REFLECTIONS AT 75
My father turned seventy-five this month. He likes to think of it as three-quarters of a century; it sounds more momentous that way. My sister, SJG, and I had a small dinner party to mark the occasion, complete with party hats, noise makers, and a sparkler candle on the birthday cake. As a way to tap his thoughts about what it means to be seventy-five, we asked questions about his life, some serious, some not. Here are his reflections from that evening.
FAVORITE FOODS: bananas, coffee, and fruit pies. “I’ve always liked comfort,” my father says, reflecting on a weekend Boy Scout trip in Milwaukee in the 1940s where he was the only one who came with his bathrobe, coffee pot, and galoshes in tow. It rained the entire weekend.
FAVORITE ACTRESSES: Anouk Aimee, Madeleine Carroll, and Catherine Deneuve. He still gets a faraway look in his eyes remembering a chance encounter with Anouk Aimee and Albert Finney on the streets of Paris in 1970, when we, the children, were all little. He loves that Anouk and Albert turned around to stare at us, and he spent the rest of that trip roaming the streets near where we’d seen the star couple, calling out, “Anouk! Anouk! Where are you?”
FAVORITE CHAIR: A low-seated wicker chair known as a “cannibal” still sits on his front porch. He bought it in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1957 and loved it because it was a little unusual, yet very comfortable.
FAVORITE SPOT ON EARTH: The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. He heads to the center of the garden where children play with rented wooden sailboats in the pool of the garden’s large fountain. He remembers trying to rent a boat there himself many years ago, and the concessionaire said the boats were only for children. When my father said he had his children with him, which he did, the man replied, “Then bring them over here!”
CREDO: Cherish good memories and forget the bad ones.
FUNNY MEMORY: In 1963, my father was teaching in Ada, Oklahoma. One day after lunch, he went out to the garage and there, standing on top of our 1957 blue Buick was a stray goat. It had wandered off from someone’s farm, and my father was somehow able to return him to where he belonged.
FAVORITE SUIT: A brown wool suit from Gimble’s department store in New York, where he lived and went to New York University in the 1950s. It was a single-breasted suit that cost $13. He wore it everywhere, to work, to social outings, and even to bed. Many years later, our mother threw it out.
FAVORITE BOOKS: We asked the standard question: If you could only take three books to a desert island, which three would they be? He chose:
--The Leopard by Giuseppe de Lampadusa, the biographical story of the Prince, Don Fabrizio, who is moving into his old age as the Italian state begins to form toward the end of the 1800s. It’s a story of how individuals face historical transitions, and my father admires the Prince for knowing that his time has come and gone, and that the future belongs to the next generation.
--the Bible (mostly the Old Testament and Revelations). He likes the monotheistic pagan God of the Old Testament--capricious, vengeful, unpredictable, funny—as a reflection of the vagaries of human nature.
--Shakespeare’s histories. Like the Old Testament, the histories seem to him an accurate reflection of human nature.
PROFESSIONAL ACHIEVEMENT: He is most proud of the ways in which he acted as a check on the powers of the central administration at the university system for which he served out his professional career as a professor of political science. Power is a force, he says, which, without checks and balances, corrupts.
FAVORITE PETS: Melek (Leki), a German shepherd we had in the 1960s, and his cats Kanga and Roo. He says he loves his cats because they are companions and love to sleep on the couch as much as he does. And, he got them from the humane society as a two-for-one bargain. They had been at the humane society for so long (several months) that the humane society—which wanted to adopt them out as a pair since they had come in that way--reduced the adoption fee by half. In the end, it wasn’t the bargain that convinced my father. It was the fact that, as he was walking out of the building, having come there for a dog, Kanga reached out of the cage and batted my father as he walked past. The cats chose him, not the other way round.
FAVORITE MEMORIES OF HIS CHILDREN: There are three of us, and we each have classic moments in family lore that my father cherishes.
Me—I’m the star of a family movie from the 1960s in which I try for several long minutes to pull a wagon out of the garage by the handle. The wagon is somewhat blocked by the car on one side and the wall of the garage on the other. Lacking sophisticated spatial relations, I go at it unsuccessfully from every possible angle, while my sister sits patiently in the wagon itself. Eventually, I tire of my fruitless maneuverings with the handle and manfully drag the wagon out of the garage by pulling at the sides.
My Sister—is renowned for pulling up a peony plant by the roots at my fifth birthday party. We were each meant to pick a peony flower, which are always in bloom for my June birthday, for my father’s movie camera. Dressed in a layered chiffon dress, I carefully pick a bloom from the row of plants and turn to smile at the camera. My sister, in a matching dress, tugs at the bloom, which will not cede. She continues tugging, harder and harder, pitching backward onto the ground as the plant comes out of the ground. She stands up grinning proudly for the camera, holding an entire peony bush—roots and all—in her hands.
My Brother—My father remembers him as a small child, beating happily on pots and pans with a wooden spoon under a table in our dining room on Orton Court, one of the early family homes. About his children, my father says that we are like clocks. We all tell different times.