This journey began again when I was trying to remember my father’s voice. Some recess of my mind could still catch the tone, the lilt, the timbre, the accent. But it was so ephemeral that suddenly I realized that I might even lose that last slippery grasp.
I thought of who might have recorded him…ever. He must have been interviewed; but perhaps not. It was Pauline who shone, who was the icon, the star. He had set it up like that and then eventually hated the arrangement. So reticent, so accommodating, so back stage had he played his part in the partnership, that it succeeded all too well. He was not included in the limelight. Oh yes, an occasional toast in his direction, or a nod to his early years getting the business off to a running start. But the maintenance of it all, the steady steerage throughout the years… oh and also the enthusiasm you can count on. That was his job, I guess. He loved to plan. His early letters in France were full of plots and plans, full of energy and optimism. Steady motor, enthusiastic coxswain.
I did not get to see that. When I started to see my father, to look at him in an effort to understand who he was, instead of just having him as a father, instead of simply enjoying his whimsies or dragging along to his next appointment or task…he was already nearly 60. That’s a whole lifetime I did not see. He might as well have been my grandfather.
Once, I tallied up all the months and years I actually spent face-to-face with him. It was a shock and still is today. I figured that between birth and leaving for college, I saw him for 6 years and 10 months. Had those years been full of attentive parenting it might have worked. I think that is another story for another time.
I left NYC with my mother and 2 siblings when I was about 6 months for the south of France. He visited us there for what must have been at most one week. I was three when we left France, stopped in NY on our way to Argentina. My mother had remarried her first husband, the father of the two older children and we were following his job to South America. I assume my nanny and I might have spent 2 months in NY with my father. I have no idea.
And then the next 7 years, I traveled during the southern hemisphere summer break to a wintery NYC to visit my father. I calculated three months per visit. That adds up to 21 months or so. One of those visits must have been longer for reasons that no one, and certainly not me, remembers, because I was enrolled in school. Maybe not. Maybe I just was placed back in school because no one knew what to do with a 9 year old in the middle of the winter. So, let’s be generous and say 2 years.
My siblings were swimming and diving all summer long; I was going from overheated NYC apartment to apartment and to the theater and once to the opera. The owner of beautiful dresses and coats, but never a good swimmer or diver, but I saw My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews on Broadway seven times.
The family returned to the States in 1958, the year I turned 10. Four years in suburban New Jersey with alternate weekends adds up to about 200 days. That’s about 6 and ½ months. And let’s add another 6 months or so for summertime in the city with an aupair. Four years between the ages of 13-17 at the Lycee Francais next door to my father’s apartment, with two summers away—once to Mexico and once to Paris gives a total of 3 years and 6 months. When I add it all up I get, more or less, 6 years and 10 months.
I don’t know why that makes me cry. It does… and I do know. It’s not just because it is so little in an entire lifetime but because the effect is so profound. And the the calculated time does not account for the fact that my father was not there most of the time; he was working and even traveling sometimes. The nanny, Meme was there with me constantly from age one until seven perhaps. After that it was tutors and au pairs. Emma Durrieux, Francoise Duhamel, Margaret Morgenroth, Eliana something from Staten Island, and Jacques Karpo during the later years worked on my literary career.
So, I was talking about his voice. I found an old reel of some joint venture between Trigère, Inc. and an eyeglass frame company. My father is the voice of Trigère and demonstrates the aesthetics of choosing frames for different outfits. What could that have possibly have meant in the early 60’s or late 50’s? Were people supposed to buy many different eyeglasses? Ridiculous. But the more startling aspect is hearing my father’s voice in this old recording. It is high and weird, and of course, in his heavily accented English. My husband was surprised. He had not considered that my father had an accent. And today while we were remembering this incident, he was again surprised when I said that the recording was weird also because it was in English. My father spoke to me in French.
The un-thought of details are what make the stories.
For instance what is the problem with one town having streets named Bellevue and Buena Vista? None, if you are an English only speaker—none at all. But if you are a smart trilingual little girl, it is natural that you would ask why a town has two streets with the same name. And if you are enraptured by the beauty of the sound of the song Silent Night with no understanding of its meaning, you might really want to be selected to be the school solo, and not grasp at all that the school will avoid choosing the only Jewish child for the part.
The poignancy is in the disparity of the levels of understanding—the child’s versus the adult community. Two planes of understanding that do not coexist.
I have watched my grandson learn to understand his world. He is clearly very quick and bright. He grasps the connection between two comments and sees the humor in a joke or exaggeration. It’s remarkable.
I remember myself when I was very young.