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.