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

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.

First Published May 31, 2011

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