Searching for Dad in the Fun House of Memory

How do you fill in the blanks of your past when a parent was barely there? Claudia Valentino searches from Brooklyn to Vietnam for some truth about her father, and herself.

By Claudia Valentino
Coney Island, Steeplechase park, barrel
The Steeplechase-The Barrel. By Andrew Herman, 1939
Photograph: Museum of the City of New York, gift of the Federal Art Project

A MEMORY: It’s 1957, and my father and I are both dressed nicely, as was typical in those days. My dad wears a suit and topcoat and hat; I’m in a dress, kneesocks, patent leather shoes and a dark wool coat with a matching bonnet. I’m about four. We seem to be at an amusement park, and to get to the attractions we have to walk through a large barrel that lies on its side. It’s dark in the barrel, and as we step onto its polished floor, I realize it is turning. The idea is to keep walking, just keep up.

I can see light at the barrel’s other end and can’t understand why we don’t just walk through. But the barrel is turning too quickly now. All we can do is try to keep upright, to run and keep running.

I am soon in trouble. I begin to cry. My father is ahead of me now, just a silhouette, his arms extended, his coat pirouetting about his legs as his feet fly over the polished wood. I am barely able to stand, and my panic shifts to anger. My father doesn’t fall at all, nor does he pick me up.

In some split second, it’s happened. He’s ceased being my father. He’s ceased being responsible for me. Won’t entertain it. No.

We’re just pals out on the town. Sailors. Buddies with a loose, friendly connection. We’re on shore leave with just a few hours in which to have as much fun as possible. A little mischief. Some mild trouble. None the worse for wear. Don’t spoil it. Don’t ruin the moment.

As the barrel spins, my father begins to tap-dance his way up the inside of it and jumps back down, each time, at just the right moment. How is such a thing possible? Have I misremembered? No. My father was quicker on his feet than most men. He came from a family of dancers; his father and mother were both in vaudeville, and all their children learned to dance when other kids were learning to walk.

A man has hopped in with his girlfriend, and they are falling and laughing. I become entangled with them, and now I advance from anger to rage. My father grabs me by the hand and begins showing me how to move, gradually, toward the light of the exit. We walk against the barrel’s turning, and I begin to see that walking straight ahead isn’t the way. I walk up the barrel as my father holds my hand, heading obliquely for the opening, and in a moment he lifts me, and we leap out together, back into a world colorful, still and somehow sad.


THIS VISION—I have no idea what else to call it—this incident, this dream, is more than 50 years old. I have many of them, and a mind that elects to toss them up into my consciousness randomly. The plain truth is that I am an only child, and my parents’ marriage was brief. Both of them are long deceased. So the question for me has been: How many of my memories can I bring to the surface, and how can I know which of them are true? I work on my memories a bit at a time. The ones here concern my father.

When I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, I tried coaxing meaning out of these snippets, these shards. I decided to run this particular recollection by a therapist. What did it actually say about my dad and me, I wondered. She answered curtly, saying something like, “Well, with what we know of your father, it is one more example of his complete inability to care for a child.” But assessing my father along these lines has never yielded very much. I know that we are supposed to knit our lives together in tight narrative bundles—both the culture and our therapists tell us so. And yet I generally become confused somewhere along the line. “What am I doing?” I ask myself. It’s the arc that seems inevitably to be imposed, the conclusions that must be drawn, that catch me up every time I try to confront memory. Memories are, for me, like a crate of eggs, each one a world. I resist breaking them.

So, if you’re like me, you choose instead to sit with your memories, to handle them in a slightly different way. In the case of my father and me in the barrel, after months that stretched into years of replaying the scene in my head, I began to recall going through a corridor of mirrors with him, finally realizing it was how I knew what we were wearing that day. The image also tells me where we likely were: Coney Island. It’s a fragile trail, best handled in the same way one searches for galaxies with the naked eye—by not looking for them directly. You simply reckon where a galaxy is supposed to be and then, quite deliberately, look at another spot located somewhat to the right or left of it. If you relax, you will begin to pick up, almost by way of a sixth sense, the presence of the faint stars you’re looking for. It’s an approach that can be cultivated.

