Thank you, God, or whatever you call yourself, if you are really there at all, and if you have a nice sense of humor (on which I am banking), for the family you gave me.
I grew up wanting a normal family that said prayers and went to church, but thank God you mostly ignored my menu choices, because instead I got left-wing intellectuals. I got parents who worshiped at the temples of James Joyce and Willa Cather, John Updike and John Cheever, Dorothy Parker and Evelyn Waugh — whom, until I was 12 or so, I imagined as a nice Midwestern lady out in a garden who rolled her stockings down around her ankles when the Wichita sun grew too hot.
I wanted an Eastern blue blood PTA mother, but thank you for a Liverpudlian who studied classics in college. She could quote Aristotle — and W. B. Yeats and Doris Lessing, and had long, beautiful, dark hair.
My dad wrote like a dream and looked like a Kennedy. They married and had three children. We grew up on Homer, E. B. White, Edith Hamilton and dictionaries, so we could learn where various words had gotten their humble and exhilarating starts in life.
Thank you for a father who made his living as a writer, such as that living was. But would it have killed you for us to have one single year when my parents didn’t worry about the bills month to month — O.K., wait. Never mind.
Thank you for a dad who got up at 5:30 every morning, rain, flu or hangover notwithstanding, who taught me the habits of writing: that you sit down at the same time every day, and you just do it, scribble away scratchily on legal pads, tap tap tap away on the old Olympia. You had to slide in a sheet of carbon paper between the original and the copy, and you didn’t whine. No one was making you do it — it was a privilege, for the few, we happy few.
My parents’ unhappy marriage would turn out to be the stuff of most great literature. They’d started out with a quest. They had wanted to be lords of their own castle, free of their parents finally, grown-ups together. And they had this magic time where everything worked, all that beauty and youth and brilliance and hope and sex. But the differences and wounds grew too big, and the specter and bright promise of having children brought them only a temporary state of unity.
All those parts and pieces of them spiked out and imploded, and nightmare parts banged, lurched, dove and floated all over the small apartment and then the small rental homes, and then the first and only home they ever owned. But through it all, there were books, and wine. Eugene O’Neill said that man is born broken, and the grace of God is glue. Books and wine were our glue, and so also our grace.
Thank you for parents who read to us every night — Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott — and who limited TV, which we three kids were completely bitter about back then but which turned us into voracious, lifelong readers. The rustle of pages was our family’s most sacred sound, our hymns, about wolves, and pioneer children, the little Japanese peach boy, the talking animals of Aesop, and then, oh, my God, Dr. Seuss.
Thank you, Betty McKegney, for letting me be your big girl helper at our tiny local library every Thursday night, when our family came to pick out books for the week. It was our musty cathedral, our mosque, stuffed from floor to ceiling with old books and magazines. People with allergies need not enter. I loved stamping the due dates on the old library cards, ca-chunk.
The planes and boats of my family were paper, between hard covers, flat sheets from which sprang fully formed worlds of people sort of like us; magic carpets that let us see from up above and be blown away on the winds to castles, planets and plantations, and then delivered us back, somehow stunned and calm and changed, all at once.
Chapter books were my salvation, in the same way as Jesus was for other kids. Our family was always broke, but my parents always shelled out our version of a monthly bar bill for Scholastic paperbacks. Thank you, Astrid Lindgren; when you gave us Pippi Longstocking, you gave me life. I read the book like I read the first issue of Ms. magazine 10 years later. The experience was like Helen Keller breaking the code for the word “water.” I wanted to race around spreading the good news. I could breathe again, forever. There was going to be a spot for me in this joint, the earth, after all. It was never going to be a great match for someone as bright and strange as me, but books were going to make it survivable.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thank you for giving my family all those Roger Tory Peterson field guides. Tramping around those Northern California woodlands and fields, sharing one pair of binoculars, consulting the field guide to see if the bird with the yellow feathers and red spots on its wings was a starling, a nuthatch or even a rare cedar waxwing. Those were the hours when my family functioned as a unit — was fully alive, in focus, in awe. Those were the walks when I really began to notice and appreciate the details: the beauty of black things against the green — the fields of cows on the way to Stinson, white egrets in the wetlands, red-winged blackbirds anywhere.
You could talk to my father about any author, because writers back then took it upon themselves to study at the feet of the masters, instead of getting M.F.A.’s. I’d sit with my father in his study and ask about Beowulf, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and Flannery O’Connor, and J. D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Heinlein, writing so gorgeous, heartbreaking, hilarious, lovely and sometimes shocking, that you might get startled in the good way, like splashing in cold water instead of lowering yourself down into a warm bath. You would recognize yourself in the prison, or placidly gathering rocks for the lottery, and you’d awaken: wow.
Books and The New Yorker were the collagen that kept my parents together for close to three decades, but eventually and badly, they parted ways. My mother got all the M.F.K. Fisher books. My father got the first edition James Thurbers.
Thank you for helping them be friends again from 3,000 miles away by the time he died in his mid-50s. One of us read “Sailing to Byzantium” at his memorial service at sunset on the Bolinas Ridge, and my mom did a lot of the cooking for the gathering afterward. It might have been a book party except for the weeping.
Everyone grieved for the man they had lost, but they’d also lost a valued writer, another travel guide in this nutty and harrowing journey of life. Writers show us the glades we’d somehow missed, the trickling voices of streams, the eyes of a barn owl watching us. We couldn’t always see this in our own lives, but a writer like my father revealed a shape and movement amid it all, layers, meaning, perspective, joy, because he paid such careful attention, and paying attention is about the biggest redemption there is. And that was always our prayer.