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Memoirs from memory: 8.23.05

One of my fondest and best memories from childhood is my father playing randomly on our piano and singing loudly, accompanied sometimes by mother although always from another room. The piano we had was not some paltry upright, it was a baby grand, and my father is, to put it indelicately, a fat man. The piano was big and loud, and its expansive shape curved inefficiently to take up too much space in our living room—just like my dad.

In the way that all fat men are expected to be jolly though, my father fell short, except during those rare moments like his playing and singing. He sang with humor and vigor, and he had a limitless repertoire, being able to play by ear. He seemed to know the words to any possible song I could suggest at the age of 7 or 8.

I liked it best when he played his own medley, rambling, disconnected and running anywhere from Puccini to Cole Porter to the Mickey Mouse Song. Very often it would include a brief, spirited rendition of “I Got Plenty of Nuthin’” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The chorus of this anthem of southern poverty is: “Oh, I got plenty of nuthin’, and nuthin’ is plenty for me,” and then the catalogue begins of all that is lacking: ‘aint got no house, ‘aint got no mule, etc. My dad didn’t bother to approximate the southern undertones of inflection whatsoever, and in the song’s final verse, bellowed out grand fermatas of the fully enunciated ‘nothing.’

The amount of irony you could derive from his choice of this song really depends on how you want to look at it. On the one hand, my dad—well-educated, amply employed, and solidly middle class—certainly had very little of nothing. We took vacations, attended private schools, humored his desire to eat dinner out at restaurants Friday, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday nights.

But, to look at things as they really were, my Dad’s spartan sensibilities about luxury (inspired by his Italiano-peasano turned immigrant working-class grandparents), crossed with my mother’s Eastern European Jewish view of “to spoil” in terms of children to mean literally very much the same as what happens to rotten fruit (one becomes soft and occasionally nauseating), conspired to ensure that we would indeed have just a little bit of nothing.

Some of it was just personal idiosynchracy. For my parents, the only things worth splurging on were education and food. (My brother and sister and I all, on some level, narrowly evaded the societal early death of the fat nerd.) Yet, my father could not abide what he viewed to be frivolity in others. I drove him to the brink of violence when, on one of our frequent Saturday afternoon trips to the National Gallery of Art, I tugged his hand and said, “I want to go to the gift shop.” Art was, after all, meant to be accessible and I wanted to access my own flimsy print reproduction of Inez’s sad-eyed peasant girl with her chipped water jug, or perhaps score some plastic trinket--a little box or a key chain--adorned with a blurred rendition of a French master’s signature piece.

He was livid that I should be focused on browsing and picking up a few things there at the art gallery, that I should be so susceptible to soulless marketing, and that I should assume that our outing would culminate in more unnecessary junk that would assume its place of honor on my bedroom floor alongside the board game pieces and stuffed animals. That was not the point of art and he would not humor me by even walking through the gift shop on the way out.

This episode was matched, I think, years later when I mentioned buying a sweater in a particular style I liked in two different colors. “The same sweater but in a different color?” My father was incredulous. Why would I need such nonsense?

It is not my place to judge whether my parents successfully bridge the yawning chasm, frothing with bad taste and poor judgement, that divides the cheap from the merely modest. My parents appreciate quality, this is true. And they’ve got money squirreled away. They just don’t always appear to feel the need for the usual big ticket items that people value—cars, houses, vacations.

So when my dad returned from a visit with my brother’s father-in-law up in Chicago saying he was “impressed” by the man’s house, I was shocked. I was incredulous. “You mean you liked his house?” I pressed my dad. “It was really a comfortable place,” he told me, “Decorated with antiques, but not overwhelming, and it was on a golf course. Their kitchen was really something, let me tell you.” In his voice, I caught a sense of something close to wistful.

Could it be that my dad was finally caving in to what we, his children, had discovered long ago? That it’s alright to treat yourself to nice things that aren’t truly needed? That life actually goes down a little smoother when you spoil yourself just a little? I really, really hope so. He’s old and only getting more grouchy.

reflect - reinvent ....rayclaire@gmail.com... what i used to think... what i hear... what i see... where i'd like to be...

the black apple... the girl who... sarah brown... thunderpie... evany... jenny b harris... posie... claude le monde... artsy... fartsy... jeff... random person in texas... another rachel... smitten kitchen... more of me... still more of me... even more of me...and yet still more of me...more of me but not for free...

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