My Father, My Fiction
Is character, bred in the bone, absolute fate?
Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, March 16, 1989
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
A November day, 1988, and I am sitting in my study in our house in Princeton, N.J., as dusk comes on, listening to my father playing the piano in another wing of the house. Flawlessly, he’s moving through the presto agitato of Schubert’s “Erl King,” striking the nightmarish sequence of notes firmly but rapidly. There’s a shimmering quality to the sound, and I’m thinking how the mystery of music is a paradigm of the mystery of personality: most of us “know” family members exclusive of statistical information, sometimes in defiance of it, in the way that we “know” familiar pieces of music without having the slightest comprehension of their thematic or structural composition. We recognize them after a few notes, that’s all. The powerful appeal of music is inexplicable, forever mysterious, like the subterranean urgings of the soul, and so too the powerful appeal of certain personalities in our lives. We are rarely aware of the gravitational forces we embody for others, but we are keenly aware of the gravitational forces certain others embody for us. To say my father, my mother is for me to name but in no way to approach one of the central mysteries of my life.
How did the malnourished circumstances of my parents’ early lives allow them to grow, to blossom, into the exemplary people they have become?—is there no true relationship between personal history and personality?—is character, bred in the bone, absolute fate? And what are facts, that we should imagine they have the power to explain the world to us? On the contrary, it is facts that must be explained. HERE ARE FACTS:
My father’s father, Joseph Carlton Oates, left his wife and son when my father, an only child, was 2 or 3 years old. Abandoned them, to be specific: they were very poor. Twenty-eight years later, Joseph Carlton reappeared to seek out his son, Frederic … arrived at a country tavern in Millersport, N.Y., one night about 1944, not to ask forgiveness of his son for his selfishness as a father, not even to be reconciled with him, or to explain himself. He had come, he announced, to beat up his son.
It seems that Joseph Carlton had heard rumors that Frederic had long held a grudge against him, wanted to fight him. Thus Joseph Carlton sought him out to bring the fight to him, so to speak. He’d been living not far away (which might mean, in those days, as close as 20 miles), totally out of contact with his ex-wife, my grandmother. But when the drunk, belligerent Joseph Carlton confronted Frederic, the one in his early 50’s, the other a young married man of 30, it turned out that the younger man had in fact no special grudge against the older and did not care to fight him, though challenged.
“I couldn’t bring myself to hit someone that old,” my father says.
Joseph Carlton Oates and Frederic Oates are said to have resembled each other dramatically. But though I resemble both my father and my long-deceased grandfather, I never saw this grandfather’s face, not even in a photograph. Joseph Carlton—of whom my grandmother would say, simply, whenever she was asked of him, “he was no good”—became one of those phantom beings, no doubt common in family histories, who did not exist.
Suppose Joseph Carlton Oates had not abandoned his wife and young son in 1916. Suppose he’d continued to live with them. It is likely that, given his penchant for drinking and for aggressive behavior, he might very well have been abusive to his wife and to my father, would surely have “beaten him up” many times—so infecting him, if we are to believe current theories of the etiology of domestic violence, with a similar predisposition toward violence. So abandoning his young family was perhaps the most generous gesture Joseph Carlton Oates could have made, though that was not the man’s intention.
My father was born in 1914 in Lockport, N.Y., a small city approximately 20 miles north of Buffalo and 15 miles south of Lake Ontario, in Niagara County; its distinctive feature is the steep rock-sided Erie Canal that runs literally through its core. Because they were poor, my grandmother (the former Blanche Morgenstern) frequently moved with her son from one low-priced rental to another.
But after he grew up and married my mother (the former Carolina Bush), my father came to live in my mother’s adoptive parents’ farmhouse in Millersport; and has remained on that land ever since.
My mother has lived on this attractive rural property at the northern edge of Erie County, by the Tonawanda Creek, in the old farmhouse (built 1888) and then in the newer, smaller house in which my parents now live (wood frame, white aluminum siding and brown trim, built in 1961 largely by way of my father’s efforts), virtually all her life. This is over 70 years: Carolina Bush was born Nov. 8, 1916, the youngest of a large farm family, given to her aunt as an infant when her father suddenly died and left the family impoverished. (Is “die” too circumspect a term? In fact, my maternal grandfather was killed in a tavern brawl.) In time, Frederic and Carolina had three children: I was born in 1938 (on Bloomsday: June 16), my brother Fred (“Robin” for most of our childhood, thus to me Robin forever) was born in 1943, my sister Lynn (who has been institutionalized as autistic since early adolescence) in 1956.
