Notes from a Son

Why is it, I asked Daddy, that we two writers, with such rich material to work with, have never made fiction out of our family? Pat Conroy did it with his family. Yeah, he said, and it wasn’t very nice when he wrote about ours.

I read Daddy a short story by Mary Hood called “Manly Conclusions.” Mary Hood was his pal. We wondered how she got the detail for this great story. Was she married? Did she have a son like the boy in the story? Was she still alive? He didn’t know. But we enjoyed the story together. Literature, memory, and good meals for four days in Anne and Clay’s house. Most of that time allowed them to be away at Tate hosting half a dozen couples in their couples group. Every day for Daddy and me revolved around a visit to Mama in room 340, Emory Rehab.daddy-in-decatur

From this experience, I would highly recommend that anyone wishing to help should be with Daddy in units of at least 24 hours at a time, fixing and enjoying three good meals, easy walks with him, rest time for both, porch sitting, and good company without having to do anything that takes sustained concentration. In contrast, visit Mama in units of no more than an hour at a time.

“Precious pair of poets,” Mama said when Daddy and I blundered past her rehab roommate and into Mama’s space. She was quoting a Conrad Aiken poem that came welling up between me and Mama in fragments. “Rimbaud and Verlaine, precious pair of poets.” Playing chess in a sidewalk café in Paris, chestnut blossoms falling in blonde beer. In her corner bed by the window, sunlight squared on flowers and cards, not between knight and bishop.

Mama is making determined progress. When Walter was with us, he was jubilant at the improvement since he had last seen her a week before. The stroke was Sept. 25. This was Oct. 15 when their pals Ginger Birdsie and Kitty Farnham were sitting with us on that third floor hallway and saw Mama being wheeled out from her room to come to us. She pumped her free right hand in the air and kicked one leg straight out like cheerleader, even strapped in.

Talking with Mama was like poetry, shrewd compacted meanings, full of private references. She told us about her speech therapist trying to convince her to enlarge her understanding of the resurrection of Christ and a better world awaiting us. You sure he wasn’t the chaplain? I asked. No, the speech therapist, she said, “trying to save my soul.” By her account, she met this with logic and what I consider good sound incarnational theology – the proposition that this life and this world are as good a gift we can humanly imagine from a loving God. I’m impressed with a certain flinty glee showing in her slightly drooping face. I tell her she reminds me a little of Grandfather Douglas when he was old and being logical. She brushes that away as a bad comparison.

The physical attachment that Mama and Daddy have for each other is so touching under these constraints. They touch and kiss, then try to communicate out of their opposite hemispheres of cerebral strength. Mama’s all left brain. Daddy’s drawing on his right brain. I serve as translator, and that seems to be deeply satisfying for all three of us in snatches.

I am left with this concern – the need for a third-party translator, ideally a family member. That’s what I so enjoyed doing for four days. Being with Daddy in-between visits was one of the greatest experiences of love a son can have. It was like the best moments in the movie “Rain Man,” where the Tom Cruise character learns the meaning of love in action.  .  .except that Daddy’s part is so much more civilized and pleasant than Dustin Hoffman’s role, with its panic attacks. Daddy and I were both operating on some inexhaustible supply of affection and patience. I didn’t much care that I wasn’t getting work done on my job.

We watched movies together – actually, the only two DVDs I could find in the whole house: the 1950s home-movie pastiche called “The Cumming Thing” and David Lean’s engaging “Passage to India.” We walked to nearby Holy Trinity Episcopal Church for the 10:30 service this morning. My first day there, I took Daddy on foot to get a haircut at Maxim Barbers, a hip place with an actual barber’s pole twirling outside. I told him the haircut made him look like Alistair Cooke, and took a couple of pictures of him.

dancers-in-decaturWe strolled on into the heart of Decatur, a couple of boulevardiers. A choreographer from Israel named Oren sized us up as a likely audience for a modern dance he was producing. We followed him up an alley beside Core studio and upstairs to a large dance space where six dancers greeted us, three males and three females, although gender identity was pretty fluid even before the performance began. Daddy and I sat transfixed for 45 minutes by the abstract movements of “American Playground,” part improvised, part classical ballet, some children’s games, the whole thing like Mick Jagger acting silly but with impressive physical grace and contortions.  What a cool place Decatur can be. (Another day, jogging to the beautiful Agnes Scott campus – shades of Granny, mother and Robert Frost in past epochs – I spied Bo & Maureen walking on the other side of the street, on their way to the Decatur Beer Festival in the Square.)

Daddy is diligent with projects that can absorb him for hours at a time. He was delighted to find his own writing in a hardback copy of Bylines. He writes in a journal and notebooks, processing information like what day it is and what we just talked about. He worked for more than an hour trying to re-commit to memory the first page of Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill.” He told a number of wonderful stories I had never heard before. Here’s one, about a gal named Joan.

He and Joan were not an item, back then, right out of high school, but they were friends. WWII gave Augusta a kind of rule-breaking jauntiness. Two or three times a week you could count 52 bombers flying over Augusta in formation, Daddy said. Joan was sophisticated for her age. Drinking Cokes at the Partridge Inn wasn’t cool enough, so Joan said come on, let’s go across the street to the Bon Air Hotel for some real drinks. They went, four of them, and at a cocktail bar with paper napkins, Joan said, hey here’s an idea, let’s write a poem or something for the one on this side of you. And she wrote a poem for Daddy. It went like this (Daddy didn’t keep the napkin, but remembered the poem):

Joseph B., of temperament mild
A magnolia sort of Oscar Wilde
Wherein cavalier and poet are blended,
The times you spend with him are splendid.*

(*not sure of this line, except the final rhyme)

A few days later, Joan told Daddy, “I’m going to New York.”

“Oh Joan.”

“Yes.” She went.

Daddy got a letter from her not long after saying she was in New York, but the people there were all manikins, caring about nothing but the clothes they wore. Sometime after that, she called Daddy long distance to say she got married, but now she wanted a divorce. She needed a Georgia lawyer, and she knew Daddy’s father was one. She needed a legal question answered. Daddy asked his father and got the answer for Joan. She could get the divorce if she was still a Georgia individual, and that was defined in the law by whether her “heart was in Georgia.”

I’m on the train back to Virginia, thinking about how much I am still of Georgia.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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1 Response to Notes from a Son

  1. Jimmy Espy says:

    Your dad taught me at West Georgia and I love him dearly. I told him once that conversations with him were hugely frustrating because they always ended far too soon. Joe and your mom always treated me like a prince. So sorry I couldn’t be in Atlanta on Saturday. — JImmy Espy, Dalton

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