A Couple of Irishmen Walk into a Bar
The first thing I noticed about Frank McCourt was his voice, or rather my dad’s voice coming from his mouth. I guess it makes sense that they would have similar accents; born within a few years of each other, they both spent part of their childhoods in Ireland and part in the New World. It all made perfect sense, but the logic didn’t muffle the impact or negate the sense I had that for a week of the summer of 2003, Frank McCourt was the pinch hitter filling in the dad-sized hole in my heart.
The location for my Frank encounter was the Southampton Writers’ Conference. For this one July week, I slept in a cinder-block dorm room by night and sat at a desk in Frank’s memoir workshop by day, there in “The Hamptons,” perched on a tiny campus flanked by mansions just a few miles from the fabled beaches.
The truth be told I’d arrived at the feet of the master not much in the mood for learning. I’m not proud of this as I’m not proud of other times when I’ve been too self-absorbed to notice meteors streaking across the sky or yawned in the face of a perfect sunset preoccupied with the question of when was some guy going to call me. But being ashamed doesn’t change the fact that I was restless and irritable from waiting, waiting and waiting to hear if my agent thought my manuscript was ready to send out. The book was a memoir about motherhood called Light Sleeper: The Making of an Unlikely Mother. Getting to this point had been a long uphill push—writing the manuscript, finding the agent, and then revising the manuscript based on her recommendations. Besides my impatience with my dragging-feet agent, other problems rose up into my awareness as much as I tried to keep them down. When I called home, something seemed irreparably off with my husband and me. Something ominous hung over every conversation. I’d hang up, knowing something was wrong, and then call back and say something like, “Is it just me or was that weird?” and then it would get worse. Then, I’d hang up and lie on the bed with the sinking heart that knows something is wrong, even if that something cannot be named. I felt insanely far from home and craved to go back and make it all better but also knew that going home, which would inevitably come at the end of the week anyway, would do no good at all. In the midst of all this, a group of us writers went to a local, Long Island dive bar one night, and an older poet grabbed me out of the blue (really, no flirting, nothing) and kissed me long and hard like an errant messenger sent with a partial answer to that what’s-wrong question that had been dogging me.
I brought this agitated state of mind to Frank’s memoir class. I was a person waiting to be blasted from one location to the next. In my delusional state, I thought that rocket boost might take me from obscurity to literary glory. Little did I know I was about to be blasted from marriage to divorce.
Frank’s class, I realized very quickly, was no place for the mentally restless. An accomplished and languid storyteller, Frank could easily take an hour of class time to tell a story or five. As he told us about his life as a teacher in the NYC public school system, a divorce, family entanglements, what some priest back in Ireland thought of ‘Tis, I anxiously waited for class to start, for him to tell me what I needed to do to become published in a big way.
At some point, I think during class two, I realized: this really was it. Frank was a storyteller. Angela’s Ashes was the stellar success that it was because Frank knows something–everything–about how to tell a story. Sometime during that class, as Frank taught us everything he knows about setting, dialogue, pacing and theme by laying his stories down before us one by one, my resistance wore down. I regressed further and further back in time until at last I landed back at the dining room table where my dad had routinely held court for hours past dessert if we’d ever had such a thing. Plate pushed aside, a pack of Peter Jacksons in front of him, my dad could tell an endless story, pausing only for emphasis and to take a long draw off his gin and tonic. Like Frank, my dad’s Irish accent was diluted by North America, a tendency towards the emphatic rather than a true brogue. And now, listening by the hour to Frank, I was back home with my dad once again except this time minus the food to push around my plate.
Our home—the patch together family home that my mother and stepfather created together—often had the atmosphere of a pub. Stray work associates regularly congregated in the living room during cocktail hour for a couple rounds of 7&7’s or gin and tonics or Molson’s Old Style served in frosty steins. From a bottomless store out would come an array of savory snacks that appeal to the adult drinkers’ numbed palette: picked eggs and herring, peppery crackers, smoked almonds, sardines dripping with oil. A blue cloud formed under the ceiling as the ashtrays—some the size of salad plates—filled with the butts of Rothman’s, Player’s, DuMaurier, and the cigarette that I consider practically synonymous with my dad: Peter Jackson. In our basement was a player piano around which a handful of fortysomethings would cluster late in the evening, singing along with such classics as “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” as my dad pumped the pedals, a smoke hanging from his lower lip. These were the good times, these moments of frolicking entertaining were what my parents were destined to create together, and when they were living out their twinned fate, I felt free to live out my own.
