By guest blogger Erica Bauermeister
My father was, literally, a rocket scientist, with a brain so beautiful and fast and strong that it could fill a room and often did. He grew up in a household where affection was viewed with suspicion, and happiness was for people who weren’t smart enough to see what could be corrected. He had a capacity for love that came through in the songs he composed for each of his children when we were born, but he had been trained that a father was a provider, not a source of affection. When I was young, he worked for the government in a classified position; I remember one dinner table conversation where he explained that if any of his children were kidnapped he wouldn’t negotiate. For him, it was a pragmatic argument; the chances of recovery were better his way. For a nine year old it was like being thrown off a cliff.
As I grew up, I followed the lead of my older siblings and learned to take him on at the table. We had discussions about military defense and economic policy, and our arguments could last well past dessert. I rarely won; I didn’t really have a chance, but the butting of heads taught me to think.
Still, I wanted more than a relationship of the brain. I wanted to find a place in the world where my father and I could hold differing views and still love each other. My father had found an alternate way to communicate in music, and the sound of his violin would rise up through the notes of cello and viola as his quartet played in our living room on Monday nights. The wistfulness on my father’s face as he played taught me there were other ways of reaching out to people. But I was, unfortunately for both of us, tone deaf. I couldn’t share that world with him; I had to find my own.
I discovered it in words, in literature, a deliciously ambiguous world where there was no right or wrong, just a desire for understanding. As a writer, I could inhabit the life of a father or a grandmother or a five year old who was willing to do things I had always been scared to. I could, safely, become the opinions I disagreed with, feel their edges and where they mixed with my own beliefs. My job as a creator of characters was not to prove anything; it was simply to be, for that period of time, inside that character’s mind. To be them. To love them, whether or not I always liked them.
And what was interesting was that my father the scientist supported my choice of writing. When I opted for an English major in college instead of the more practical International Affairs degree we all had thought I would focus on, he urged me forward. He didn’t know what to do with my stories – at one point I gave him a manuscript and, ever the educator, he graded the chapters – but he told me to keep going, even during those many years when nothing I wrote was published.
A day came in 2006. I was forty-eight years old. I was writing a story about a lonely young girl and her unavailable mother, and the elderly woman who became the girl’s mentor. My characters are never based on people I know, but sometimes I come to realize that I have been writing a particular story in order to figure out something in my own life. Occasionally it takes years after publication for me to see what a more intuitive part of my psyche was offering up for my education, but sometimes it only takes a sentence.
The girl in my story was a chef at heart, and at the age of twelve was using food to try and pull her mother out of the depression she had fallen into. The plan was working, but not completely, and the girl went to her mentor and asked her what else she should do. The older woman told her that she would figure it out; she was a cook – it was a gift from her mother. The girl bridled at the suggestion; her mother was psychologically if not physically absent and had nothing to do with food. Her mentor replied: “Sometimes our greatest gifts grow from what we are not given.”
The line came out of my fingers, onto the page. I looked at it, shocked, and in that moment I realized that I was writing the story for my father. Biographically, he was nowhere in the story – not in the mother with her head hidden in books, not in the father who had left his family, not in the mentor who steered the little girl toward the cooking that would bring her joy. But it was a story for him, for the two of us, all the same.
That novel wasn’t published until three years later, after my father’s death, after frontal lobe dementia had taken his beautiful brain and crumbled it, even as he watched. After his heart, finally given some space in the room, had come forward and he had told me, in words, that he loved me. In those years I came to more fully understand what I had only recognized when I wrote that sentence in the story, what my writing mind had known long before my father’s daughter was ready for it.
I am a writer. It was a gift from my father.
Erica Bauermeister, the bestselling author of The School of Essential Ingredients and Joy for Beginners, is also the coauthor of 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. She has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Washington, from which she holds a Ph.D. in literature, and is a graduate of Occidental College. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband and their two children. For more information about her, please visit her website: www.ericabauermeister.com.