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Mom and Dad, the Original Authors

The Bentleys in 1958

The Bentleys in 1958

I was going to write a post today about my writing influences, tossing a salad of Annie Dillard and Atwood, a tangled pasta of Twain and Fitzgerald, spicy sides of Nabokov and Vonnegut, a shot of Cormac McCarthy, neat. But then I thought that sounded a mite pretentious, as though I could even carry the keyboards of those authors (or even tilt Twain’s first typesetting machine, one of his legacy of infernal investments). And who’s to say that I wasn’t just as influenced by the comic books I devoured (I wanted to name a pet after Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer), or the sports magazines that filled my mind with shimmering baseball diamonds and long fly balls caught after an impossible run?

Influences are a tricky thing. Of course I think you should steal freely the scent of another author’s writing, that ungraspable soupçon of ephemera that is clumsily dubbed “style.” That’s because you’ll catch your tongue in the literary rat trap if you try to directly steal the substance of another’s writing. Mumbling out inane imitations will be your sorry fate. Snagging some stylings is more subtle theft, like being able to mimic the way an author buttons her coat, rather than actually buying—and eek!—wearing the same clothes.

Blood as Influence
But thinking of influences made me think of other influences from way back: my parents. I have so much to be grateful for in having a mother who didn’t harangue me and my siblings about reading as a necessity, but instead, took so much pleasure in reading herself. You’ll develop a hunger for something in watching another eagerly eat it. There were always books around the house, and the relaxed sense that wiling away some hours nose-deep in a tome wasn’t a way to waste time but to explore it: books are time travels, the widest carpets of brilliant flowers on the steppes, a landowner’s cruel glance at the starveling slave, the wince from a princess as she turns her delicate ankle stepping from the liveried carriage. My mother welcomingly invited me into that parlor of pleasant musings and savage astonishments, and I haven’t looked back. And see my mother, nearly blind at 88, still reading for pleasure. Why? Because she enjoys the sound of the words in her head, the images, the story. I know; she taught me.

My father wasn’t a big reader, more inclined to the peppered nuggets of the newspaper than the seven-course meals of Russian novels, but again, I might never have been the reader, and thus the writer, that I am had he not schooled me in how to throw a baseball, how to shoot a basketball, things that impelled me to read biography after biography of my sports heroes (and to admire the tight turns-of-phrase of gifted sportswriters).

I was struck recently, in watching my father slowly work to pull off the tinfoil cover of a yogurt cup, how we have some of the same traits. My father is 93, and richly caped in the folds of his Alzheimer’s, yet some crossbeams of character persist. He can still haltingly feed himself, and I watched in fascination as he was slowly spooning yogurt into his mouth. Eyes barely open, he noticed that the tinfoil lid that covered the cup was still attached, and he very s-l-o-w-l-y worked it off with his weakened hands. It took a while, and visible effort, but I could see the small satisfaction in his face when he succeeded in removing it from the cup.

The Gene Pool of Picking Nits
That resonated with me, because I am a nitpicker, literally one who will spot the tiny bits of fluff on the carpet and bend to pick them up, and metaphorically so in my work as an editor, trying to manage errant (or arrogant) punctuation marks, making sure there aren’t two spaces when there should be one. Floating deeply in his condition, his language now restricted to short, sometimes muddy sentences, my father still notices some detail: “Why is that car door open?” in reference to a car parked outside, a reminder of my own fussiness about details. My father, editing the hanging lid, the out-of-place open car door. Writing, while ever the work of the lone temperament, in the interior of imagination’s house, always has an ear turned to hear the voices that populated the rooms in times past.

Whatever writing I do, my parents’ pulse beats along with mine.

Oh yeah, the picture: my parents, my siblings and me, approximately one thousand years ago. I’m the blond-haired punk, hoping against hope that I’ll get a cookie to take the pain out of this dreadful photo session. Those other kids are just troublemakers.


8 thoughts on “Mom and Dad, the Original Authors

  1. How lucky a man you are to have your parents here after so many years, to be able to muse about, appreciate and spend time with. This is one of your best writings I’ve read. Perhaps because it cuts to the bone and I, now without parents, am envious, sympathetic and pleased all at the same time while reading your post.

    Thanks Tom!

  2. Bettsy, thanks for the regards. I do want to write about my folks while they are still around, before memory or sentiment clouds (as though it doesn’t already) the writing. Besides the major inheritances, there are so many subtle ways our parents have influenced us, and as I age, I see it more and more. I am grateful to have had the chance to consider the connections.

  3. Every time I read of someone’s aging parents I’m struck simultaneously by two feelings: the relief that my father’s end was so sudden and so young that he never dealt with decline, and the bitter taste of the 30 years during which he may finally have come to understand me. He’d only be 78; barely ready to be considered old.

    My parents, as well, never pushed reading; there was no need. They simply read, every waking moment, when there wasn’t something more pressing to do.

  4. Joel, it is weird (and scary) to watch my parents decline, but I’m lucky that though they are baby bird-frail, they still get pleasure from life, even my father, in the smallness of his circumstances. I try not to dwell on the unknown future, and concentrate on the small gifts.

  5. I second your emotion, Becky. I’m a big complainer, often about trivial things, but then I’ll see the situations of people who truly have some burdens, and how stoically they handle them. The small gifts are jewels.

  6. Tom I was very moved by your descriptions of what has been lost by your parents in recent years and yet what was gained, over so very many more years, by your parents’ influences over you and your siblings. We lost my mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s and mini-strokes less than two years ago. I thus had many opportunities to learn what it means for a person to be diminished in some ways and unable to do anything about it. With my own parents there are medical challenges now that they are 90 and 86. Still I have stubbornly maintained my belief that we should look to the sum total of these people’s lives and not become overly absorbed with what a Chess player would call the End Game. I’m sure that your parent’s lives had innumerable effects on the people they know. Even just the one you mention- teaching four kids to love to read, who have each in their turn influenced many others- that alone is a magnificent accomplishment.

  7. Rick, it is useful, if painful, to see what aging brings, if only to witness the full breadth of life. And yes, it’s often not clear to the eye what an elderly person might have contributed, in the richness of their days. But those influences can have a lasting impact, and of course, can carry significant weight long into the future. Thanks for pointing that out.

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