Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Father--Gone but Still Appearing

I’ve written about my father before, in my book about my mother’s life and death. And I thought, of course, that I was done with him, my father. Jack, as we boys called him, died in 1993. By the time my mother was facing her own end in 2010, most of the people who knew Jack were gone. More startling, many of my mother’s friends, at the end of her life, had never known my father.

I was writing about Franny, my mother, who had decided to stop eating and drinking, and fast until her death. I was writing about my family, who warred over old grudges and new crises: two of the brothers wanted to give my mother the option of a quick death by helium. The third brother did not, and threatened (we felt) to call the cops. And I was writing about my father, since he had been the great love of my mother’s life, as well as the bedrock in all of ours. 

For me, the son, it was a terrible time. For me, the writer, it will never be better. So much was happening in my life at that time that nothing could prevent it spilling over into writing. What writer could ask for more? And so, in those heated days, I wrote the chapter on my father when I was travelling on a bus from Chicago to Madison. The bus travelled through Janesville, Rockford, and close to Jefferson Prairie, Wisconsin. My father himself had travelled through all of those places, though his journey took decades. In fact, on those many bus trips when I wasn’t writing, I would see the sign for the exit to the old farmstead: Shopiere Road. Forget the spelling—it was always pronounced SHOWpeer road.

Was it his grandfather or his great grandfather who had come over from Norway in the 1850’s or 60’s? I was told and I forgot during my youth and early adulthood; years later, I googled the Lutheran church where my grandmother’s funeral had been held, and the weddings of my cousins held as well.

That Norwegian Lutheranism stuck—to varying degrees—to that side of the family. Jack’s brother had religious tracts seemingly everywhere: in the bathroom by the toilet, in the barn, in the tractor. Jack never got the religion, but he couldn’t escape the morality that either went with it, or was behind it.

What am I trying to say?

He hated bastards. He hated people who cheated, cut corners, or put their own agenda first, at the expense of others. When he first came to Madison, World War II was winding down or had ended: there was still rationing of meat, however. And so when Jack got the tip that someone—a butcher?—was selling horsemeat, he ambushed the man. His weapon, as it would be for most of his life, was one of the five or six Leica cameras that he wound up owning.

The guy was sent off to prison: his parting words were along the lines of, “I’ll get you, Newhouse, when I get out!” It made my mother nervous, and so my father bought a pistol, which he kept in his sock drawer.

We laughed at him, of course—what kids wouldn’t? And we did point out that—since the bullets were kept locked up prudently somewhere else—Jack could always throw socks at the gun-wielding ex-con….

He went on. There was the police chief, Bruce Weatherly, who got into a tangle with the city council. The ante got upped and upped, and the tangle became a war. Jack knew the story from the beginning and through the multiple salvos back and forth. In the end—big surprise—the city council prevailed, but only after the chief, while drunk, crashed his car into a truck. And my father, of course, maintained that the police chief, who wanted to institute needed changes, had been—though pig-headed as well as drunk—right all along. And so the ex-police chief was licking his wounds down in Florida, or perhaps the southwest; he was hitting the bottle, as well. And one day, his wife could take her drunken / broken man no more. She shot him, killed him, and only narrowly escaped with her own neck.

I don’t remember the police chief’s name; I do remember (I think) that the wife / widow’s name was Inez. But I do remember what she said to my father when she blew through town, a few years later.

“You’re the only person in this town I came to see.”

(Years later, I met another and later chief of police, who told me that Weatherly ran a perfectly good police department, for the fifties. Of course, the department was running wiretaps on prominent figures, and one of the nuggets mined was about the daughter of a city councilman. The daughter was working as a prostitute somewhere in the west; who knew who that ever got played, if at all….)

Jack had grown up in lilliest of white environments. But I think he must have felt a special kinship with the very small black community of Madison in the 1950’s. Many of the families had been in the community for generations; one or two were descended from slaves. (In fact, one of the early members was Eston Jefferson, the son of Sally Hemings and, yes, Thomas Jefferson). The black community wasn’t large, but it was, Jack felt, very solid.

Jack seemed to know everybody, and so there were names that floated around, in my childhood. One of them was Odie Taliaferro (officially Odell Taliaferro) but who was he, and what had he done?

After Jack died, I got the story: the Taliaferros took advantage of the new open housing law, and moved to an all-white neighborhood. They woke up to a cross burning on the lawn one night.

It was the kind of thing that drove my father nuts, so he did what he always did: wrote a story. And that meant he went and talked to the neighbors. Ostensibly it was for the story, but really it was to say, very slowly, with his eyes boring into the interviewees:

“Someone burned a cross on their lawn, but I know it couldn’t be you, because you’re good people, and they’re good people, too. Aren’t they!”

When Jack got into this mode, neither family nor neighbors could resist him. The neighbors learned to live with Taliaferro, and Odie never forgot it.

