–by Heather Murphy
When I was young, it was not unusual for my father to “crash” at the apartment I lived in with my mother and stepfather. I used to picture him smashing his blue car into our living room when I heard the adults talking about him coming over. He often missed it when they held court, most weekends, with their hash and quadraphonic stereo, preferring the bar instead. He would come over later in the evenings to play cards and talk, or, he would come over drunk, in the middle of the night, and get into my bed–dressed–with his boots on, smelling of old spice and beer, and he would tell me stories about his days at school with the nuns and how mean they were, and we would play animal, mineral, or vegetable, or name that tune, until he would start snoring. I hated it when he fell asleep.
When I got older, we would stay up talking on the weekends, long after everyone else was asleep. My father told countless, colorful anecdotes about his life while I made apple-butter sandwiches and Irish Breakfast tea. He told stories about people and events in our family that I should have written down.
The range and depth of what is lost is incalculable.
I would play his favorite records, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, and listen to him, utterly transfixed—he would become so animated as he embellished his tales–until he would fall over sideways on our sofa from too much beer, and because I could out stay-awake anyone, then I would cover him up with a blanket or a jacket and return to my room, to my journals and Doors’ albums, to ruminate over the things he’d said.
Why didn’t I write down the stories when I had the chance?
When I grew up, I decided to be a writer. I wanted to write people’s stories down. I began to talk to alcoholics because they were the only ones still awake after the party was over and they were always ready to talk. I naturally gravitated towards them. Talking to them was so much more intense than talking to almost anyone else and their energy hardly seemed to flag. They were characters and that’s what I thought I was looking for. Outrageous and compelling opinions and ideas seemed to flow effortlessly from them, but often with the curious quality of smoke from an opium pipe, slowly filling a room. They told old war stories, dished gossip with impunity, and, I think, most importantly, acted as if we were the best of friends, thrown together by destiny to do great things.
I never thought of any of it as seeking to recapture what I’d had with my father, until today.
After his untimely death, I left the East Coast and took up travelling, driving a van across the country to prowl the taverns of postage stamp sized towns in the American West, tape recorder and tiny notebook in pocket. I was hoping to find out the truth of the human condition and get the stories of those bound to its contracts.
The stories I collected listening to people recount their lives to me filled several notebooks. Some were unforgettable characters, others, drunken caricatures. Some made me think of my own family members, causing me to place frantic late-night calls to the East Coast, to my mother and any living grandparents who would talk to me, asking them to tell me their stories, worried they would die before someone recorded their histories. My grandfather had been at the Battle of the Bulge and now he was dead, the story he’d repeated to us kids, a rabbit receding into the underbrush of my memory.
Why didn’t I write it down?
My mother has been gone for five years now. How many times have I suffered the disappointment of knowing I cannot get names, places, pieces of history that I desperately need? How much is lost?
Again, incalculable. Plagued by sighs and question marks, I pore through photographs and old letters of hers from before I was born, wondering who she was back then. I ask my stepfather for new information, plying him with wine and desserts, banging on the bars of his memory with my stick. I go over the old travel journals with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues between the lines about campground fees and sea-food buffets in Key West, searching for her story.
Now that they are gone, and their secrets with them, I’m left with no choice but to fashion a story about my parents with what I do have. That is the only thing that’s to be done. I will crack open my mother’s favorite champagne, play my father’s favorite records on his old turn-table, and spread the contents of the boxes I’m left with all around the room, like a detective starting a new case.