Brand building through storytelling

Paper birds

Maynard MaxOn fall mornings like this one, when the light is sharp and clear, the last fragmentary flocks of retreating birds look like black paper cutouts against the sky. They remind me of the birds that my father once cut, freehand, long ago in his attic studio. My father was an artist bedeviled by self-doubt; instead of committing himself with his brush, he’d often do a trial run with construction paper. He taped the birds to an unfinished painting that hung above the fireplace for years.

He died in 1981 and the house is on its second new owner. But the paper birds are still in place, faded now, on a landscape that throbs with ragged lyricism. His mother used to tell him, shaking her head, “Max, you never finish anything.”

My father could be a mean drunk. I didn’t use that term in my memoir, My Mother’s Daughter, but it tends to crop up in the media coverage of the book. Whenever it does, I shudder a little. Yes, he once dragged me from the dining room table in full view of the silently astonished family. And yes, he often berated his oldest friend for the crime of becoming a celebrated artist while Max Maynard, once lauded for his promise, was stuck teaching English in a minor university. Mean deeds, fueled by alcoholic rage. But they’re not the sum of who he was.

In fact, the most excruciating aspect of his meanness was the way it could erase the rest of him. Every day, I saw the man he could have been?and was, in fleeting moments of glorious tenderness.

He gave himself up to what captivated him with the unbending absorption of a child. What he seemed to love most about being a father was sharing his delight with us, and yet none of it sprang from ordinary childhood pleasures. I don’t have a single memory of him playing catch in the back yard, or building a village with blocks. I picture him reciting poetry at bedtime, when his resonant voice and the enfolding darkness of the room made it seem that Tennyson had written “Crossing the Bar”  just for us. I didn’t know how the Red Sox were doing, unlike other kids in our town, but I came to know that poem by heart. It won me over with its music and the image of the little boat on its solitary voyage to a place of irresistible mysteries:

Sunset, and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea…

He had rejected the blinkered faith of his fundamentalist parents, who maintained that God created heaven and earth in seven days. His parents had no use for science, and he pitied them for their willful ignorance. Yet he looked at the world with a spiritually charged sense of wonder at natural beauty, and a reverence for all living creatures.

One night I awoke to the sound of flapping wings. A bird in my room! How thrilling! Except this was a different kind of wingbeat, the kind heard in old horror films. It made me think of caves and dead, decaying things, not the open sky. I screamed, “There’s a bat in my room!” My father rushed to my rescue. He caught the invader in a blanket and rushed it to the front door, where it fell with a soft thud that made his face go pale. “My God!” he said. “I’ve killed it.”

He was an old man, alone and racked with arthritis, when he finally joined A.A. In the “higher power,” he found a forgiving God he could trust. I was the one who couldn’t forgive. He drank less frequently, I think, but he never stopped drinking. More than his detours from the path toward sobriety, it was the timing of his brave new commitment that enraged me. Why hadn’t he made the effort while my sister and I were growing up? How could he have been so weak, so monumentally selfish? Surely if he loved us, he wouldn’t have tormented us this way. Surely his drinking was a moral failure.

It’s not, of course. It’s an affliction that nobody chooses. People drink for a reason?to overcome shyness, medicate anguish or create a sense of belonging. Drinking solves a problem, until it becomes the problem.

And here’s the irony: depression, which plagued me until my mid-30s, can also be misjudged as moral failure. Pull up your socks, people say (many of them family members). Try harder. A person of your intelligence… It was depression that created my father’s fatal, unquenchable thirst. I’ve been told that my own depression has its roots in the perpetual anxiety and anger that coloured my childhood. Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of my genetic inheritance.

I used to think the hardest part of living was accepting mortality, my own and other people’s. Now I think it’s accepting human failure, which so often coexists with true magnificence. I’d like to believe that people are good or bad, like princes and goblins in fairy tales. In fact the prince has caused his share of crashing disappointments and the goblin is capable of courage. I’m still trying to get my head around this. Perhaps I never will entirely.

So I read, always looking for scraps of insight. That’s how I found the late Caroline Knapp, author of the best-selling memoir Drinking: A Love Story. With exquisite precision, she describes the double self of her drinking years: the buttoned-down newspaper journalist, and the blackout-prone barfly who, every morning, would check her car for “bits of flesh or blood or clothing on the front grill…that would signify some horrifying accident.”

Knapp had become a horror to herself, craving liquor as if it were the worst kind of lover, whose cruelty is part of his appeal. In her shame, I saw my father’s. I understood at last that the number one victim of his drinking was himself. I think of her as a mentor, and I miss the books she didn’t live to write. She was only 42 when she died of lung cancer five years ago, but at least she stayed sober. It must have been the toughest thing she ever achieved.

On my desk I keep a small blue notebook that my father used to take to A.A. meetings. He recorded each one in an elegant hand. On one page he wrote, “If we could completely surrender our will to God, we would never feel disappointment. But the fact is I often suffer terribly from disappointments.”

My father’s A.A. diary will eventually join his sketchbooks at the Provincial Archives of British Columbia, but I’m not quite ready to let it go. The journey, not the arrival, is what matters. That’s what the notebook reminds me.


Posted by Rona

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