Sunday, January 22, 2006

THE HOMELIEST GIRL I EVER SAW and other stories


Self-portrait
Originally uploaded by lapinfille.

My father wasn't much of a reader. He was passionate about the newspaper, especially the local news, but I only remember him reading one book. The book was Black Like Me, and actually, I don't remember him reading it. I remember him talking about it.

Talking was my father's art, and he did it with skill and style. At parties, my mother (the introverted one from whom I got my love of books) was often left alone while Dad worked the room. He had a natural curiosity about people. He was eager to know everyone he met, and he wanted them to know him back. As a result, parties or family gatherings usually found him in the center of a group, holding his "audience" rapt as he relayed a story, or listening with equal eagerness as future tales took shape in his mind.

A child with writing aspirations from the time she first held a pencil could--and did--learn a lot from watching and listening to him. His stories had hooks, flash characterizations, and intriguing plots. Above all, he gave his listeners a reason to pay attention. His talk was laced with humor and dramatic pauses, and a pay off that left his listeners wanting more. He could turn "my trip to the hardware store" into a story that kept you riveted.

He was quick to let you know that though a story was gleaned from chance encounters in his life as a truck driver and maintenance man, what you were about to hear was hardly ordinary. There was usually a superlative nestled in one of the opening sentences.

It was always a story about the homeliest girl I ever saw, or "the nicest guy I ever met," and of course, everything about his presentation was convincing enough that you had to know why. I can still see the raised eyebrows and wide open eyes, the teasing smile, and bright face he wore when he was talking.

I especially liked the one about the homely girl. Recalling it, makes me wonder how that word ever fell out of use, and became commonly replaced with the more strident ugly. There's something sweet about a homely girl, something that makes you want to root for her. An ugly girl, on the other hand, is just ugly.

There were plenty of dark stories in my father's life, stories about the poverty of his childhood, about the tragedies and unfulfilled hopes that afflict all families, about the war he'd fought at age nineteen. He never told those. He was from a generation that wanted to escape the darkness, not claim it as a special right to victimhood. We often joked that for a talker, his letters home from the war were terse and repetitious: Feeling fine and hope you are the same.

Only in his final years did the war stories come out; only then did we begin to understand why he had chased laughter and good times so hard, and why his stories did the same. As his memory frayed, he often told the same stories over and over. The grandchildren had a list of phrases you could never use in front of Papa, lest they trigger a repeat performance of the tales they knew by heart. But it was in the repetitions that I came to understand exactly how much of an art his storytelling really was. Almost like a rehearsed performance, he employed the same vocal inflections, the same gestures and pauses each time he retold one of his stock pieces.

I've been thinking of my father and his art form ever since the other night. My husband and I were having dinner in a funky little Italian restaurant when a woman approached the table.

"Excuse me," she said. "You're Jack's daughter, right?"

"No," I told her, certain she had confused me with someone else. "My father's name was Dick and he died five years ago."

"That's right. Dick was his name," she said, then explained she used to cut his hair.

I still wasn't convinced. As far as I knew, my father always went to a barber for his haircuts.

But the woman nodded insistently. "I really miss that guy. He made my day whenever he came into the shop."

I thanked her, and said he frequently made my day, too. But I still wasn't sure we were talking about the same person.

Not till she added, "He always told the best stories."

Oh yeah. That was the guy.

24 comments:

liz elayne said...

Beautiful. A look back, a look inward. Love this Patry. I love the image of him lisenting as the future stories began to shape in his mind. Thank you for sharing your memories.

MB said...

Your story brings him vividly into my imagination. And now see where you got at least part of your storytelling gift from. There is a tendency toward intolerance of older folks' stories, but in this story, you explain the repetitious with a loving understanding that engenders admiration (for both of you).

rdl said...

well the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And you really pulled on my heart strings talking about him. He was a great guy, so funny and quite a character himself.

Lorna said...

