Is this what fifty looks like?
April 28, the day before Fifteen changes his name to Sixteen, four of my father’s books, out of print for many years, will become available in electronic editions. The books, The End of My Life, his first novel published in 1947, The Violated (1958), Confessions of a Spent Youth (1960), and Brill Among the Ruins (1970), are a part of my father’s backlist, a literary bequest of ten novels and three works of nonfiction, one coauthored with my brother. They were written without exception by his two index fingers on a series of typewriters large and small. He would eventually adapt from the hard press of a manual to a more responsive electric typewriter; he never comfortably touched a computer.
In fact, my father’s fantasy writing device was a wall-sized keyboard that he could set to take a full-body punch or a light tap, depending on his mood. The room, as he imagined it to me, would contain a collection of costumes, so that he could dress as a ballet dancer one day, twirling from key to key, a boxer the next, punching the keys hard to get them to imprint letters on the page.
In today’s digitalized world, such a typing room is technologically possible. Perhaps one even already exists. It’s ironic that my father, who loved, read, wrote, and lined our houses with books, now has a chance at being discovered by a whole new readership devoted to their e-readers. I don’t know what he might have made of these re-releases, but since I do remember that he liked to stay abreast of changing times, so long as he himself didn’t have to manage the technology, I suspect he would have been pleased.
I know that I am. Working with the professionals at Open Road Media has been a pleasure. On spring break in New York with Twelve, I took her with me to meet with the editor and media relations team at the publishing company. It was a legacy trip, the kind of trip I went on with my father at about her same age. We took the meeting, enjoyed a tour, and left with new impressions of the publishing world. They asked for a suitable photo of my father for marketing purposes; I promised I would see what I could find.
In my all-time favorite picture of my father, his face is close up and his head is ringed by a laurel wreath. The photo, taken at his fiftieth birthday party by Iowa Writing Workshop director Jack Leggett’s wife Lee, shows my father the way I remember him best, eyes twinkling, fascinated by whatever conversation he is enjoying at the moment. I don’t need a color photo to remember how blue those eyes were.
For the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, in 1972 when I was newly seven, he took out an advertisement in the Iowa City Press Citizen and invited everyone reading the ad to come to our farm for the day, bring picnics and celebrate. My parents’ parties and events were legendary and frequent, but I like to think that the fiftieth is one I remember distinctly. The pasture was dotted with picnickers, the pond full of happy splashing people.
When Twelve and I are back from New York, I find the photo and am relieved to discover it isn’t professionally fixed in its frame. I take it in for scanning, another digitalization of my father. It is only when I’m fitting it safely back into its frame that I realize and remark to my mother:
“Dad was fifty in this picture. My age … or at least the age I’m about to be.”
I’m turning fifty in four months. Unlike forty, I find I’m not the least bit concerned by this milestone birthday. I am intent on celebrating it, although perhaps not with a newspaper ad invitation. But gazing at Dad’s image at fifty gives me pause. Do I look as old at fifty as he always seemed to me? Have I accomplished as much as he had by fifty? How much are we alike, and how much do I live my life on my own terms? What are the important lessons of being my father’s daughter?
My father never got his fancy wall-sized keyboard on which he could pound or prance, but in his most productive writing years, he protected his writing time. We all did. Dad had a room of his own where he could and did write nearly every morning. His afternoons were reserved for his students at the university, tennis, farm projects, and the huge garden he planted every summer. Evenings after dinner he would sit, absent-mindedly chewing on this thumb, reading. My father was a writer his whole life. And I never hesitated, when I was growing up, to say if someone asked what my father did: My father was a writer.
I do hesitate when people ask me what I do. It’s complicated, I tell them, or, I own a yoga studio, but I don’t elaborate. It’ll be some time into the conversation, after I’ve also copped to being an editor and a mother, when being a writer might come up. But I stepped into the digital literary world ahead of my father, launching this blog in 2011, engaging in social media, and publishing my own novel, Throwing Like a Girl (available through Smashwords), earlier this year. I think, perhaps for my fiftieth birthday, it would be a gift to both of us to learn to say upfront: I’m a writer, just like my Dad.
Happy new moon on Saturday—wishing you glorious blooms and soft spring evenings. Thanks for walking along on my journey with me, Rxo