First day of camp; I was seven, Roger nine. We wore matching sneakers. I wished we were twins; in a couple of years I would cut my hair short and dress like a boy sometimes, hoping people thought we were.
We waited for the bus each morning at the end of our driveway on Greenwood Avenue, a stretch of road then that was sleepy, a huge, empty field across from our house, and up the block a Sinclair station with that big Dino the Dinosaur in front. A place where you would get free glasses with every fill-up, and where my brothers would buy bottles of soda by the case and sell them at the nearby little league games for a few pennies’ profit. These days Greenwood Avenue is four lanes in front of where our house was, and at the corner a car dealership takes up a complete block.
Wagon Wheels had a talent show on the last day of camp. I don’t remember what Roger did for it, but I danced The Freddie with a bunch of little girls under the hot August sun.
School was just a month away.
Fifteen years ago yesterday, on August 9, 2002, my mother, Sylvia McNair, died in the very early hours of the morning. This photo is one that my dear friend the novelist Eric Charles May had enlarged and framed for me after that loss. We are in the Hilton Hotel, drinking with our buddies after a Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department Story Week event. The picture must have been taken in 2000. She was not yet sick (or rather, that is what we believed at the time.)
I never thought I looked like my mother. I thought I look like my dad. I do. But clearly, evidently, proof right here, I look like my mother as well.
I have given her my first finished, at the time not yet published, short story post MFA to read (later placed as the incendiary first story of my collection, The Temple of Air.) We are talking about stories in The New Yorker for some reason. She says: “New Yorker stories are slice of life stories. Your stories are like New Yorker stories.” Well, well. I’ll take that! She goes on: “I never really liked New Yorker stories.” Oh.
Another time we are working on a travel piece together. It is about a trip we took on a river boat along the St. Lawrence River. “You write the opening. You are a better writer than I am.”
That last day before her last night, she had been in a sort of sleeping coma for part of a week. She woke up and I sat close to her on the hospital bed we had rented for her living room so she could look out her wide French doors over her plant-filled balcony to the tall, tall trees in the courtyard of her building. She was tired, exhausted from trying to stay alive when it was hard to breathe, when she could no longer stand, when food would not stay down. She was ready for whatever would come next. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “Me, too,” I said. “Me too, you too.”
Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. – Jean Cocteau
My dad was a writer. Journalism, mostly, but books, too. Career books, how-to-get-a-job books. (It’s in the blood, I guess, this writing thing. My mom, too, was a writer. My grandfather. Three of my brothers.) And here is what I remember: he was a two-finger typist. Fast, hunt and peck. I remember also, sitting at the reception desk of his small personnel firm in the 70s when he paid me some tiny bit of cash to do clerical stuff–phones, filing–and hearing the sound of the typewriter keys as he struck them. The occasional “Aw, shit,” when he hit the wrong key, when he had to rip a missive-in-progress out of the carriage, crumple it up, toss it away.
But mostly, when I think of my father’s writing, I think of his beautiful, messy cursive. My mother was a bit more of a formalist: even letters, precise dots and crosses above the I’s, over the T’s. Her writing was pretty to look at, easy to read. Dad’s, though. His–to me–was like art.