redemption

I woke this morning feeling light, as if something had resolved itself in the night while I slept.

Yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon going through boxes of old notes – drafts of short stories and essays, the early sketches of projects that were tentatively begun then abandoned. I found a black binder that I had labeled “Father Project,” and in it, hundreds of emails from my father [HarryWho@webtv.net] that I had printed and saved. He had sent me this flurry of emails between the fall of 1999 and early 2000. It is not as though we had been active correspondents. These emails were part of a book project that he was planning. This excerpt from his explanation:

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SUBJECT: Personal

I hope this letter finds you in good health. Did I tell you that I am proceeding with my previous intentions of writing a small book of approximately one hundred fifty pages full of my own original jokes, poems, short stories and book titles, such as: “My Travels through China,” by Rick Shaw; “The Yellow Stream,” by I.P. Daly’ “Outer Space,” by Sy Yentz, to name a few. So far, I have all my works copyrighted, included all the ones you haven’t heard yet. Soooooo, don’t pass on to anyone any of my jokes. I figure it will take me another two years to complete the book. I pray that I will live that long.

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Initially, it was his hope that I would collect these as they sent him to me, organize them, and help him to get them published once he had enough to consider it “finished.” He used the pen name “Harry Who?” and he intended this for the book’s preface:

SUBJECT: A Thought to Ponder from the aboriginal pen of …Harry Who?

Never be afraid to try something new. Always remember: Amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the Titanic. Harry

If at first you don’t succeed, sky diving is not for you.
Sometimes I wake up grumpy. Other times I let him sleep.
Give me ambiguity or give me something else.
Employ teenagers – while they know everything.
Why is there only ONE Monopolies Commission?
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

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After sending me months of daily emails (sometimes more than one a day), he updated his plan:

SUBJECT: Personal

After adding up all my jokes, short stories, poems, thoughts, versions and in store “funny” advertisements of products plus names and daffynitions…I came to the conclusion that I need 50 or more mores to put into any kind of book. Unfortunately, I believe I have lost the mental capabilities of creating new jokes. Every once in a while I create a “funny” but they are few and far between. At the rate I have been going these past few months, to make at least 50 good jokes, etc. it would take me about 50 more years to do it. Considering that I am almost 75 years of age now…I doubt very much if I will live to age 125. My only regret is that I don’t have anything worthwhile to pass on to you after I depart from this world. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. Rather than let my works fade out…I decided to send them out over the internet to all the people I know, knowing and hoping that they will in turn forward them to their friends and so on. Who knows maybe my works will become popular…And you can always tell your friends “he is my dad”! (dream on old man.)
SUBJECT: Computer Daffynitions

1.     Log on: makin a wood stove hotter
2.     Log off: don’t add no more wood
3.     Monitor: keepin an eye on the wood stove
4.     Download: getting the farwood off the truck
5.     Mega hertz: when yer not kerful getting the farwood

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At one point, he emailed explaining that some of his jokes could be considered a little “risqué.” Those, he explained, he would sent to my home email account, and the rest he would continue sending to my work account.

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SUBJECT: The rooster vs. the prostitute

The rooster: Cock a doodle doo
The prostitute: Any cock’ll do

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I preserved these with as much of the original spelling, spacing, and formatting that printing from the library computer cluster would allow. I wrote vignettes to include with the book that I thought I might one day write – stories in which I tried to provide context for the seeming simplicity of his ambitions. I attempted to portray my mother as overbearing and spiteful, too angry to accommodate his quirky humor, too pragmatic to support his eccentricities.

But mostly, I was writing to try to give meaning to his juvenilia. To elevate these thoughts – that he believed to be his own, original writing and not the regurgitation of old Readers’ Digest humor columns he must have read in doctors’ waiting rooms. To respond in some way to the shame and disgust I felt, have always felt toward him. I saved these emails in an attempt to redeem him. Because I felt I owed him some debt of loyalty, of understanding.

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SUBJECT: Woman in the hospital

A man drove to the hospital to visit his wife who was in a coma and had been for the last three months. Every day he would sit by her bed telling her how much he missed her and how much he loved her. More often than not, he would hold her hand and kiss her on the cheek or her forehead to and to her and end up quietly crying his heart out. On this particular day however, in a moment of longing he placed his hand on her chest and gently caressed and kissed her left breast. To his amazement he heard her moan. He quickly jumped up and raced outside to tell the doctor who was just passing by what happened. The doctor followed him back into the room and told the man to gently fondle and caress his wife’s right breast. In doing so, she let out an enjoyable sigh. The doctor was truly amazed. In confidence he asked the husband if he and his wife had ever had oral sex. The husband admitted that they did, adding that he and his wife found it most gratifying. Without a moments hesitation, the doctor drew the curtain around the wifes bed and suggested to the husband that he partake in oral sex with his wife in private concluding that if fondling and caressing her breasts she verbally responded with a moan and then a sigh, performing oral sex should bring her out of the coma. The husband agreed. The doctor told the husband that oral sex was a private matter between husband and wife and as such he would wait outside of the curtain. After several minutes the husband flipped open the curtain and shouted… “SHE’S DEAD!!!!” “What happened?” asked the doctor. The husband replied… “She choked.”