The generation that preceded my parents’ is vanished, of course. First-generation Americans, many of them; or immigrants from Hungary, Ireland, Germany. My father’s mother, Blanche, whom I knew as Grandmother Woodside (she remarried after her early, dissolved marriage), the person whom of all the world I loved most after my parents, died in 1970, after a lengthy illness.
When his mother died, my father was deeply grieved, heartbroken; but according to my mother, he kept most of his sorrow to himself.
For both my parents their marriage is surely the supreme fact of their lives: they married young, seem never to have loved or been seriously involved with others. Yet when their 50th wedding anniversary rolled around in 1987 they chose to keep the date a secret and refused to celebrate. (My father’s wish, surely. He is the sort of man not inclined to “make too much of things.” Which is no doubt what the composing of this memoir constitutes. When I was growing up, Daddy was conspicuously and often humorously bored with his birthday, and even more with Christmas; and from him, for better or worse, I seem to have inherited similar prejudices. Thoreau’s remark “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” speaks eloquently to this temperament.) Facts: the property my parents shared with my Bush grandparents was a small farm with a fruit orchard, some cherry trees, some apple trees, primarily Bartlett pears. My memories are of chickens, Rhode Island reds, pecking obsessively in the dirt … for what is a chicken’s life but pecking obsessively in the dirt? Chicken duties (feeding, egg gathering) seem to have fallen within a specifically female province, meaning my Grandmother Bush, my mother and me; fruit picking, especially the harvest of hundreds of bushel baskets of pears, fell to my father, when he wasn’t working in Lockport at Harrison Radiator. For a brief fevered interim, there were pigs — pigs that broke free of their enclosure in the barn, and were desperately chased by my father, pigs that sickened and died, or, worse yet, were successfully slaughtered but somehow imperfectly cured, so that their meat, the point after all of so much comical despair, was inedible.
Now, decades later, nothing remains of the Bush farm. My childhood seems to have been plowed under, gone subterranean as a dream. The old house was razed years ago when the country highway was widened, the old barn was dismantled, all of the fruit orchard has vanished. My lilac tree near the back door, my apple tree at the side of the house, my cherry tree … long uprooted, gone. Fields once planted in corn, in potatoes, in tomatoes, in strawberries … gone. Looking at the property now from the road you would not be able to guess that it was once a farm.
I wonder if it is evident how painfully difficult it has been for me to write this seemingly informal memoir?—as if I were staring into a dazzling beacon of light, yet expected to see?
All children mythologize their parents, who are to them after all giants of the landscape of early childhood; and I’m sure I am no exception.
And yet … and yet: it does seem to me that my parents are remarkable people, both in themselves, as persons, “personalities,” and as representatives and survivors of a world so harsh and so repetitive in its harshness as to defy evocation, except perhaps in art.
Though frequently denounced and often misunderstood by a somewhat genteel literary community, my writing is, at least in part, an attempt to memorialize my parents’ vanished world; my parents’ lives. Sometimes directly, sometimes in metaphor. Of my recent novels, Marya: A Life (1986) is an admixture of my mother’s early life, some of my own adolescent and young-adult experience, and fiction: reading Marya, as they read everything I write, they immediately recognized the setting—for of course it is the setting—that rural edge of Erie County just across the Tonawanda Creek from Niagara County, not far from the Erie Canal (and the Canal Road where Marya lives). The quintessential world of my fiction.
You Must Remember This (1987) is set in a mythical western New York city that is an amalgam of Buffalo and Lockport, but primarily Lockport: the novel could not have been imaginatively launched without the Erie Canal, vertiginously steep-walled, cutting through its core. And though my father is not present in the fictional world of You Must Remember This, his shadow falls over it; it’s a work in which I tried consciously to synthesize my father’s and my own “visions” of an era now vanished. Felix Stevick is not my father except in his lifelong fascination with boxing and with what I consider the romance of violence, which excludes women; that conviction that there is a mysterious and terrible brotherhood of men by way of violence.
