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

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.

SLIDESHOW: THE FUN HOUSE OF MEMORY: A DAUGHTER'S PHOTO ALBUM

First Published May 31, 2011

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