Sometimes on a busy city street it would take me a while to do all that shifting without grinding the gears.Years went by and I became a pretty good driver, but truthfully, I’ve never felt totally comfortable with it. Sometimes I just have to go and park myself away from traffic until I can talk myself down—my more sensible, reasonable self taking charge, as it were, of my irrational, emotional self and keeping her from driving us into a tree.
My Dad loved that car. He’d wanted one ever since he first saw it in a James Bond movie, but he had to wait till his 40s when he finally had enough money to buy one. Even so, Mom had a fit when he first drove up and parked it in the driveway. I remember the proud, happy, nervous grin he wore on his face as he stood beside it and Mom storming out of the house in her hair curlers. It didn’t matter that he needed the car for a spectacular magic trick he was working on—making a car disappear—or that he would be able to deduct it on his taxes as a stage prop. It was in her mind a foolish, childish, useless extravagance. For me, that nailed the fundamental difference between my parents—Dad the impulsive dreamer and unrepentant romantic, and Mom the grounded realist and inveterate cynic.
I’ve never been able to decide what parental ratio ended up in me. Dad was a professional magician. He knew even as a little boy what he wanted to be. He loved deception and the idea of fooling an entire audience. Had he possessed less of an interest in performing and entertaining people than in taking advantage of them, he might have ended up a con artist. And he probably would have been one of the greats. But that was never likely. He would never admit it, but the golden rule was inscribed on his heart. Before Mom was his wife, she was his stage assistant, the pretty young thing in tights who brings out the props, takes away the bunnies and pigeons after they have materialized out of thin air, and survives the process of being sawed in half. Dad was ten years older when she applied for the job but she “had this thing about older men” so not only did they hit it off as an acting team, but ended up in a marriage chapel in Vegas, where at the time Dad had a gig at the Riviera.
Dad never managed to stay in one place for very long. “Only plants put down roots,” he once said to me apropos of my childhood being spread across ten states and four foreign countries. I didn’t hold it against him. He was so much more than a father. He had the power of magic that my mother never had nor ever even understood. It wasn't that he taught me tricks; he taught me to see through tricks, to see things as they really are. Most of all he taught me to see how much of life has been re-engineered to be a comfortable illusion, a convenient fraud. My mother had no interest in seeing things as they really are. She much preferred make-believe and did everything in her power to make it as reassuring as possible. As it turned out, one illusion she was not comfortable with was her marriage. Shortly after I turned twelve, she departed from our lives with my Dad’s agent. It was a double betrayal that put a huge dent in Dad’s confidence in himself and in his ability to navigate through the treacherous shoals of life. “Didn’t see that one coming,” he told me.
But I did. I felt bad for my father; even so, I knew it was for the best. The marriage had been a mistake. A happy figment that turned into a car wreck. Dad was all about doubt, Mom was all about certainty. Nobody could make that work. Better for both of them that they go their separate ways. It was necessary for my father to lose his wife, but I wasn’t about to lose my mother. I didn't blame her. She had stopped loving Dad, but she still loved me and swore she always would. Sometimes I would worry that my being so much like my father would be a problem for her, but it never was. When I once asked her about it, she said, “You’re my daughter, sweetie. Simple as that.”
Unlike my father, my mother had not known from an early age what she wanted to do in life. She figured at some point something would occur to her. She put her fate in the Lord’s hands. But nothing ever did occur to her, and apparently the Lord had other things to attend to. Was I like my father in so many ways but like my mother in this? It wasn’t that I didn’t try. I picked up where my father had left off, traveling to distant places, staying a while, working at whatever I could find, then moving on and doing it all over again.
I was 28 when my father’s cancer was diagnosed. It was the worst kind—aggressive and deadly. I was with him for his last three months. He never mentioned his illness, never acted any differently than he had before. It was as if he would shortly be leaving on a long vacation to a far-off country—not to worry, he'd keep in touch. “I won’t miss a whole lot,” he told me, “but I will miss you.” Between his frequent naps, we talked nonstop. He was concerned that I seemed troubled. I was troubled, but I couldn’t say why, so I told him about not knowing what I wanted to do in life.
“You were always a good writer,” he said. “Why not that?”
Because I never saw anything good coming from it. Because I couldn’t possibly do all the things you needed to do to make a living out of it, selling yourself, promoting yourself, marketing yourself. Because I didn't have the stomach to turn myself into a brand. Because just the thought of having to give interviews and speeches made my brain freeze with panic. And ultimately, because I wasn’t like him. He thrived on attention, had the genius to make an audience love him, and was adicted to adulation. I'm like my mother, who is the opposite of all those things.
He listened to me, thought for a moment and said, “You can’t be me, kiddo. Of course, you can’t. You don’t have to. Be yourself—the good and the not so good—and screw the rest.”
"You have magic," I said.
It was a late afternoon. Long shadows invading the sunporch. The steady distant rumble of rush-hour traffic. He was lying on a sofa with a book splayed open on his chest, one arm behind his head. His eyes always mischievous, now solemn with contemplation. He loved detective stories and westerns. This one was neither. It was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—a beaten-up, dog-eared paperback I had used in college. He knew it was one of my favorites but, despite my many attempts to get him to read it, he had never gotten around to it.
He picked it up off his chest. “This is magic,” he said.
I'VE ALWAYS HAD TROUBLE with personal pronouns. As a little girl, they used to remind me of the gear-shift on my Dad’s 1967 Aston Martin. Move the lever down and you’re in “she,” move it up and you’re in “I,” move it off to the side and you’re in “you.”
Inside Katheryn Clegg. Talking about her Dad's Aston Martin, where she comes from, and why she writes