gay2My father is eighty-six years old and sitting in his reclining chair in the living room. He beckons me to sit on the footstool. He has a request.

“I would like you to write a script and make a movie about your mother,” he says. “Her life story,” he adds.

I want to please him, though this is not the kind of writing I do or in fact that would sell to a movie audience today.

“I have made notes,” he says. “There was a woman…”

I look at him. I can see the plot. Her mother died when she was five. Her stepmother didn’t want her around because she looked like her mother. She was shuffled back and forth from Quebec to Vermont… I could see how this was going. It was sounding like a series of vignettes from the 1948 film I Remember Mama.

“Dad, I’m not that kind of writer, I…”

But he doesn’t listen. He grows irritable and impatient. “It would be a big hit. She had many obstacles to overcome,” he says, handing me his notes.

He looks across the room at a gold-framed painting of Uncle Frank’s farmhouse in Brandon, Vermont. “It was kind of Frank to take her in,” he says, “but she lifted those heavy pails of milk…” He drifts for a moment, then looks at me as if I didn’t know: “She only had one set of clothes in high school, which she washed every night.” (I say this last part with him, silently of course, to be respectful.) “Still, she was the class valedictorian,” he adds, though there were actually two tied for the honor. The other girl was chosen to give the valedictorian speech to the class, which disappointed my mother terribly, though she never said. She gave me the pin she was presented. I don’t say this backstory to my father who was on a roll with his story.

“She worked in a bookstore, too,” he says.

I think of the inscription in a published book of poems the writer and her supervisor gave her in 1929:

To Helen Carr, whose efficient work and genial nature have lightened my labors in the re-organization of a difficult department. With kind thoughts and best wishes for Christmas and all the coming years.  Bunyan …

I thought “how sweet” until I happened to leaf through the book and found a note written by my mother, dated 1983, when she found this book among her beloved sister Madge’s things after her death.

It’s hard to believe that this man…was a “dirty old man.” I worked for him when I was 19 and had forgotten he was so poetic among other things!!

 An excerpt from his poem “Memory,”

Where’er I go on life’s uncharted sea
Or on its aimless billows roll,
I only ask that there may come to me
Rest at last in death of the soul…           

Leafing through the book, I found this piece more telling:

“Onward Christian Soldier”

(Sing softly on feeling the urge)

I’m so glad I’m single,
I’m so glad I’m free,
No sweet singing siren
Will ever capture me.

(Harshly on having advances repulsed)

I’m so glad I’m single,
I’m so glad I’m free,
No designing female
Can get her hooks in me.

“Don’t forget to include that she’s a wonderful cook,” I hear my father saying. “And her sewing, so talented. Remember that beautiful jacket she made me. She made her own patterns out of newspaper. She worked hard, your mother, don’t forget,” he drifts, looking far away as if tuning into a big screen.

“I won’t forget,” I find myself saying. “Have you told her these things?” I ask.

“No-no,” he says. “I want it to be a surprise.”

“Yeah-yeah,” I want to say, echoing what my mother had told me he had taken to saying recently when he wanted to be dismissive, which was often.

“Well, it’s a story alright,” I say, “but you have to let the story lie around, see what happens.”

“What’re you talking about?” he asks. “This is the story,” he says, pointing to his notes.

I don’t want to argue with my father. He never liked an argument.

“What a tragedy,” he says, closing his eyes now, leaning back in his recliner.

“Yeah-yeah,” I say.

“Are you mocking me?” he opens his eyes.

“No-no,” I say, my hand on his folded hands now.

“I wanted to surprise her,” he says, nodding off to sleep.

Inspired by “A Conversation with My Father,” Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and “An Old Story” by James Kelman (“It’s a story, don’t worry about that.”).

Pamela Gay lives in upstate New York where she teaches flash memoir and flash fiction at Binghamton University, State University of New York. Her writing has been published in Iowa Review Web, Paterson Literary Review, Grey Sparrow, Phoebe, Other Voices, Monkeybicycle, Fringe, FragLit, Sleet and other literary magazines as well as in two anthologies. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) fellowship, a national e-book award, and several residencies (Saltonstall, Dorland Mountain, Writers at the Eyrie).  “A Conversation with My Father” is from a creative nonfiction collection she is working on called Homecoming.

Artwork by Stephen Knezovich