A Writer's World

Daughters and Writers and Fathers

A Column by Molly Moynahan

It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.” Anne Sexton

He was always a mystery. Not like my mother who would label the world and tell you the truth, or her version of the truth, while baking bread or designing a house. You knew my mother loved you, was angry with you, was tired or sad but you had no idea what he thought or felt or wanted. I stood outside and looked up at his window where his gray head was silhouetted and try to imagine asking him, "Daddy, are you happy?" Because I wanted that. We knew he had been in an orphanage because his first novel, Sisters and Brothers had told the story of his father’s alcoholism, the abusive nuns, his year of hell.

  I drive to the Kimble funeral home to pick up his ashes and ten death certificates. The Kimble guy looks like an extra on The Sopranos. He is careful to show me the bill and explain about each category, something to do with the crematorium and the bag. My mother has remarked several times that she has received these ashes on other occasions, my grandmother, my sister and now my father.

After I get in the car with them I sit for a moment and then I say, "I'm sorry, daddy," to his box. I cry for exactly 2 minutes. I need to bring them home to her. I recall how when he used to drive me to Princeton junction to catch the train back to New York we would always pass the pig farm and he would say something about how he liked pigs because they were smart.

Most of these trips I was in a state of turmoil, resenting my mother or grieving for my sister or bat shit crazy with drugs and drinking but I remember that this was our way, those errands, to pick up some milk together or wine for dinner when I was little. It was rare I had him to myself. So rare and so nice.

My sister once told me he wrote his novels in odd gaps in momentum. For example, whenever we left for a long trip, daddy always went back inside the house for what seemed an impossible amount of time and when I asked my sister what he was doing, probably checking the oven, she said, "This is when he writes his novels."

Of course it makes little sense but then again, I always found the time to write in stolen moments, leaning against a waitress station, listening for the sound of my baby waking up, in the hour before I had to leave to teach. Someone, Hemingway, I believe, advised the writer to always have some sort of time pressure to keep the tension up.

I write this as I sit in Newark Airport waiting to fly home to Chicago, tense with the expectation of delay and malfunction. I could have written during this hellish week of comforting my mother, sleeping in a strange bed, trying to understand why I had only packed a pair of jeans and a pair of yoga pants. But I didn't. I took endless walks through this town where I was born, watched television with my mother, Law and Order mostly, and answered the door to receive flowers and people. I cooked and shopped and told her to stand up straight (she asked me to) and worried. But I didn't write.

She kept calling my 88-year-old father 'my boy.'  They met when they were 18, and I kept thinking of him as my daddy. Because that is who he was to me. Daddy.

In this house, their retirement house, his office is upstairs but he rarely used it. There is a hopeful computer and printer but he was a Luddite, refusing to adapt to technology beyond his typewriter and possibly the copier. For him there was no e-mail, cell phone or Facebook. The elegance of his prose would never have to confront the reality of our shrunken, illiterate use of acronyms.

When I spent the year abroad in Dublin I used to read my father’s letters aloud because he described things with such accuracy and humor. I wanted to show my Irish friends that not all Americans were like the tourists that strolled Grafton Street in their Aran knits loudly declaiming that the city was “cute”. Invariably he would enclose a dollar bill, useless to me but nevertheless a sign of his love.

I thought writing tortured him. He would come in from his office with a sheaf of papers, read aloud to my mother and then, often, get drunk at dinner and act hateful. A book would be published and there would be lots of excitement, my sisters and me swearing we would go to all the bookstores (back then there were many bookstores) and ask for his book and if they didn't have it, demand it be ordered immediately.

The first manuscript I showed him he circled one sentence and said it was good. Nothing else was circled. I took my book and slunk off. When I was accepted into the MFA program at Brooklyn College he told me it was a stupid decision and I was a loser. I went away to upstate New York to a cheap health spa and cried for days. Then I came back to my answering machine with the news that Harper & Row wanted to buy my first novel. It was the dream. I didn't call my parents. I didn't call anyone. I went to Zabars and bought a coffee cake and some lox and then I stayed home and worried.

Finally, I called my mother and told her.

" Let me put Daddy on the phone," she said.

"No," I said. " Just tell him."

She was quiet for a second. "We didn't help you at all," she said. " You did this on your own."

But I wonder about that. I dated a plumber once and his father was a plumber and his grandfather and I thought this is really just the family business. Writing novels wasn't something alien and amazing. It was simply what he did, what my brilliant, angry, father did.

He had a miserable childhood and an alcoholic father and he wrote a book about it. A speeding drunken driver killed my sister and I wrote a book about a sister being murdered and the youngest sister nearly killing herself from grief. This was what happened to me. He never apologized for calling me a loser but he told me he was proud of me, which meant much more.

When Parting is All We Know of Heaven was published I met my parents at a St. Patrick's Day party in Manhattan. By the time I arrived my father had had a lot to drink. He told me I was wrong to write about my sister and that he thought I should reconsider my decision to be a writer. He was mean to me and I ended up the night curled into a fetal position on my boyfriend's bed sobbing about his comments. "I can't believe you care about what he said," my boyfriend said. "Why do you care?"

I went to therapy and sat across the room from the woman who had saved my life after my sister was killed.

"Is that your book?" she asked me.

I nodded.

"Can I see it?"

I handed it to her. "He doesn't love me, " I sobbed. " I wrote the book so he'd love me."

She smiled. "But you wrote a book, Molly," she said. "You wrote a book and it was published."

And the writer inside me, my father's daughter, drew herself up and smiled back.

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