But it is in an early novel, Wonderland (1971), that my parents actually make an appearance. My beleaguered young hero Jesse stops his car in Millersport, wanders about my parents’ property, happens to see, with a stab of envy, my young mother and me (a child of 3 or 4) swinging in our old wooden swing; and when my father notices Jesse watching he stares at him with a look of hostility. So I envisioned my father as a young man of 27—tall, husky, with black hair, intent on protecting his family against possible intrusion. “In such a way,” thinks my fatherless hero, “does a man, a normal man, exclude the rest of the world.”
Memory is a transcendental function. Its objects may be physical bodies, faces, “characteristic” expressions of faces, but these are shot with luminosity; they possess an interior radiance that transfixes the imagination like the radiance in medieval and Renaissance religious paintings—that signal that Time has been stopped and Eternity prevails. So, though we can’t perceive “soul” or “spirit” first-hand, it seems to me that this is precisely the phenomenon we summon back by way of an exercise of memory. And why the exercise of memory at certain times in our lives is almost too powerful to be borne.
From a letter of my father’s, written Oct. 8, 1988: Your postcard asking about my history came the day after I phoned so I don’t quite know how to give you what you want because I have no school records like you and Fred—all I can do is guess. Born in Lockport 3/30/14. Parents separated when I was two or three years old.
Started violin lessons in sixth grade (class instruction) then began private lessons with money earned peddling newspapers. My mother bought my violin for me otherwise I would have had to quit because the one I used in class belonged to the school. I played in the high school symphony orchestra as a freshman. My mechanical drawing teacher got me a job with Schine Theaters in Lockport in the sign shop working after school. At summer vacation I worked full time at the job and quit school in my second year.
Worked at the theater until I was about 17 when the sign shop closed and I went into production advertising.
Got a job in local commercial sign shop when I was about 18 and bought a car.
After about 4 years of this work I got a job at Harrison Radiator in the punch press department, and, thinking I had a steady job, I learned to fly, got married, then found myself laid off for extended periods so I had to continue working at the sign shop until the second world war began when I was able to get transferred into the engineering tool room and learned the tool and die making trade, later on was able, after going to night school to learn trig and related subjects, started tool and die design. At about fifty years of age, I took piano lessons for about four years at which time I was operated on to remove herniated disc material and was out of commission for six months then worked about ten more years and retired.
Took a course in stained glass as a hobby, a class in painting, then four years ago I started classes in English Literature and music at SUNY which I hope to continue for a few more years.
From my journal, May 20, 1986: Last week, my parents’ visit. And it was splendid.
And it went by with painful swiftness. They arrived on Wednesday, left on Saturday afternoon, immediately the house is too large, empty, quiet, unused …. My mother brought me a dress she’d sewed for me, blue print, quite feminine one might say; long-sleeved, full-skirted. “Demure”—to suit my image.
Another family secret revealed, with a disarming casualness. Perhaps because of their ages my parents don’t want to keep secrets? Not that they are old at seventy or seventy-one.
My father told of how his grandfather Morgenstern tried to kill his grandmother in a fit of rage, then killed himself—gun barrel placed under his chin, trigger pulled, with my grandmother Blanche close by.
My father was about fifteen at the time. They were all living in a single household evidently…. A sordid tale.
Yet grimly comical: I asked what occupation my great-grandfather had, was told he was a gravedigger.
Family secrets! So many! Or, no, not so very many, I suppose; but unnerving. And I think of my sweet Grandmother Woodside who nearly witnessed her own father’s violent suicide…. She had come home to find the house locked. Her father was beating her mother upstairs in their bedroom. Hearing her at the door, he came downstairs with his gun, and for some reason (frustration, drunkenness, madness?) he went into the basement and shot himself. Several times I said to my father, dazed, but you never told me any of this! and my father said, with the air of utter placidity. Didn’t I?—I’m sure I did. This is a countertheme of sorts. The secret is at last revealed, after decades; but it’s revealed with the accompanying claim that it had been revealed a long time ago and isn’t therefore a secret….
