Clippings by Christopher Ross: Spies like us
A few years ago I received the only piece of mail my father ever sent me during my adult life.
Or, I should say, caused to be sent to me. It was a genealogical newsletter. My father had purchased a subscription for me, said the note inside.
“What the hell is this?” I said.
My daughter, Vivian, who was eight or nine at the time, scolded me for my language.
“Wow,” said my wife, Carolyn. “He didn’t even send a letter?”
“No, just this.”
“Who is James Tinney?” Vivian said.
“He’s your biological grandfather,” I told her.
“Papa’s papa,” Carolyn added helpfully.
“What’s ‘Tinney,’ then?”
“That’s Papa’s papa’s family name.”
“This is a family history . . . pamphlet,” I said.
“Papa changed his name before you were born.”
“I dropped my last name and made my middle name my last name. It’s . . . a really long story.”
Carolyn thumbed through the newsletter.
“A tad passive-aggressive, don’t you think?”
I shrugged. When she handed it back to me I tore it up and threw it in the recycling bin.
That’s when the road-trip fantasies started.
We’d drive 600 miles to Urbanna, Virginia, check into a cheap motel and look up my father’s address.
Then we’d spy on him.
I didn’t want to visit with him. We hadn’t seen each other for 20 years and I didn’t have anything to say.
But we were curious.
We’d follow him and his wife around, get a peek at the sorts of people they socialized with, what they watched on TV, what food they ate.
If my dad went out on a rescue squad call we’d follow him and pretend to rubber-neck. If he went sailing we’d rent a canoe and pretend to bird-watch.
We’d sit behind a pillar in his church and listen to his sermon.
For some reason Carolyn and I thought this was hilarious.
Vivian wasn’t interested.
“Don’t you want to see where you got that kinky hair from?” I asked.
“Not really,” she replied without looking up from her book.
This road trip, Carolyn and I thought, would make a really great essay.
I added it to my to-do list: “motorcycle trip to Virginia — write up essay idea.”
But I knew in the back of my mind that I would have to do it alone.
“I wonder what he’s like,” Carolyn said.
“Me too,” I said. “Sort of.”
“What was he like?” Vivian wanted to know.
“Well, he really liked Charles Chips,” I said.
Vivian stared at me.
“Potato chips,” I explained. “They came in a big yellow can. Your grandfather would watch TV with this giant can in his lap and eat chips.”
“What else?” Vivian wanted to know.
“I don’t know. He drove a black Plymouth Duster with a giant front seat. My little sister — your aunt — and I would lean forward and stick our tongues in front of the air-conditioning vent until they were dry and sticky. I don’t remember why we thought that was fun. Maybe we were bored.”
“Well, when my parents separated and my dad moved into an apartment, he couldn’t afford to buy any furniture, so he wrapped the box his television came in with wood-grain Contac Paper and placed the TV on top. He was quite proud of himself.”
Vivian didn’t find this very interesting.
He smoked Winstons, I didn’t bother saying, and listened to “Hooked on Classics.”
His father once chased him down the street with a shotgun.
At an outdoor concert on July 4, 1976, he shoved some hippies down the hill because their loopy dancing was blocking his view of the stage.
He lost his job as a federal probation officer for mouthing off at a judge.
Whatever else I remember — or suspect — about my father fits tidily into the span and architecture of a single pop song: “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty (1978). Not because my dad liked it (he would later claim he stopped listening to popular music in 1960), but because it reminds me of the pool in his apartment complex.
I loved that pool: the lifeguard radio, the lithe jaded kids with their sunglasses and magazines whose aloofness seemed earned rather than instilled, as it was at the private pool my mother took us to.
My dad himself never shows up in these memories, though. He was just a signature on a rent check, a source of snack bar dollars, a grumpy ride to Little League practice.
For 30 years, no matter how much writing or talking or whatever else I did, I never managed to animate him further.
Then in 2014, two years after the genealogical newsletter, I got an email from him. He and my stepmother would be in Vermont the following week — would I like to have lunch?
I brought Carolyn and Vivian with me. My father talked at us for 100 minutes and my stepmother sat next to him, glaring.
Afterward I updated my to-do list: “motorcycle trip to Virginia — write up essay idea (plus weird visit).”
Five months later, I updated it again: “motorcycle trip to Virginia — write up essay idea (plus weird visit) (loss of father).”
We decided not to go and spy on him at his funeral.
I never wrote the essay, either.
Instead, I started working on a poem. I called it “Baker Street.”
One summer night you stole the neighbors’ shears
and cut away everything you thought
ought not be me. When I brushed myself off,
said thank you, what I meant was:
I am learning to be relative
to something else.
I didn’t get much further than those lines, though, because when I looked up the actual song lyrics, for inspiration, I decided that nothing more really needed to be written about my dad than:
Another year and then you’ll be happy
Just one more year and then you’ll be happy.
Another year was always where that Duster pointed. Some other year or just: away.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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