My dad had a magnetic personality, a restless curiosity, and a laser focus for the cares of others; people came to hear what he would say and for his counsel. I too loved listening to him, but when there was no party, I felt like my role of conversation partner/listener went from optional to mandatory. My parents couldn’t exist with just each other; they needed the oxygen an audience can provide. And when I was in Grade Twelve, the jubilant pub nights faded away when two things happened that abruptly changed the course and tenor of my family’s life: the first was when my dad was transferred from his downtown executive position to a mill manager one in a damp mill town on Vancouver Island.
Outrageous independence was the expected norm for youth both in the single-mom family I’d known in California and the pub night family of my teens. It was, partly, the times. When I tell family tales from the 60’s and 70’s, people will sometimes nod and say glibly, “That’s how it was back then,” but then if I take the story a little further—maybe including the detail of how I immigrated alone at age ten to Canada, greeted at the Vancouver airport by my sullen, newly minted stepsiblings while our parents slowly honeymooned their way up the Pacific Coast Highway—then the listener might visibly recoil and say something like, “But not like that.”
And our move to Nanaimo, once known as the heroin capital of Canada, was not much different. For some reason, my parents weren’t ready to make the move themselves in time for my first day of school. So I ferried over alone from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver Island with my dad’s late model Renault and spent the night before the first day at my new high school alone in the Port-o-Call Motel on Townsite Road. My mom told me this would be “exciting.” I found it “terrifying.” However, because I was told it would be “exciting,” I couldn’t register my terror fully, only noting a peculiar numb sensation in my limbs as I pointed the late-model Renault north toward Nanaimo District Senior Secondary, my new school and gathering point for every working class teen within a forty mile radius of wet fir trees surrounding the epicenter known as Harmac, the union mill where my father would soon become one of the loathed group known as management.
Our home went from urbane social hub to pioneer outpost. Once in a while, my mom would drag in a neighbor woman to come over for a glass of Chablis or my dad would bring home one of the other managers from the mill, but for the most part, we were on our own. My own friends were back in the city, and I was floundering around the halls of my school with no clue how to make friends with kids who drove Ford F150’s and listened to Black Sabbath. The three of us were stuck with each other.
But it was more than the move that turned the lights out on the party and moved my role of listener up to front and center. Much more. Just before the move, my 23-year-old stepsister, Barbara, who was living in Vancouver attending her last year at university, started to get sick. She couldn’t eat and began to lose a lot of weight and then tests confirmed the worst—that it was cancer. It’s strange how the mind can remember so many details and yet be unsure about a crucial sequence of events, but I’m fairly sure that it was in our first few months in our new mill town life that we realized that her cancer was terminal.
As hope for her recovery faded, the light within my dad—his seemingly endless energy and optimism—began to go out. The feeling of losing him was palpable. I felt desperate to hang onto him, to keep some semblance of the party going, but I also had so many problems of my own. For the first time ever, I could say without exaggeration that I hated my life. I despised my new school and couldn’t see any hope of the situation improving. My mom’s suggestions of “conversation starters” and joining clubs were absurd. As the city girl new in my senior year of high school, I had as much chance of cracking this social scene as I had of getting invited to Buckingham Palace for tea. I missed my old life, Kansas and Auntie Em, and all I could think of was how to get back, which is what I did several hours of a day in my dark basement bedroom, listening to the rain thrashing against the windows and The Best of Bread on auto repeat.
The social buoyancy of our city life had held us together, and here in our new isolation, we seemed less like a family and more like three desperate strangers on a train to nowhere. Barbara’s illness also pointed to the fissures in our blended family. It was my dad’s daughter who was dying, not my mother’s. My dad was howling sad without the ability to howl. My mom was not so sad. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sad. She was, but not like my dad. The dark subtext below the disparity between their emotional states was something that no one—no matter how much or how little they’d had to drink—ever mentioned the fact that Barbara and my mother didn’t like each other very much. No Brady Bunch episode had ever covered this one.
While my sister’s dying was my loss as well, it was silently understood to be a mitigated loss; after all she wasn’t really my sister, and she’d only been my stepsister for seven years. In the hierarchy of loss, mine barely registered, which made me ostensibly available to fill the role that under other circumstances would’ve been my mother’s, the role of listener.
