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.

First Published May 31, 2011

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