Several winters ago, in search of some confirmation of my memory, I spent considerable time on New York City’s F train making the trip to Coney Island. My intention was to visit the museum there to see if anyone knew anything about the barrel, but the place didn’t always keep to its hours. Just so the trip wouldn’t be a total loss, I sometimes visited the Coney Island Circus Side Show.

There was a young woman there, quite strong, who bench-pressed a python. The glittering, daffodil-yellow and white behemoth, with a head the size of a German shepherd’s, trailed down either side of her, indolent and calm, not bothered by the crowd. Another woman swallowed swords. Her focus was extraordinary. She extended the sword before her, deftly placing its tip to her tongue, tilted her head back and then, well, swallowed it. The audience sat up a little straighter, as if to try to avoid the blade themselves. When she was finished, she replaced it with another, much longer sword. She confronted that one the same way. I found it comforting to watch her week after week and wondered if her world was anything like my grandparents’ or like my dad’s growing up. She was what I would consider game. And if there was just one word to describe my dad, game would be it.

HE WORKED in overseas construction, and just as I turned five, he accepted a project-management position with a company hired to rebuild the newly minted nation of South Vietnam after its war with the French. He traveled ahead and then sent for my mother and me to join him in Saigon, considered at the time to be the Paris of the Orient.

We flew to San Francisco, then took off at dusk, seeming to chase the sun, on our way to a stopover in Manila. On the plane, we were surrounded by row after empty row of thickly upholstered seats with a starched antimacassar on the headrest of each one. Few people were taking this new route in those days. The stewardesses were smiling prettily, dressed in smart suits and caps and high heels. They remained exactly this way all through the flight, even when we flew into a storm late in the night.

When my parents and I settled into our hotel, it became clear that Saigon was not as advertised. The war with the French was indeed over, but it was an unsteady peace, and the city and its environs were highly dangerous.

I was enrolled in school but was much younger than the other children. I had a nanny who became my main companion, and I know it was my dad’s driver who attached wooden blocks to the pedals of my too-large bicycle and taught me how to ride. I was left to my own devices most of the time, so long as I was quiet and well behaved. I learned to pay attention to everything that went on around me.
I trust my recollection that my father and I did indeed spend time together in Saigon. Just a small slice of time, to be sure, but rich. I recall one evening, sitting on our veranda in the soft darkness. He allowed me to select a record for us to listen to. It was opera of some sort, and we both liked it. So I curled up in his lap, dozing, past my bedtime, opening my eyes occasionally to see the tiny lightbulb shining out from inside the turntable. It seemed to wink at me, and then I was asleep.

Checking my passport, I learn that we lasted there as a family for less than two years.

My mother and I returned to the States and settled in California. Before long she took me on a Kerouac-ian odyssey back and forth across the country, sweeping through the South as well. We encountered convicts and rattlesnake zoos and caught giant catfish. We woke up one morning in the middle of a field surrounded by what I thought were dinosaurs. My mother explained that they were oil rigs.

In New York, we dropped in to see my father’s “people,” as she called them. As soon as we left, my father’s sister began custody proceedings. Perhaps my mother’s desire to wander outstripped her desire to be my mother. After some initial resistance, she agreed to let me go. I moved in with my aunt and her husband in Brooklyn, and my uncle quickly became my hero. My mother visited once. I never saw her again.

I did see my father, but his visits were rare. He’d return once every few years, for some unspecified period of time. Then, without warning, he would begin to pack. I’d ask where he was going, then get my globe and calculate the time difference. For days after he left, I’d be intent on keeping some portion of my attention focused on what he might be doing on the other side of the world, but after a week or so of this sort of double existence, I’d have to let it go. I’d be exhausted.

When I was 15, my uncle died suddenly. It was 1968, and the evening news carried a mélange of intergenerational conflict and war footage from Vietnam. As I watched the war coverage each night, all I wanted was to see whether I might recognize anyone. Maybe I’d spot my nanny, or our cook, or our driver, all of whom had been like family to me. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I actually saw one of them, bloodied and fleeing.

Here in America, primal scream therapy was in vogue, and families were whacking one another in counseling sessions with foam bats. (The bats had a name, as I recall: batakas.) This was considered very cool, but I found it frightening. I had not, as yet, become “game.” And that worried me.

In the 1980s, after working for decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, my father returned to the United States for good. His health began to fail soon after, and I chose, quite consciously, to take care of him—first at his home, then in my own—until he finally entered a hospice.