Back in the role of listener in Frank’s class—after the lion of my ambition gave up the hunt and found a shady spot in the corner to collapse—I fell drowsily under the spell of Frank’s dad-voice. His stories were intimate, and like the other students in the class I quickly felt as if I knew Frank better than I actually did. Within the first days, I had the sense that Frank was someone I’d known most of my life. His stories were full of longing: a longing to write, for recognition, for home. If his voice were a chord, it would be a minor chord. A minor chord in an Irish key—the perfect pitch for the stories of what might have been and for making me long to have my dad back, not just my dad as I knew him before he died in 1997 but my dad as I knew him in a time when all things were still possible, my dad of pub nights, my dad before he knew his daughter was dying, before innocence was lost. I still needed my dad and yet he was gone. But Frank—my father in loco, arguably the father of the modern memoir–was here, and that comforted me.
In the role of listener, I found myself thinking about the role of the storyteller and what it takes to claim your audience’s consent to hold the floor. Recently, one of my students told me that’s why she wants to publish her memoir. “It’s like you’re at a party and everyone is taking their turn to talk. I feel like okay, it’s my turn to tell my story.” The need for a turn, it’s a primary one. And as I listened, I realized the most obvious thing in the world: the storyteller is the person sitting in the power seat, the seat that I’d secretly and not so secretly yearned for since my dining room table days. Of course, Frank had an extra boost of power because he was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times bestselling author and one of the few living authors who was nearly a household name. But maybe it was the reverse; maybe he became a celebrated writer because he was powerful, because knowing how to the hold the floor was his gift.
When I met my stepfather Bill, I instantly sniffed out his top dog place in the world. I was a kid who’d lived outside of the power circle all my life. I was functionally fatherless, living in an extended family of women without a male in sight in the days before feminism was back on the map. It seemed like I absorbed the impact of all Bill’s starched white shirt power in an instant, and everything that I learned about him after that simply supported my initial assumption of his regency—the casual way he held the menu as he ordered for the whole table, the way his beige trench coat was folded over his arm; the way he entered a room, a conversation, a relationship as if he had the right to be there, that there was nowhere in the world where he’d be excluded or unwanted; the way he argued world affairs as if they were matters of personal business—as if what he thought might change the course of nations if he could argue his points with enough articulation and passion, even if the setting for that oration were a dining room table and the only audience a teenage girl.
Bill spoke French, studied engineering at McGill (which I quickly inferred to be The University of Power), worked in downtown Vancouver at the top of a very tall building, and occasionally was interviewed for the nightly news. He knew manners I didn’t know existed—working your way through the silverware from the outside in, the role of the butter knife and its relationship to one’s bread plate, the primacy of the bread plate, the napkin unfolded halfway on your lap, the importance of the question whom may I say is calling? He told me that proper manners would ensure that I’d be comfortable dining with “presidents, queens, or ordinary people,” which made me imagine a tremendous future unfurling in front of me like a red carpet, a future full of dignitaries and foreign travel. He treated everyone with respect, a behavior I understood to be a function of his power; he could afford to be respectful because he himself was treated with respect.
Of all these displays of privilege and power, none seemed as remarkable as his ability to hold the floor. It didn’t seem to matter the setting; when he spoke, people fell quiet and listened. I loved the sound not only of his voice but also of the silence around his voice. The hush. What could be more powerful than people listening to what you say? For most of my growing up years, it didn’t occur to me that power could be mine. Wasn’t it enough to warm my hands by its fire?
Now I watched the class fall under Frank’s spell as he acted out conversations with truculent, inner-city youth and described scenes sitting by the fire writing Angela’s Ashes in longhand, the tenor of his story rising into crescendos and then falling back almost to a hushed whisper. When my stepfather died, it felt like I’d lost my connection to this certain brand of power. Did it have a name? Was it something Irish guys invented? But Frank’s proximity made me feel like it was within reach again, that maybe he could hand it to me.