One of my most deeply imprinted memories of childhood is of being taken up in a small plane by my father: tightly buckled in the front seat of a two-seater Piper Cub as my father in the cockpit behind me taxis us along the bumpy runway of a small country airport outside Lockport. Suddenly, the rattling plane leaves the ground, lifts above a line of trees at the end of the runway, climbing, banking, miraculously riding the air currents until the roaring noise of the engine seems to subside and we’re airborne, and below is a familiar landscape made increasingly exotic as we climb. Transit Road and its traffic … farmland, wooded land, hedgerows … houses, barns, pastureland, intersecting roads … creeks and streams … and the sky opening above us oceanic, unfathomable.
My father has always been a happy, energetic, imaginative man, but never more so than when airborne, riding the waves of invisible currents of air. For what is flying your own plane but defying the laws of nature and of logic? Transcending space and time and the contours of the familiar world in which you work a minimum of 40 hours a week, own property in constant need of repair, have a family for whom you are the sole breadwinner? What is flying but the control of an alien, mysterious element that can at any moment turn killer – the air?
My father began flying lessons in 1935, when he was 21 years old, made his first solo flight in 1937, and, over the decades, logged approximately 200 hours of flying time. It was during the 1940’s, especially after the end of World War II when Army Air Forces training planes came into private ownership, that he flew most frequently, on weekends, out of small country airports near our home. What a romance of the air! He took members of the family, including his very young daughter Joyce, up in Piper Cubs, Cessnas, Stinsons; he flew a sporty Waco biplane; the most powerful aircraft in his experience was a Vultee basic trainer, 450 horsepower, which was an Air Force trainer with a canopy, which flew at more than 10,000 feet. Intense excitement—unless it was something beyond excitement—has blurred my precise memory of the flight we once made, my father and me, in a 175-horsepower Fairchild primary trainer. I wore a helmet and goggles, but no parachute, for the very good reason that I wouldn’t have known how to use a parachute.
Flying is safer than driving a car, my father has always insisted.
In these planes my father and his flying buddies performed loops, turns, split-S’s, slow rolls, spins. Possessed of a brash sense of humor, as it might have been called, my father sometimes flew low to buzz friends’ and neighbors’ houses. Upon a number of daring occasions he flew gliders—if “flew” is the correct expression—borne up to 1,500 feet by a plane, then released. A few years ago when a West German film crew came to interview him and my mother in preparing a film on “Joyce Carol Oates” for German public television, the program director paid for renting a plane so that he could fly the director and a cameraman (in a Cessna 182 single-propeller plane) over the terrain of my childhood: and it’s as if, eerily, seeing this footage, I have come full circle, seeing again these exotic-familiar sights, my father in the cockpit.
How many times I’ve stared at a newspaper photograph, recently reprinted for novelty’s sake in The Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, of 60 employees of Department 11, Press Room, of the Harrison Radiator Division, Washburn Street plant, Aug. 11, 1941. There, in the second row, looking not just young, but boyish, coltish, dramatically handsome, with a thick springy head of black hair, is my father, Frederic Oates. My father, 27 years old. At which time my mother would have been 24, and I 3.
So long ago!—in another lifetime, it seems; and irretrievable. I have been speaking of my father’s avocational life, his “personal” life, but most of the actual hours of his (waking) life were spent at work. For 40 years he was an employee of Harrison Radiator of Lockport, N.Y.; since the early 1940’s he was a dues-paying member of the United Automobile Workers of America. It has always seemed that Frederic Oates’s temperament and intelligence might have better suited him for some sort of artistic or theoretical or even teacherly career, but, born in the circumstances in which he was, and coming of age during the Depression, he shared the collective fate of so many. Schooling even through high school was not an option. (So when it is said of me that I am the first member of my family to graduate from high school, still less college, this is another misleading fact: only chance saved me and others of my generation from the work-oriented lives of our parents. At the time of this writing my father is a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo—the kind of deeply engaged “older” student of whom professors, and I speak as one, dearly appreciate in their classes.) In the old days at Harrison Radiator, as at all nonunion factories, plants, mills, shops, “sweatshops,” it was not uncommon that workers might arrive for work in the morning only to be told cursorily that they weren’t needed that day, and that there was no promise of when, or if, they might be needed again. Management owed nothing to labor; not even simple courtesy. A few weeks after I was born in 1938 my father reported to work and was told there was no work, some of the press room employees were laid off indefinitely. I have to wonder what a young husband tells his wife when he returns home so early in the day—what the words are, what the tone of voice. About all my father will say of such episodes is, “They were hard.” He has never been a person given to self-pity, nor yet to a nostalgic reinvention of the past.