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I have held on to these for so long, I think, because I have wanted to re-write my father. Wanted to will him into a misunderstood, amiable man, baffled by marriage, bullied by my mother, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of fatherhood. And all of these things may be true.

But it is also true that during the time he was in my life – from the time I arrived in New York until he left for Florida when I was thirteen – there were choices he could have made that he did not. Countless times when he could simply have chosen to show up, but did not.

I have never heard you say that he protected you from the storm, M. says when I tell him that I feel shame and disgust as I read through his emails. And that what I want to feel is compassion, empathy, pathos.

He did not. Through the turbulence of my childhood and adolescence, my father did not protect me. He was not present in a consistent way. He was not interested in who I was, who I was struggling to become.

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SUBJECT: Personal

Hi darlin
In the past I’ve been sending you by and large a smattering of light sexy jokes. Of late I have been writing a bunch of risqué jokes (NO PROFANITY) but very very funny. subject matters such as “Nudity, masterbation, oral sex & condoms. Written in unimpeachable language.
More than anything in this world…I do not want to offend you. That is why I am writing to you now to find out if you are offended.

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What do I owe to the memory of this man that I did not really know? Who was father to me in name, through circumstances neither one of us could really control? The tasks of fatherhood went largely unperformed, these emails representing perhaps, the only evidence of him.

On occasion, we play acted at some kind of relationship. When I told him about M., that we were engaged to be married, he said, “Well you tell him that I own a shotgun.” As if all he knew of fatherhood had been gleaned from farce.

Perhaps all these years I have carried him around in hopes that I might one day find a way to redeem him in my memory. But I don’t know that he has ever asked for or needed any kind of redemption. Not from me, at least.

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SUBJECT: The Good Samaritan

Two men from Texas were sitting in a restaurant, when a young lady at a nearby table began to choke on a hamburger. Panic stricken, she jumped up, gasping for breath. One Texan said to the other, “That lil gal is havin a bad time. I’m agonna go over thar and help her.” Holding both sides of her head in his big Texan hands he asked, “Kin ya swaller?” Gasping, she shook her head NO! He then asked “Kin ya breathe?” still gasping she again shook her head NO! Wasting no time, he turned her around, yanked up her skirt… got down on his knees behind her…pulled down her panties and began licking her butt. The young woman was so shocked that she coughed up a piece of hamburger and began breathing on her own. The Texan returned to his table, sat down next to his friend and said, “Ya know, it’s sure amazin how that hind-lick maneuver always works!

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It has been nearly twenty-five years since I last saw him. I was in college. He sent me money for a ticket to Jacksonville and I went down during spring break. He was living in some sort of low-income, retirement complex. There was a pool, and in the morning, we sat by it. He told me I looked well and that I filled out my swimsuit. He wanted to know what my mother was saying about him. What she had told me over the years. I told him I didn’t really want to discuss it, that we were there to spend some time together, to get to know each other, and that the divorce was a long time ago. He agreed, then proceeded to try to give me advice about marriage.

We didn’t talk much for a few years after that visit. Then, the flurry of emails, then in 2002, he died. I heard from a friend of his – an email – a couple weeks after the funeral. His friends did not think much of me. After all, I never called. Only visited that once. How ungrateful.

When I woke this morning, it was with a sense of knowing this: I will not write this book about my father. At least not now. At least not as I had thought I might. I wonder what he would think of my posting this online now. Sharing his work in this way.

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SUBJECT: Personal

Hi darlin, received your email the other day. like you, Ruthe and I were also busy. For our annual bazaar, we made more than 2 dozen mug rugs. 28 to be exact. Which were sold for $1.50 each. All of the profits go into the club, to buy food and entertainment for the members every six months or so…and donated to worthy charities. we were also hit by “Floyd” and we had to evacuate. we drove 350 miles to the other side of the state to safety. But than god, we weren’t hit as hard as was predicted. when we returned home, we were told that it had rained as was kind of windy and some trees were uprooted and some 2 inches of water filled the area… when we got home the phone was running off the hook. relatives and friends of mine and Ruthe’s were calling to find out how we were. I will continue to send you more jokes to lift your spirits. I know that you are very busy and haven’t had time to write or call, but no need to worry about us as we are both okay.