My father started to write his memoir because he thought death was imminent. He wasn’t sick, but his mother had died at 62 so logic compelled him to believe he wouldn’t live longer.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. At 16, I was privy to my father’s bouts of hypochondria, but not his darker existential thoughts. What I did know was that this project excited him; that he had spent hours squirreled away at the back of the house every day, hunting and pecking on his laptop for months to complete it.
My father is a singer-songwriter, and a largely autobiographical one, so self-expression and outward displays of introspection are not exactly novel concepts for him. But the frequency with which he approached the work told me this was something different, even though its urgency — and, ultimately, its purpose — eluded me.
When the self-published copies arrived in the mail, I remember smelling the freshly printed pages and seeing the glossy violet cover with the title, Somebody’s Child, emblazoned across the front. But what lay inside was a mystery, and it remained that way for six years. I could blame the delay on my youth, but that wasn’t it, really. I was a voracious reader; I have no idea why I didn’t make this particular title a priority. My father hadn’t asked me to read it, so I didn’t.
When I finally got to it, there weren’t too many surprises. Most of the stories were those I’d heard recounted over car rides and at family dinners: a childhood in Montreal living with the expectations of a religious father, a move to New York and a struggle to break into the music business, a marriage and a divorce, young fatherhood, a great love affair and a great heartbreak. I always knew my father had an interesting life, and it wasn’t a revelation to read that he was a living, breathing human being with a colorful past that stretched long before the day I was born.
There were some things I didn’t know, of course, and others I’d never heard described so acutely: the agony of watching his mother on her deathbed, the feelings of failure when his recording contract expired, the guilt associated with venturing beyond his religious background.
But while, as I read, I had questions for my father, I found the greater questions were for myself: Why had it taken me so long to read the memoir? How could my father’s life sit on a shelf all these years untouched? How could I, or any child for that matter, not be insatiably curious to know his parents just as well as his friends or his heroes?
And then, on the second to last page of a freewheeling epilogue, I read this:
Everyone believes in their self-righteousness. ‘And the winner is’… two generations. The winner receives two generations of remembrance. As a matter of fact, the loser is granted the same fate. Our children will remember us and what we believed in; their children will possibly do the same. That’s it! Immortality! That is what we fight for, die for: fifty years, more or less, then history moves on.
That proclamation was part of a passage about the foibles of war and ideological battles, but, for me, it held a resonance that was perhaps unintended: Essentially, it helped me understand why my father wrote his memoir. It wasn’t to achieve literary success, nor was it to re-write history. Rather, it was merely insurance that he’d have the modest renown to which he’d alluded – that two generations of kin would know him, and perhaps appreciate him, in something approaching his entirety.
It was a promise my late grandmother never fully realized. She died more than a decade before I was born, and so all that exists for me as evidence of her life are some old photographs and a few scattered anecdotes. This is someone my father revered, and yet, sadly, she will, always be but a shadow to me. I will never know her full story, or the specific cadence with which she might have expressed it.
But I can know my father’s – and I should. With age, I’ve come to recognize, just as well as my father, that most human attempts at immortality are in vain, that no matter how terrible our failures or resounding our successes we are anonymous in the grand scope of history. It is only through our small kingdoms, our families, that we can achieve some sort of longevity for a short while beyond our own lifetimes.
That legacy, though, cannot be forged alone. It takes two to construct meaning – one to give voice to experiences, and another to care about them. And as sons who may one day be fathers, daughters who may one day be mothers, the living who will sooner or later be the dead, we are all complicit in making each others’ lives feel significant – one that, hopefully, pays forward.
That’s why, even as I know that someday the remaining copies of my father’s book will vanish, and all the links to my essays online will break, I, too, will write my stories for my “two generations.” I hope they will read them.