If there was anger it’s long since buried, plowed under, to be resurrected in his daughter’s writing, as fuel and ballast. How to evoke that world, that America, rapidly passing from memory.
One definite advantage of my father’s shaky economic situation was that he developed a second career of sorts, i.e. sign painting, at which he was very good. (For decades, my father’s signs were immediately recognizable in the area. I can “see” the distinctive style of their lettering even now.) And he acquired a habitude of busyness, a predilection for work, for using his hands and his brain, not so much in gainful employment as in useful employment; a trait everyone in my family shares. This is not puritanism, but something less abstract, perhaps even visceral: we love to work because work gives us genuine happiness, the positing and solving of problems, the joyful exercise of the imagination.
I spoke of anger, and, yes, it’s a “class” anger as well, but I want to make clear that this is a personal anger, not one I have inherited from my family.
A few days ago, my husband and I took my parents for lunch on the Delaware River (they are visiting us here in Princeton for a week), to one of those “historic” inns for which the region is famous, and while we sat contemplating the antique furnishings of the Black Bass Inn—the tables in the dining room are made of old sewing machines—the subject turned to Harrison’s, to the old days, in the 1930’s. And after a while my mother said, as so often she sums up an era, and a theme, in a single succinct remark, “I guess we were poor, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. Somehow, we always managed.”
The old farmhouse in Millersport was razed in 1960, yet there is a dream of mine in which I wake yet again to find myself there, in my old room—the first of the countless rooms of my life. I open my eyes in astonishment to see the square half-window overhead, the child’s bureau at the foot of my bed and the child’s desk facing it and, through the doorway (no door, only a curtain), in the farthest right-hand corner of the living room the upright piano my father played and on which in time I would practice my piano lessons. A musical instrument is a mysterious thing, inhabiting a complex sort of space: it is both an ordinary three-dimensional object and a portal to another world; it exists as a physical entity solely so that it—and, indeed, physicality—can be transcended. Thus my father’s old upright in that long-vanished living room inhabits its luminous space in my memory.
For nearly his entire life my father has played, and loved playing, the piano: classical music, popular music, Scott Joplin, jazz. He is a precise sight-reader of music but he can also play by ear and improvise, neither of which I can do; he is far more naturally musical than I, though I have inherited from him a temperament that must be called “musical.” People like us are always involved in music no matter what we’re doing.
If we aren’t actually sitting at the piano and playing, our fingers are going through the phantom motions of playing; if we aren’t singing or humming out loud, we are singing or humming silently. We are captivated by Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, but just as readily by “St. James Infirmary,” “As Time Goes By,” one or another old Hoagy Carmichael tune. For people like us music is a matter of a pulsebeat, melody and rhythm and occasional lyrics, a constant interior beat in a counterpoint of sorts to the world’s exterior beat. It must be a way of defining ourselves to ourselves, or perhaps it’s purely pleasure, to no purpose. If from my father Frederic Oates I’d inherited nothing more palpable than a habit of singing to myself, I’d say this was more than enough. So I sit listening to my father playing piano in another wing of the house—now he’s playing Satie’s elegant “Gnossiennes”—and I think these things. How to write a memoir of him? How even to begin? I spoke of mystery, and it’s primarily mystery I feel when I contemplate my father; indeed, both my father and my mother. The quality of personality they embody, their unfailing magnanimity of spirit, is so oddly matched with their origins and with the harsh and unsentimental world out of which they emerged. I can bear a prolonged consideration of that world only in my writing, and there it is transmogrified as writing—as fiction. To consider it head-on, not as art but as historical reality, leaves me weak and bewildered.
If there is one general trait I seem to have inherited from both of my parents it’s their instinct for rejoicing in the life in which they have found themselves. They remain models for me, they go far beyond me, I can only hope to continue to learn from them. Happiness is a kind of genius, Colette shrewdly observed, and in this genius my parents abound.