“Daddy,” I said admiringly, “You should run for president.”
I was six. Sitting on the dirty clothes hamper in the bathroom, my back to the window, watching him shave late one afternoon.
He stood, in his white boxers, facing the mirrored white medicine cabinet. At that time, he was a Broadway critic, and if he was going out to an evening opening, that’s when he would come down from his upstairs office in the attic to dress and get ready. On such occasions, I was allowed to keep him company, since he and my mother would be out until long after my bedtime.
And he had just said something intoxicatingly funny to my child self, though I don’t remember what.
He glanced over at me, pausing as he mowed clear swaths, paths of skin showing through the cloud of white shaving cream. Sidelong, he gazed at me with sincere curiosity.
“Why?” he asked me. Meaning, why do you think I should run for president.
“Because you’re so funny!” I said unhesitatingly.
Then, as now, I love laughing. A man I admire who also makes me laugh has me. Maurice was the first, and he set the bar high.
“Adlai Stevenson was funny, ” he pointed out (as if I knew who Adlai Stevenson was). “And he lost.”
All these years I have remembered this.
And note, please, what he did not say. He did not say something educational, like, “Well, honey, a president has to be able to do a lot more than be funny.” Or, “There was a man who once ran for president named Adlai Stevenson, and…”
That was another thing that made me adore Maurice: he never condescended to you.
And note that I did not say, “Who’s Adlai Stevenson?” I only took in the name as part of my father’s response. I suppose, thinking about it now, I thought I’d figure out more eventually. (As I did, though not for many years.)
I have been thinking about Adlai Stevenson quite a bit this election season. There is that apocryphal story of the Stevenson supporter who once called out at a rally, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!”
To which Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”
(Although as it’s turning out my candidate did have a majority — two million, and counting — just not the electoral college.)
And I have also been thinking about my father, and wondering what he, a political junkie, would have made of it.
On the one hand, he was, late in life, a Republican, and he always had a fondness for f***-the-system characters and oddballs, including candidates. On the other, he deplored and found incomprehensible racism and anti-semitism. He virulently opposed suppression of the press. He feared authoritarianism. He loathed Soviet Russia. He expected political debate to be reasoned and intellectual. I have to think he would have come down for Hillary, after a brief flirt, then horrified break-up, with Trump.
But I will never know for sure.
I was in New York City on Maurice’s birthday, November 23rd, this year. It was a gray day. I came out of a dermatologist’s office on Central Park South, stinging from having some unattractive but harmless moles removed. I was stinging, too, because of the overall post-election sadness that has troubled me. And I was stinging because, having dated the forms at the doctor’s office with November 23, I had again been reminded of again of my father.
Maurice died in 1991.
And there, on Central Park South, in the form of the horse-drawn carriages that have been one of the city’s tourist attractions since at least the 1880s, was another sting.
On one of my birthdays — I’d guess my seventh — I begged Maurice to take me on a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park.
“You won’t like it,” he predicted.
“I will,” I said. “Please, Daddy, please.”
“It’s not like you have anything to do with the horse,” he said. “Once you’re in the carriage, it’s not that different from being in a car, only slower. You won’t like it.”
“I will,” I said. “I know I will. Please, Daddy, please.”
So we went.
And: he was right. I didn’t like it. Though details are dim — I can’t even recall what color the horse was, and I adored horses — I remember being alternately bored and anxious as the carriage moved interminably around the park. Was that because I picked up on the fact that my father, whose great edginess (which could sometimes explode into all-out anger) was evident as he sat silently beside me in the carriage, drumming his fingers, clearly wishing he was elsewhere? It was that edginess he self-medicated with gradually increasing amounts alcohol until the last twenty years of his life, when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and became — consistently at last — the man I had always loved. If he had been the father he sometimes was — talkative, erudite, non-condescending, funny — on that carriage ride, would I have had a different experience, and thus a different memory?
As I walked back to to my next appointment under a sky that was spitting rain, I thought about this, having not thought about that carriage ride in decades: it was a minor disharmony, not a large trauma.
But were my father still alive, I would have called and asked him. I would have said, “Hey, Maurice, do you remember that birthday when I browbeat you into taking me for one of those carriage rides around Central Park?” And if he had recalled it I would have said, “What do you remember about it, if anything?”
And if he had remembered, he would have told me.
And if he hadn’t, he probably would have talked about his drinking years, how much he loved me and always had, how he regretted missing so much of my childhood because he was in “that alcoholic half-stoned fog all the time, when you were little.”
I remember once, when he said the latter to me apologetically and regretfully, for perhaps the hundredth time, saying to him — by then I would have been in my 40’s and he in his 60’s — “Maurice! Stop! Those people are dead! Here we are now!” And he saying (I see him now, standing at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, me at the top, on my knees, planting some daffodil bulbs) “You’re right, Cres! You’re right! You’re right! I love you, Cres! I love you madly!”
And now the people we were when he said this to me and I replied are also dead.
Earlier this month I dreamed one night that my father reached me on the phone. It was an old-fashioned phone, big and heavy, stolid, the receiver attached by a curly cord to the base. In the dream I was, for some reason, in the engine of a train, the front car, as if I was an engineer. I recognized his voice instantly. Oh how happy the two of us were! We had just begun to express our joy – “It seems like it’s been years!” “I am SO glad to hear from you! ” and to catch up on news, when I awoke.
Most of us will outlive our parents. We will be the engineers in the first car of the train as in my dream, our children and grandchildren somewhere behind us, our forebears vanished. We will have questions, like I do, to which we can only hypothesize answers.
We are deep in the holiday slough at present — Thanksgiving has passed, Christmas is yet to come, and bringing up the rear, New Year. All this after a sad and bruising election, one that not only left our country divided, with a president-elect seems incapable of doing anything except further dividing it.
Far from reaching out, a wall has already been built. It is growing taller by the day.
Mexico is not paying for it. But we will. We already are, in this division.
I do not know how to answer or even think about these vast dislocations. I do not know what to do, what action to take, which feelings and thoughts to cultivate, and how, to proceed in this terrible new reality (which I do know cannot and should not ever be “normalized”).
But I do know this: on a small scale, to love fiercely and truly, every time we have the chance, is our only chance.
And speaking of chances: for those of you who still have your parents and beloved elders, ask them the important things now, while you still can. Ask them if they remember the carriage ride.