I visited him every evening after work. He was, at least, comfortable, and I would pull up a chair beside his bed. We returned, at the last, to sitting together in the dark. We lived those final months as though we’d always seen each other every day. And it became as though we had.

My father died in 1991, and soon after, I made arrangements to return to Vietnam. I brought a tiny padded album containing a few snapshots of my family and our household staff, hoping to find the places where I’d had my photo taken all those years before. The Vietnamese government insisted that tourists travel in groups and with -government-selected guides. Our trip began in Hanoi, and we threaded our way down to Saigon by boat, by plane and, finally, in a dilapidated Russian school bus. As we drew closer to Saigon, I quietly asked one of the guides, Tuan, if he could help me. He wasn’t really permitted to speak with any of us alone, but he was enormously sympathetic to me and offered to ask around to see if anyone remembered my family. As we approached the city, he took my album along with him and agreed to meet me in two days, when he came back on duty with our group.

I was astounded at how much Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) had changed yet how utterly familiar I found the sounds and smells and even the light—so familiar it hurt. I realized that I had become a woman who collected compasses and maps, as though always keeping an eye trained, at least partially, on some other place. I realized that I had lived for years with a sense of having been in exile.

Tuan met up with our group at the botanical gardens. He sent the others off to buy souvenirs, then told me he had found the spots where I had been photographed. As we walked, he handed back my album and pointed to a photo of me standing with my father on a small bridge with a gentle rise. “Here we are,” he said. We were standing right in front of it. “Quick, your camera,” he said. “Go, I will take your picture.” I walked to the top of the bridge and turned. I was smiling as Tuan aimed the camera, but I couldn’t control the tears that scalded my face.

A small group of older, grandmotherly Vietnamese women clustered around him as I walked back. They had palm-leaf brooms and swept the walkways in the garden for a living. They wanted to know who I was.

“I’ve told them that you used to live here with your mother and father,” Tuan told me. I bowed politely to them as I said, “Yes, yes,” trying to smile, quickly wiping away tears, not wanting to embarrass them.

He said, “They want to know where are your brothers, sisters?”

“Just me,” I said.

He said, “What of your parents? Your grandparents?”

“Gone,” I said, aware of how this would affect them. They were clearly saddened. They grasped my situation, and that perfect knowledge seemed to hang in the still air.

“But I’ve come back,” I stammered. “Tell them that I’ve come back and that, in a way, it is a good thing to do, a better thing to do, than not . . . than never coming back. Tell them, OK?”

For some reason I added, “Tell them that I remember everything.”

He did, and one woman looked straight at me as she spoke in Vietnamese to him. Tuan translated: “She says that childhood is our lost paradise.”

AS A GROWN WOMAN with a history and experiences of my own, I am in a better position to judge my father. But I choose not to. I am simply interested in remembering him as clearly as I can. It is a separate matter to consider how I am doing, who I am, who I have become. That is why it is with great clarity that I know the one wrong I must acknowledge is this: No one ever believed, ever granted, that what we were all living out together was my life and my story, too. But what must also be said is that my father—and my mother, too—tried. They tried to live differently, adventurously. And in doing so, they introduced me, as soon as they could, to the world—showed it to me, flew me over it, drove me across it.

Until recently I had never actually looked up the word game. I believed it described my father, his parents, even my mother—and not me. But what it actually has to do with, among other things, is having a resolute spirit. So at last I find I qualify. Some inner compass, some inner system of balances, has allowed me to follow my own oblique line, my own form of truth. For me, that truth trumps fact.

My trips to the Coney Island Museum finally paid off. In a grainy black-and-white film I discovered footage of the barrel. There it is, enormous, lying on its side, crowded with people attempting to master it. Knowing that it really existed is the gift, opening gates of memory long guarded by me against the ravages of interpretation and bias. I remember the liveliness and spring of the wood beneath my feet—and my father, barely 44, elegant and in his prime. He and I are one with the barrel, holding hands as we run. It was the entrance to Steeplechase Park at Coney Island, and from what I can glean, it was the only way in.

CLAUDIA VALENTINO is writing a novel loosely based on her early years in Saigon.

Originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of MORE.


First Published Tue, 2011-05-31 08:22

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