(tears)
Isn't it wonderful that we have the ability to time-travel that way? I miss my father a great deal, but can spend time with him in my head any time I want by shutting out the rest of the world and going back to relive a memory. Like yours, my father didn't talk about the war until he was older, and talking about it was mot storytelling but more an exploration of what made him who he was. I was glad to hear them, but also understanding of why it took so long.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

What a lovely remembrance, Patry. In this age of digital everything and decreased human interaction, where folks turn to the TV for their every thought, I often think oral storytelling is a lost art. You make me want to seek out those who are still masters of it, and listen, again and again. Thank you!

Patry Francis said...

liz: A look inward--yes, in a lot of ways it is, though I didn't think of that when I was writing the piece. A look to see where the stories come from, and the impulse to write them. Thanks.

mb: What you say about discrediting older people's stories is true and so sad; we lose so much when we turn away. Thank you for your sensitive comment.

r: He was so extroverted I never thought I was much like him, but in some ways, yeah, I'm an apple...

Lorna: You are right. The painful recollections from the war weren't really "stories" like the others were. They weren't for entertainment purpose and were rarely--if ever--told publicly. It sounds like our dads had a lot in common.

Patry Francis said...

Sharon: Right now clicking away on my computer, I'm probably contributing to the demise of oral storytelling--but really, I think the "naturals" can't be kept down. I'm thinking of a young woman I work with. Everyone wanted to go on break with her because she had the gift of making everyone in the room laugh and cry and think a little deeper through the power of her stories. Thanks for your comment.

colleen said...

Wow. This reminds me so much of my father who passed away in November. He was also a repeat storyteller (and exaggerater)who went to war when he was 19. My mother isn't introverted but couldn't get "a word in edgewise."

Amishlaw said...

A wonderful essay. Your father reminded me of my father who was a great storyteller, although he was more introverted.

Sky said...

A family of storytellers! Thanks for the glimpse into your life in this beautiful essay which captures his special talent. I wonder if he knew the fullness of your talent.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Such a lovely story of remembrances. I find it very touching that someone else remembers, someone outside of the family. I like that.

Mary said...

I agree with Rexroth's Daughter - I find it touching and affirming that someone outside the family recognised and acknowledged the truth of him.

Patry Francis said...

colleen: I had a sense your dad was alot like mine after reading your "13 Things" about him.

amishlaw: sounds like storytelling dads produce children who love the written word!

sky: thank you. Telling a story well truly is a talent.

r.d. & Mary: Oh yes, it was such a gift to hear that someone who had a tangential connection to my father still remembered him, and missed him, and remembered his stories. If it were me, I might have allowed shyness or fear of intruding to stop me from speaking, and lost an opportunity. I'm hoping next time I have the chance, I won't.

Alexandra S said...

Thank you so, so much for your kind comments you left yesterday on my site! What a pleasure to come home to, and now double the pleasure because I have found out about your site as well! This past weekend I was actually at one of my very favorite hideaways visiting my family in Los Angeles. Its in Topanga Canyon where they have a beautiful outdoor Shakespeare amphitheater and its at the base of Woody Guthrie's one time home!
I'll definitely be visiting your site again- Thank you again!

Anne said...

Impossible, you know, to share an emotion felt for someone else without revealing some of yourself as well... be it a character real or imagined. Such is the way with writers who are meant to write.

How i envy you, Patry. Such a rich legacy handed from father to child.

Swirly said...

I believe his daughter inherited the same ability to tell wonderful stories. :)

Patry Francis said...

alexandra: It's great to see all the people who feel a connection to Woody in some way. Thanks for visiting!

Anne: Thank you. Sometimes we don't begin to understand the legacies we've been given till we're ready to pass them on.

swirly: You are too kind.

Matt Getty said...

Wow. You've really captured something here. I finished reading this and I just wanted more. Your father sounds like a fascinating character.

Also, the observation on "homely" is dead on. Reading that line gave me one of those rare moments that mark exceptional writing. I read it and just said, "yes." That's exactly what I've always thought, but never been able to express.

Patry Francis said...

Matt: Yeah, homely is really a great word. Maybe we both should write a story called "the homely girl" and see what we come up with.

Cate said...

I adore this post. What a remarkable man.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Cate!

Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read » »

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