Thursday, July 23, 2015

Home Studies in Romanticism

Although he was by no means the voracious reader your mother was, a number of your father's reading habits had collateral effects on your literary tastes and the person you have in more recent years worked toward becoming.

Having you read to your mother while she was at work in the kitchen, preparing an increasing array of memorable dishes, put you in contact with authors you might otherwise never have discovered. These writers provided the smorgasbord of romantic, historical, and mysteries by authors you got to know by the curious rote of reading them aloud and noticing your mother's responses to the characters, the scenes, and what she liked to call unbearable choices.

Well into your middle school years, this reading continued, adding a note of bafflement to the increasing bafflement you inspired in your teachers.  At one point, you were sent home with a note, written to your mother by one of your teachers, wondering if your mother was aware that her son was reading short stories by Guy de Maupassant.  Your mother took to the response with great ├ęclat.  "Yes," she wrote in her answer, "I am well aware."

On another occasion, a social studies teacher whom you quite liked asked you to stay after class one afternoon to ask you questions about what she called "your literary reach."  After a few moments of conversation, she said, "I guess I'll have to get used to the fact that you have read Louis Bromfield, Edna Ferber, and Ellery Queen."  To which you replied, "My mother reads them.  I read them to her."

Added to the enigma of your more or less standard boy's reading preferences was the effect of your father's readings, an issue that came up in a public speaking class you were at some pains to want to excel in because public speaking was the prerequisite to dramatics, and you'd already had notions of you acting out roles of your boyhood heroes.  What better way to stand out in public speaking than to demonstrate a reading skill you'd learned from your father, which was, in effect, how to read, interpret, and use the cornucopia of information resident in The Daily Racing Form.

"So the end point of all this,"  your public speaking teacher asked you, "is to guide you in choosing which horse to bet on in a given race?"

It was much more than that, and you said so, reaching an early experience of being immersed or "in" a subject of interest to you.  "This," you said, "is a summary of the relevant data a true sportsman needs to know in that same way a businessman needs to know factors related to the healthy performance of his business.  These forms are close approximations of scientific assessments of risk.  If you put money on a horse because you like his or her color or jockey or name, you are making a mockery of risk by taking a fling at being lucky."

"Well," the teacher said, "'we'll have to see about that."

Both your parents were romantics.  Even while progressing through the childhood of you being bored stiff for adventure and intent on finding it, you understood this about them.  They'd come from significant affluence, lost it through no real mismanagement of their own, and sought to reclaim a return to the old ways.  You did not in any conscious way associate your father with the deadpan, dry wit of Mark Twain until it became necessary for you to cope with the grief of his passing and the growing awareness of the effect he was having in death as well as the effect he had in life.

Even though it was a Saturday, which meant he might be at home much of the day, he was dressing in suit, vest, and tie, counting the loose change in his pocket, setting coins on the breakfast table before you.  "Enough here for the movie, for a modest lunch, for a candy bar at the movie, maybe a few pennies left over to keep the jingle of coins in your trousers."

You attempted to thank him, but he held up a cautionary hand.  "For family to work, everyone does certain chores.  I never believed in an allowance as such, for your sister or you.  This is your pay for the things you do to help and because I heard you asking the other day if there was something else you could do to help because you had some time.  That was with no expectation of pay."

As you remember the exchange, you said it was because you were bored silly and were on the lookout for a meaningful task.  "For a bored boy," he said, "your heart was in the right place.  Now I must go.  But how is it I do not see your raincoat here at the ready?"

"Raincoat?"  You said.  "But there is no rain."

"You are going to see a movie made from a book by one of your mother's favorite authors, Louis Bromfield.  I saw you reading from it to her."

"The Rains Came,"  You said.  "Set in India."

"Monsoons,"  your father said.  "India during the monsoon season can be treacherous."

"Have you been to India?"

"I have been to the sorts of places a man would visit who served on a Coast Guard Cutter.  India?  No, but enough time on a small boat to know the perils of the sea.  Now, this is a matinee you will be attending, right?"

"Right?"

"At the Carthay Circle Theater?"

"Yes."

"Promise me you will sit under the protective cover of the balcony."

"I like to sit closer,"

"Monsoons can be vicious.  Unrelenting.  Even under the balcony, you are bound to take on some water.  Promise me."

"All right,"  you said."

"Enjoy the movie,"  he said.  "Tyrone Power.  You like Tyrone Power."

"Yes."

"Stay dry."

Some hours later, when your computations agreed you'd better start walking if you wanted to see the movie from the beginning, you paused in the doorway to the living room, where your mother was reading.  "I came to say goodbye."

She looked up from her book, surprised.  "Why are you wearing your rain coat?"

"The movie is The Rains Came.  Myrna Loy.  Tyrone Power.  George Brent."

"I know who's in the movie.  I want to know why you're wearing a rain coat."

You started to say something, but she shook her hear.  "Your father,"  she said.'

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