The open housing law, in fact, was something else that Jack and the State Journal had championed. I knew that, and I think I remember that Jack—rather smugly—claimed that the more liberal Capital Times had been against it. (The rivalry between the State Journal and the Cap Times—run by ‘that damn Bill Evjue’—spilled frequently into animosity…)

So it was another battle: this one more successful than Weatherly. What I didn’t know—until the Historic Madison Facebook page published a letter my father wrote in 1991—was that the battle had been fought with his usual buddies. Those were Henry Reynolds (who was the mayor) and Oscar Rennebohm (who owned enough pharmacies in town that the statue of Miss Forward, atop the capitol, was really reputed to be Lady Rennebohm, pointing to the site of the latest drugstore).

So I knew the story—sort of—of the open housing ordinance. But I didn’t know the story of Calvin Harris, or his mother, Willie Lou. And then, in an odd twist of fate, I did.

My old man—he’s supposed to be dead, you know. But he crops up, usually in photos posted in Historic Madison. And sometimes, I get a little more of the story. More often than not, I get a lingering scent from the past. And questions. That aerial photo he took of Edgewood College—was that the one he never got paid for? It was in the late 40’s or early 50’s: he had a young family and no money. So he took the photos, and found himself handing them to Sister So-and-So, the president of the college. So he was bracing himself to ask for five bucks, when she said…

“…God will reward you, my son.”

Ah, they knew how to do it in those days!

And what, by the way, was my father doing up in Mauston, or wherever it was? Because I stumbled on the photo on the Wisconsin Historical Society website while looking up Mary Ann van Hoof, to whom the virgin appeared several times in Necedah, Wisconsin. The story went national, and I peered at the pictures of the farmhouse and the subsequent shrine: had Jack taken those? No way to tell, but who knew that that neck of the woods had had a long association with spiritualism and mediums? And suddenly, there was my father’s photo in the Historical Society’s webpage: the only description was “two women testing the medium,” or something of the sort. The “testing” involved a good bit of rope, which gives the whole thing an edgy feel….

Well, I’ll never know what test those women were doing—nor will anyone, I suspect.

“You’re dead,” I tell Jack on occasion, when he pops up without warning and without explanations One of the photos in the Historical Society is of an old man knitting; the photo was taken in the early 50’s, and the man must have been 80 if not 90. So who was he, and why was he knitting, and what was his wife doing? Smoking cigars? Testing mediums?

Could it be that the old man was more unconventional than his sons? After all, I call my brother John, who is a lawyer in New York City, and who, like me, neither knits nor tests mediums. He remembers the name of Weatherly, the police chief, and then brings up…

“Remember Jack his dancing girls?”

Anna Nassif,” I told my brother. Nassif was professor of modern dance at the UW, and Jack liked to photograph her work. What was the fascination? Perhaps it was the positions that a dancer could assume, or the angles, or the play of bodies against nature. That may have been it, since my mother would tell us, “your father’s not here; he’s off with his dancing girls on the rocks.”

It was accepted: my father had his dancing girls on the rocks, and left us all bereft on various Saturday mornings. The fact that neither Jack no Nassif—both unconventional but completely proper—would ever venture off the rocks and into the bushes made the whole thing sillier.

So we laugh about Nassif and the dancing girls, and John wonders: why am I thinking of Jack? I tell him about Historic  Madison, and Facebook, and then about the YouTube videos I’m seeing of Renée Fleming and other opera divas. The man who interviews the singers always asks at the beginning: who took you to your first opera?

And so I asked myself—who had taken me to my first opera?

The opera was Carmen, it was in the auditorium of East High School, and I must have been ten or eleven. I had just started playing the cello, and somebody must have told my father to take me to the opera. So there he was, and there I was. Where was my mother? Was she sick, or was this a father / son thing?

We never know, when we do things with the young, what we’re sowing, if anything at all. And the seed was dormant for many, many years, though I would become a classical musician, among other things. But opera? It was never a passion, until I heard a voice on the radio, a decade or two later. It was an ad for an appearance of a very young Jessye Norman; in the background, you could hear her singing somewhere in the middle register. Suddenly, extraordinarily, her voice opened up and stilled to the most unimaginable sound I had ever heard. It was a glorious, pianissimo high note. It came out of nowhere and lasted until all time. I knew I had to hear that woman, as I have heard so many other women—and men—before her and after her.

“Who took you to the opera,” asked the interviewer.

“You did, Jack,” I tell my father. He looks up, nods, and then goes back to being dead. Until he turns up again, on Facebook or the Historical Society, or in stories. I’d forgotten, until my brother reminded me, about the police chief and the dancing ladies on the rocks. And I’d almost forgotten about that first opera, in the high school auditorium. We were both a little unsure about what we were doing there.

“Sorry,” I tell my father, disturbing his peace once again.

“I never said thank you,” I tell him.

But I also never forgot.