There’s not a lot to say about childhood. Days were painfully, mind-achingly repetitive. An average day looked much like this: Wake-up late to a quiet house, scrounge for breakfast, skulk around quietly because stay-at-home dad would sleep in until at least noon, sneak in a little Gilligan’s Island or a few game show re-runs (TV was contraband in our home), mind the house and any younger siblings or pets who are also awake, and otherwise keep a low profile until an adult awoke or came home. It wasn’t uncommon for me or my younger sibs to wear our nightgowns well into mid-afternoon and for breakfast, lunch, and any snacks in-between to consist of Cheerios, whole milk (sweetened with 1/4-cup lumps of brown sugar), orange sherbet, and Monterey jack cheese. It wasn’t bad – it’s just that most of it wasn’t worth remembering. The memories that do stick are more about themes than individual incidents. A childhood’s worth of similarities aggregated into a single memory where the only difference may be what I wore.
One of those themes involves nightly story-time with my dad. Every night around 10:00 p.m., I’d clamber onto my parents’ bed with a small stack of books for my dad to read. That may seem late but it was the perfect reading time – the bedroom Arcadia door would be open wide to allow a chlorinated breeze to waft in from the swimming pool and the crickets would compete with the cicada for most persistent song.
The stories were pedestrian – predominantly Dr. Seuss with the odd smattering of an Arnold Lobel or a Berenstein Bears. Many books may have been read in an evening but they were always brief – nary a chapter book among Dad’s and my shared repertoire. The stories were delightful but more importantly they served as memory prompts for him that were lead-ins to stories about his life. “Fox in Socks” was never “Fox in Socks” but was always a challenge in phonetic articulation. Dad took pride in starting by reading simply, comically slow. He would progress through the tongue-twisters, gradually picking up speed. He’d invariably stop right around “Gooey goo for chewy chewing” to have a sip of his Jack Daniels and 7Up, the large chunks of ice clinking in the squat glasses encrusted with a 14k gold leaf pattern, a wedding gift from my mother’s family and one of the strangely nice things in a home otherwise filled with pleather furniture from Levitz and clothing from the JC Penny bargain basement.
His whistle wet, he’d segue into a brief story unrelated to Fox and his irascible companion, Knox. Perhaps it would be about the ills of gum-chewing or the importance of dental hygiene. By the time we got down to “Luke Luck likes lakes,” Dad probably would interrupt the story to deeply inhale from a True Blue filtered cigarette before sharing about the time he was a radio announcer with the thick accent of an Austrian son who improved his diction by reading tongue twisters and the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. Finally, the closing performance about the “tweetle beetles” was never complete without Dad sharing his opinions about the senselessness of war and how he was a conscientious objector to every American military conflict, except for World War II when he was too young (and too Austrian) to fight. (Later, this would lead into a secondary story about the Japanese interment camps outside Gila River or Manzanar and how even Americans in the name of good can create great unfairness.)
A retelling of “The Lorax” was never complete without a thorough recounting of his time as a deejay in Pueblo, CO and the beauty of the relatively untouched front range. “The Big Brag” was an opportunity for dispensing a lesson on truth-telling and not puffing oneself up whereas “Yertle the Turtle” was an occasion to wax angrily nostalgic about Dad’s father’s totalitarian hold on his adolescence. “The Sneetches” was good fodder for chastising those who change themselves to fit in, a concept wholly foreign and unacceptable to my father. The “Horton” stories were an opportunity to remind me of the importance of fair treatment of others, particularly animals and, in my dad’s reality, his tenants of dubious financial or social standing.
Now as Dad lies dying, I remember the stories. I can’t imagine a turtle without thinking of the stories Dad shared of my grandfather, a man who died before I turned two, a man of whom I have no first-hand memory but whose personhood is shaped inextricably by two photographs, my dad’s stories, and an author of children’s rhyme. The rare times I flip open a Cosmo at a salon, I see in each glossy advertisement the bloated belly of a Sneetch (which may or may not have a star-upon-thar in my mind’s eye).
When I visit home, I cajole and coax my children into poses of barely controlled hyper-activity while trying to wheedle my dad into reading these same stories for them. But the children aren’t interested, preferring to run around and be boys. So instead, I ask my father (every Christmas, every birthday) for a recording of him reading these books again. (I have yet to receive it.) It embarrasses me to ask because it reveals a secret chink in my curt and cool demeanor. It forces me to be honest – that I want him to read again, so I can hear it, so I can remember after he’s gone.