-hour session of putting the sofa-bed/futon from Ikea together, an activity which required two people, a contractor’s license, power tools and infinite patience. The house has been vacuumed and mopped, the grounds weed-whacked, and this morning I picked some roses from the garden to put in a vase in Dad’s room.
My father in his seventies exudes a sweetness like ripe apples. His face is big and pink and kind, his hug is strong and warm. He walks more and more slowly, head bent, absorbed in his own thoughts. The absent-minded professor. Sometimes he doesn’t hear what you say to him because he is so lost in his own mind. Five minutes later he will snap to and try to pull the words back from the ether they have disappeared in. He lives mostly in his head, but he loves things of this earth as well, trees, flowers, bushes. He notices how clean the house is, especially his room, and he knows it is C who has done it, and he tells me, “This one’s a keeper.”
We go to the garden store together and he buys us plants—a pot of bushy silvery lavender for me, an asparagus fern for C. We go out to eat; Vietnamese food, Burmese. He is like his mother, my late grandmother, who would hover over you as you finished your breakfast and ask, “So what do you think you’ll be wanting to eat for lunch?” I make pesto from the new basil plant we just bought and serve it with polenta and salad and he likes it.
He gets up every morning between four and five. He waits until six and then walks very slowly, up our street to the café that opens at 6:30. There he drinks a decaf coffee and eats a scone and reads the paper. Manny Ramirez of the Boston red Sox has been traded. Good. The guy is a schnook, he gets twenty million dollars a year and then he says his knee hurts and he won’t play? For that money, Manny, you get out of bed and play. I don’t care what your knee feels like. Thus spaketh my dad.
I try to get up early to, so as to have quality early morning time with him. All the time we spend together is high quality but he is at his absolute sparkling peak first thing in the morning. His hair is neatly combed, his cheeks are rosy, and all’s right with the world. By eight that evening he will look twenty years older and infinitely more tired, but daybreak is his hour. The problem is that it’s not mine.
The first day I struggle out of bed at 7:45. I’m out of the house by 8, walking as fast as I can, chasing him the mile down to the coffee shop. Half way there I meet him coming back, looking younger than springtime.
The second day I get up at 6:30. He’s already gone, but I make it to the coffee shop by seven and we share a companionable hour together. He buys me a coffee and a scone, and he reads his paper while I read the New Yorker, all about a Chinese musical prodigy named Lang Lang.. I can’t talk very well that early, but I sense he’s glad to have me there.
The third morning I don’t bother to get up until my normal time, nine o’clock. He’s already been to the coffee shop and come home in a wonderful mood. I make coffee for myself, put hot water on for C’s tea, and fix us all bowls of fruit and yogurt. C stumbles downstairs looking adorable if a little comatose and we all sit and eat.
For three days I get to be with my two favorite guys on earth and I am happy. We don’t do anything that exciting. I make gazpacho the first night (I’ve been really into making gazpacho this summer, tons of fresh tomatoes and green peppers and cucumbers and cilantro and parsley and a few drops of red wine vinegar and lots of fresh garlic and some olive oil and the juice of several limes. It doesn’t get much better than that.)
I make gazpacho and invite a couple of friends and we hang the Mezuzah the first night. Inside the Mezuzah is a little folded up scroll of paper with the traditional Biblical passages on it. C adds a passage he wrote years ago, before he met me, about the home he dreamed of creating with someone, and I add a poem I wrote in our first months of living together. The friends and Dad witness as we read our writings out loud and then stuff them inside the mezuzah and C nails it to the doorpost while Bethie sings the prayer in her clear lovely voice.
The next two nights we just watch movies at home; a Merchant-Ivory one called The White Countess with Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Natasha Richardson. Ingmar Bergman’s last movie, called Sarabande with Liv Ullman. On the last day we drive Dad and his miniscule luggage to the car rental place. He will join my stepmother in Santa cruz; they will go to a wedding down there and spend time with my stepsisters and brothers and on Monday morning we will get up at dawn in order to have breakfast with them at 7 a.m. at their hotel before they go back to Massachusetts. When I told Carla we were getting up at that hour, she said, “That’s love.” It’s true. There are only a handful of people I would get up at that hour for. Dad heads the list.
Since he’s been gone I’ve been reading the Philip Roth books he sent me, three from the Zuckerman series. I’ve read the first one, and Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson. Roth evokes mixed feelings for me. He’s such a good writer—his sentences ring like music, he has a prodigious vocabulary and the words just tumble out of him, glorious words, all the right, surprising, felicitous, smart words.
But that kind of feels like all there is. Words, not life. The Anatomy Lesson is about a famous writer suffering from a combination of crippling mysterious pain, writer’s block, depression and alcohol and pill addiction. All the characters in the book make smart, witty, pithy speeches—gorgeously written, but they all sound alike. They all sound like the narrator.
I remember when I read the first page of Anna Karenina. A husband whose angry wife had kicked him out of their bedroom woke up on the sofa and stretched. It took him a minute to remember where he was and why he was there. There was more physical weight and life in that tiny scene than in all of Roth’s fevered speeches. Granted, it’s not fair to compare anyone to Tolstoy, but Roth seems to have lived exclusively in his head for the last half century, and it feels like a barren argument-chamber in there. His prose is addictive though, and I finished the book in two days, partly because I had to spend a large chunk of one of them sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair at the DMV.
Besides reading, I had another date with my Little Sister—we went to my favorite bookstore, the Laurel, and I tried to get her to let me read books to her, while she tried to get me to buy her $25.00 face-painting kits masquerading as “books.” Neither of us had much success. I did bring her home and introduced her to Dede the cat, whom she loved, and to C, who has been slaving away in the in-law re-roping windows, scraping paint, measuring bathroom fixtures (I scraped a whole door, both sides. It took four hours.) As I drove her home, she said, “We’re family now. You’re in my family and I’m in your family.”
Reading did get me started writing again, and last night I started three different pieces; an essay about Carla, a novella based on the hot tub, and the beginnings of something that might explore my troubled relationship to Christianity, the way it pushes all my paranoid Jew buttons. I don’t know if it will be publishable, but I need to write it, as the Interplay international conference looms at the end of the month and I find myself wondering if I will be the only Jew there in a sea of Protestant ministers and ministers-in-training, and if I am, do I want to even go?