On the second night of the conference, book signing and cocktail party was held in one of the main campus building. Because of its anomalous Hamptons location, the conference skewed a little less literary and a tad more People magazine than most writers’ conferences. Lesser known celebrities nipped in and out, attending random readings and lunches. I spent a good bit of mental energy trying to figure out how this odd assortment of people were connected to each other and never truly cracked the code, but amongst us commoners a familiar face would occasionally drift—Jane Pauly, Gary Trudeau, Alan Alda—and not wanting to be total buffoons, most of us fledgling writers acted like oh but of course, I’m standing in the bathroom line with Jane Pauley. Oh, but naturally, Mel Brooks has dropped by.
The social incongruence of these odd celebrity sightings in a social setting more commonly known for its dowdiness than its glamor added to my feeling of displacement in the world. A West Coaster on the Hamptons, a married woman on the verge of divorce, I walked into the book party with my social anxiety dialed to high until I spotted Frank across the room. I know someone here, I thought, but then I realized that wasn’t true. Frank reminded me of my dad but he was, in fact, someone I barely knew and yet his presence felt familiar.
I made my way over to him and asked him to sign my copy of Angela’s Ashes, which he did and I put the book into my purse. Then, the flock of fans around him grew, and I drifted away and found wine, food and other fledgling writers to hang out with. That night back in my dorm room, I finally dug my Angela’s Ashes out of my purse. I turned to the title page, and there it was in his scrawl: “For Theo—To a hell of a writer! Frank McCourt.” I closed the book and opened it again. The loose but old-fashioned cursive: it could’ve been my dad’s.
After my parents married in a private ceremony (no kids) at the retirement center where my grandmother, Nonnie, lived, my dad, my mom and I went to Los Angeles to stay with a friend of my mom’s for a few days. I’d just turned 10 so I didn’t have any questions about the sanity of the fact that these two people after one year of a long distance relationship were marrying each other, that Bill had left and his two teenage kids home alone so that he could marry my mother, and that my mother and I would be now moving to Canada to live with Bill and his understandably pissed-off teenagers who had met us exactly one time.
In the course of the next year, my mother, Bill, and I silently colluded in the process of erasing whatever wisp of a tie I might still have had with my real father. Shouting out from a Topanga Canyon swimming pool, I called Bill “Dad” for the first time. I had to get up my nerve to do it, like I was asking for a raise. I thought maybe calling it from my spot at the lip of the pool to his chaise lounge was a safe experiment. When he turned automatically without a flinch, I decided that was it: he would be Dad from there on out. I wouldn’t turn back. It had taken too much for me to take that first step towards him, ground too hard earned to ever surrender.
My dad began teaching me everything a girl with fathers might know. The first job he took on was teaching me to dive, a daunting task if there ever were one. His hours of patient coaching resulted in a total of one completed dive, results that encouraged him enough to go on to teach one of the most physically timid children in the history of civilization to water ski, snow ski, and, later, to drive stick. When we arrived in Canada, my mother registered me in school under my stepfather’s name. No birth certificate was needed back then to support her claim. From then on, I was my dad’s girl, an Irish girl without a drop of Irish blood, a Mehaffey, and from then on, I would always know that I was an imposter, a girl who could pass as connected, as fathered, as more powerful than she actually was.
When I wasn’t in Frank’s class, I was using my time productively: alternating between disheartening calls home and obsessive email checking as I waited to hear some news from my agent. Finally, there was an email from the agent’s assistant, who suggested it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask Frank for a letter of support. It could help, she said. A lot.
Sure and then I’ll dive into icy, shark-infested water and take a swim. Ask? Even the word when isolated from other words sounds frightening: Ask.
I walked away from the computer and stumbled across the manicured lawns towards my cinder block dorm room. Ask. How insane was that? Who would do that?
Throughout the week Frank held one-on-one meetings with each of his students. It’s a generous thing to do—anyone who’s taught will tell you that. It always takes more time and energy than the half-hour allotted meeting time would suggest. My meeting was on Thursday, and by Wednesday afternoon, I knew that I needed to ask him for the letter. It was a risk worth taking. I knew it bordered on outrageous as he knew me barely well enough to write such a letter, but I also knew that publishing was full of endorsements built on more tenuous connections and that endorsements made a difference. But all that didn’t stop me from being crazy scared. Besides fear of rejection, I worried that whatever small impression I’d made on him might change. I wanted for him to know that I genuinely liked him and appreciated him. I didn’t want him to see me as yet another person who wanted something from him, although that’s exactly what I was, of course.
