Online Edition: Fall 2000

Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself by C. K. Williams

Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself

C. K. Williams

Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($21)

by Elaine Margolin

Whether we admit it or not, we all rehearse our parent's death. We think about what we will do, whom we will call, how we will tell our own children. We believe ourselves to be ready, all grown-up, having had decades to repackage our own pasts into more suitable stories, with most of the harsh edges cut off. Stiff and aching, we rise to face yet another day, our own bodies no longer so reliable.

Poet C.K. Williams was already married with children when his own father became gravely ill with brain cancer. Williams had always had a difficult relationship with his father, full of stops and starts, but lately he believed they had finally worked out something a bit better. He was certain that when his father did die, he would be ready, able to manage. Yet, when his father finds living with cancer intolerable, and takes his own life, Williams is overwrought:

My father dead, I come into the room where he lies and I say aloud, immediately concerned that he might still be able to hear me. What a war we had! To my father's body I say it, still propped up on its pillows, before the men from the funeral home arrive to put him in their horrid zippered green bag to take him away, before his night table is cleared of the empty bottles he wolfed down when he'd finally been allowed to end the indignity of his suffering, and had found the means to do it. Before my mother comes in to lie down beside him.

"What a war we had!" keeps playing over and over again in his head, like an old broken LP record, the needle stuck in his heart. He can't stop thinking it. "What a war we had!" a bittersweet mantra that keeps repeating itself, its emotional force unstoppable.

Seduction is often thought of as a dance between men and women, full of secrets and disguises. A series of chess moves really. But most adults are immune to seduction; they have already learned to be wary, somewhat suspicious, even of their own happiness. Children welcome seduction, however, for it promises the impossible, the improbable, a world they take stock in. They are constantly jumping over boundaries that existed only moments before, like the bike they can suddenly ride, or the roller-blades that transform walking forever. Williams remembers the turbulent roller-coaster ride of growing up with his father, where he often felt unsure if his presence was welcome:

When he was in a benign mood, his pleasure was wonderfully infectious, it was remarkable how he attracted people, how he could make them feel that something uncommon was happening to them when they were in his company. Even his children, even his son; even if you were still scraped raw by whatever abrasion he'd last inflicted on you, you'd feel both relief and an odd sense of fulfillment at being allowed to participate in his good spirits.

When he decided--no one could ever say why he would or wouldn't let his kinder nature be revealed, even his physical presence became welcoming.

Yet, just as quickly, and without warning, he could change and:

there would be a sudden slackening in him that you could sense even in his body: he'd seem to be looking at you from lower in the space than he had been; that gap in his teeth, the stress mark that italicized his good spirits would be concealed again. All at once, when you said something you meant to be amusing, he'd be looking at you with a somber cynicism, as though he didn't understand not only how you could say something so foolish, but how you could think of inflicting your foolishness on him. "Let's go," he would say abruptly to my mother if we were out, or, if we were at their house, he'd say to me, "It's late, you better get going." We'd know then that our audience with that agreeable part of him had come to an end, and so, carefully, warily, hardly daring to look back, we'd leave.

As a young man, his father's erratic fluctuations in temperament upset and irritated him. As a child, perhaps he would just pretend his father had disappeared. What must have puzzled the young Williams was how often others seemed to take to his father, especially in business. Only today are women finding out what men have always known: the giddy pleasures of work outside the home, where goals are specified and camaraderie forms easily, fueled by joint purpose. Williams always sensed his father's thoughts were bound up in business, the family an afterthought. He remembers feeling jealous about his father's alliances with co-workers, noticing how happy he seemed with them, an ease of manner he rarely showed at home. During his father's last days, when he was stricken with aphasia and would mumble incoherently for hours, his speech would suddenly become coherent when one of his business partners visited, and lapse again when his colleague would depart.

Williams was never able to confront his father directly, and when he would look to his mother for solace, she was often distracted, perhaps lost in her own struggle to keep the family together. Instead, he would often argue with his father about politics, taking pleasure in the fact that he was smarter than his dad, and could generally score more points. They would fight for hours about Israel, for example, Williams believing in negotiating with the Palestinians, and his father, like many American Jews of his generation, vehemently opposed to dealing with anyone in the Arab world.

There was always plenty of yelling between them, little resolution, always a nagging sadness. Williams remembers feeling that, even as a young boy, his father seemed to take pleasure in bullying him. William's childhood passion, before girls and sex and writing took over, was for horses. He would spend many a blissful afternoon at the stables riding. One afternoon his father made an unexpected visit to the stables and demanded his son dismount, and hand over the reins. Williams watched in horror as his father mounted the horse, convinced his father's massive frame would smash the vertebrae of the tiny horse. His father said little, rode the horse for a few brief minutes, and left. Decades later, Williams is still uncertain as to why his father visited that day. Was he trying to understand his son's love of horses? Or was he trying to show him that he rules the roost, everywhere?

Williams tries to understand, struggles to forgive his father, but sometimes he wonders why he still cares so much. After all, he reasons, what's the point? His parents are dead now, and have been for quite some time. Anger and self-righteousness no longer seem appropriate. He is no longer certain he has done any better, with his own family, his own children:

I have my mother's tendency to brood on causes, her passion to find reasons, and though I don't like having to say so, her need to lay blame. From my father the urge to despise and dismiss anything that doesn't meet my expectations.

He often fantasizes about what his father's early years were like, before the children came. He knew his father grew up in a different and scary time, where he was sometimes targeted, often unwelcome, usually alone:

I've often wondered about my father's soul, about the cosmos in which he dwelt. What were the ultimate grounds of his beliefs, of his day-to-day confrontations with existence? What meaning did life have for him? Did he believe in a real God? How much had being a Jew in a century of Jewish horror affected him? We never spoke about that, or never seriously: surely it would have had to affect him to realize that it was the purest chance that his and his mother's grandparents had left Poland and Russia when they did, and so it was just as much of a chance that he was still alive at all. If he felt anything like that, though, he kept it to himself, as most Jews of his generation did.

There are still times when Williams, well into his sixties, dreams of his father, and imagines him to be at peace, hovering nearby, a comforting presence. Sometimes, in the dream, his father is trying to tell him something, but his speech is garbled, as it was in his last days. Williams can't quite make it out.

Perhaps he is trying to tell him he loved him.

Williams has written a brilliant memoir about the particular strains of being loved insufficiently, of always wanting more.

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Fall 2000 Table of Contents