Zakiya Dalila Harris
"Great writing...inspires empathy."
Stories About Family
Memoir includes a great deal of conversation about the difficulty (and even ethicacy) of writing about those you know. It's easier when they're no longer living. Still, those who know your characters personally may disagree with your observations, or simply believe individual stories shouldn't be made public.
I've written two stories with my father as the central figure: this one and another one after my mother died, as he aged in place and lost some aspects of who he'd been. I have not published the latter. I don't know if I will.
Writing a short piece only offers glimpses of his character. It's not intended to be an in-depth analysis. Just know he was a man I loved, and I wish many others were able to know him too.
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Fatherly Memories of Long Ago
His nickname, Red, came from a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair. Add startlingly blue eyes, a mass of freckles, and a stocky frame with a round, protruding stomach. That's how I remember him.
Descriptions of his character varied. Church members considered him a devout Christian who attended Sunday services. Cocktail waitresses from local bowling alleys saw a teasing teddy bear who loved a good joke and a stiff drink. Neighbors knew him as the man they could count on when help was needed, from a shoulder to cry on to finding ways to re-enter their houses when they’d locked themselves out. His employees believed he was fair but demanding. Close friends described him as morally upright with a sense of fun.
His rare show of temper could be quick and forceful. As a child, his youngest daughter found him scary: “If you don’t cut it out,” he’d yell, “I’ll knock your heads together.” My analysis? He had a gruff exterior with little follow through, a pushover underneath with a heart you could feel, but not see.
Notes to his granddaughter were always signed “Grouchy Grandpa,” a title they enjoyed together. When he took care of her they’d play card games on the floor, watch cartoons, or drive to the park to use the swings.
He was a smart man with a high school education who passed contractor licensing exams on his first attempt. At night, he read volumes of history books kept by his nightstand, from presidential tomes to Mein Kampf. Yet his grammar was poor, and he wrote letters using only present tense. A typical note to one of us at camp might say, “I am watching your mother. She is cooking dinner. I am on the couch. Have fun. Stay out of trouble.”
Dad’s parents were immigrants to California from a Swedish colony in Finland. English was not always spoken at home. He lost his bilingual abilities over time, except for the swear words he reeled off when the mood struck him.
After arriving in California, his parents bought a small farm in a rural Italian neighborhood, with walnut trees, berries, chickens, and a smokehouse for salmon. There was probably more, but that’s what I remember.
Although he rarely spoke of his childhood, he told me this:
“We always had food. We were on a farm. I didn’t show up at school, so they sent people to see why. We had no money for shoes. The school bought shoes for my brothers and me.”
Sometimes he’d tell us how he walked miles through snow to get to school.
Another time he shared:
“My birthday was a week before Christmas, so I never got presents. My brothers got presents because their birthdays weren’t at Christmas. The only toy I ever got was a bag of marbles. I took them outside to play with the other boys. They knew how to play. I didn’t. I lost them all the first day.”
The part about snow wasn’t true. It doesn’t snow in Martinez. I believed the rest, and felt sad.
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