My father’s daughter

IMG_0304In a few days I will pick up the Thanksgiving turkey and pies at the South Bend Farmers Market. I have a personal connection with that market. My father sold his family’s poultry there when he was a teenager, helping support his family during the Depression.

It’s one of those circles that close when you move back to home territory after a lifetime of living elsewhere. I like that connection but other echoes of my father’s life in my own sometimes trouble me.

My father was a farmer all his life and then suddenly, when he was in his 60s, he took up writing. He landed a regular gig as a columnist in a rural newspaper and developed as large and loyal a following as a successful blogger might today, although this was decades before blogging. Working with my mother, who was his primary editor and often shared the byline, he also wrote short vignettes for church publications, using various assignments as an excuse to travel across the country in a camper.

Now here I am, blogging. I also travel on writing assignments but mostly for my own reasons. That’s kind of sweet, but the writing connection is a little messy.

My father had a high school education and my mother only finished ninth grade, but they were an amazing writing team. For a decade or more they had a good thing going. Their editors loved this down-to-earth couple with a sense of adventure and curiosity about other people’s lives and my parents never had trouble finding outlets for their work.

Dad had a way with words and images. When he shyly showed me his first column for the Farmers Exchange, about plowing a field and “turning up clods the size of my head,” I knew he had talent. But nobody saw this writing thing coming, least of all me. Up to then I thought I was the one in the family who would write but I was in my thirties and hadn’t really written anything, though writing and editing would be a big part of my career from then on. Nevertheless, I helped and encouraged my father in his newfound hobby.

As any writer can tell you, moving your writing from hobby to career is not easy but my dad kept trying to do that. I would tell him often how grateful he should be to get published and paid for his writing, even though the fees never covered their travel expenses. Still, he always felt there should be a way to make his writing really pay. Maybe a book? I encouraged him to forget about making money but work on a memoir anyhow.

My mother passed away suddenly, just short of her 75th birthday. I thought it was important for my bereaved father to keep writing, and he wanted to do so but he needed my help more than ever. I replaced my mother as his primary editor.

I quickly realized just how important my mother’s contribution had been. Dad’s first drafts were really rough, and the problems went way beyond syntax. His writing was showing signs of confusion by then. In the writing as well as in everyday family and social contacts, Mom had been covering and compensating for his deteriorating mental condition.

My father’s demands on my skills, time, and creativity increased. He became impatient with the $25-a-pop columns and began insisting on writing a book. But his attempts at the memoir trailed off in repetition and confusion after a few pages. He seemed bound by the 500-word format at which he excelled; he couldn’t think beyond that, even when I tried to break topics down into that short format. He wanted me to “make a book” out of his columns. I might have done that but I didn’t want to, especially after the publisher of the farm paper turned down the idea.

This was before self-publishing was easy and cheap, and the term for such publications was “vanity press.” A book–any book–at that point would have been produced primarily in service to my father’s vanity. Sadly, his increasing dementia seemed to bring out his vanity and bossiness and wipe out some of the humane personality traits–affection, consideration, genuine interest in other people–he’d developed later in life, especially in the writing partnership with my mother.

I got fed up. When it became a matter of writing for my father instead of editing and helping him write, I stopped. I am afraid my father died, a few years later, feeling like a failure as a writer because he never saw a book published with his name on it.

I think of my father often these days as I bump up against my own limits as a writer and struggle to get beyond the 500-1,000-word blog format that comes so easily to me. I think of him as I help other people while I work on my own writing, trying to get beyond the zero-sum thinking of my-work-or-yours. And as I self-publish a book and will probably do the same with the next one, vanity or no. We share nagging ambition, the desire to do more than we are capable of, make it count more, make it pay. I, too, am a late-blooming writer; too late, I think.

Am I seeing myself clearly or confusing my father’s story with mine? There are links, surely, and a lot of differences. I’m trying to see beyond the ties that bind to fear and chagrin and focus on the ones that stir love. My teenage Dad driving his new Model T, loaded with poultry, to the city. My retired Dad on the move, looking for stories.

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