I’m a one-on-one person. I get a little confused in groups, a social vertigo that perhaps is the result of being raised as if I were an only child. In groups, I don’t which way is up or where to look and what’s okay to say and what’s not. I either say barely anything at all or hog the floor with frantic ramblings and show tunes. When I like someone, I want them to myself, and when I have one on one time with someone I like or admire, I am disproportionately jubilant. And so as anxious as I was about my individual meeting with Frank McCourt, part of me was giddy with the idea of getting to talk to Frank all by myself. And so during our meeting I had this odd sensation of bifurcation; part of me was sitting in the classroom, the other was up on the ceiling pointing down and saying, “Look! She’s talking with Frank McCourt about writing!”
Down on the ground, Frank and I talked about my Light Sleeper manuscript, which for some reason I’d dragged into the meeting with me. I told him about the slow-footed agent, and he listened sympathetically and then, pointed to the manuscript beside me and asked, “So, is it honest?”
Uh. Light Sleeper—I can trash it a bit because 1) I wrote it and 2) It’s never going to be published—was not a terrible book and not a dishonest book. In fact, it was pretty honest about my own aversion to parenting and my slow conversion to involved motherhood. Yet. There was—I knew it even then—something missing. I didn’t know then that the problem lay in the narrator’s complete glossing over of her marriage. A few months after this meeting with Frank, the huge fault line running up through my marriage, a fissure the memoir had nicely plastered over, would become impossible to ignore
I looked at Frank. Like my dad, Frank had sad eyes in a happy face. Like my dad, he expected you to tell him the truth.
“It seems like there’s levels of honesty, right?” I finally said.
“Go on,” he said, leaning forward.
“Well,” I said, stalling a bit as I really didn’t know what I was about to say. “You can write a memoir that goes this deep,” I said, waving my flattened hand to indicate the level of the desktop, “and people will say, that’s honest, that’s brave, maybe even wow.”
“But?” Frank said, leading me into the water a little further.
“But there’s a much deeper story. Maybe it’s down here,” I said my hand waving between our knees. “And maybe, nobody but you knows it but if you told that story, that would be the really honest one.”
“I like that,” he said, leaning back in his chair, making me think for a millisecond that I was off the hook. “And so, where’s this book?”
I paused just for a beat and then leveled my hand just slightly under the desktop, saying, “Maybe here.”
“Not bad,” he said, “Not bad.”
We talked a bit more about other things, about the conference, the weather, and then there it was clearly time for me to go. It was the do-or-die moment, and my heart was beating very quickly.
“So, one more thing,” I said, meeting his gaze. “Would you be comfortable writing a note of support for my writing?”
He looked a bit shocked but recovered quickly. “I’d be happy to,” he said.
I thanked him profusely, and with a great deal of awkwardness, I made it out of the chair and out the door.
I received the letter in the mail six weeks later, and what surprised me the most was that it was handwritten. Then I remembered the contempt he’d shown in class for writing done on computers. “It’s not writing,” he’d said, “It’s just tapping.”
I read the letter over and over and then I folded it carefully and put it back in the envelope. The letter no longer seemed important as something merely to show potential publishers; it was a letter of encouragement. It was the letter from an older person telling the younger person that they can do it. Sometimes, those older people are fathers. Sometimes, they’re fathers telling you that they are proud of you.
There’s a fine line between sitting on a barstool telling stories and writing a memoir. Part of my inheritance as a writer is a feeling of being off-center, of being a transplant, an imposter, but another part of it is the Irish pubby culture in which I came of age, a culture where sitting around swapping endless stories is a completely legit way to spend a Friday night, a world where the person who knows exactly how long to pause after the phrase “and then I said to him” is the person who holds the floor the longest.
When I went to register for college, the registrar pointed out the disconnect between the last name on my birth certificate (my biological father’s) and that on my high school transcripts (my stepdad’s). I no longer wanted to feel like an imposter, so I changed my last name back to Nestor, but I still felt an imposter and I still felt like I belonged to my stepfather.
When I finally got the chance to use the blurb Frank had written, it wasn’t for the motherhood manuscript that had sat between us that day. It was for a memoir about my divorce. I worried that I was stealing the words from him, that I was once again an imposter, but when my editor tracked him down to make sure he was okay with me using the quote, he wrote back, “You can quote me from here to infinity.”
And, I will.