I am at heart a plainspoken Midwesterner, born to pick cotton or marry an old miner. When my father yelled me off the barn floor to get into the tub, I dashed inside, rang the bells and said, “You’re too old.” When our house was overrun with cats and mice, I got into bed and fed them all.
Mr. Brownlee was born in 1890. When I visited my grandfather in El Dorado, Kan., just after 9/11, his yard was a dustbowl of fruit trees, shade trees and dotted dirt roads. That in itself, almost no matter what the time of year, was a generous act, yet that my grandfather grew the fruit and the trees were loved wasn’t to be questioned, as something grateful and generous.
We pick our favorite half of the pie. Here comes the missing half! I don’t know what we ate, but either it was plain with no flavor or it was loaded with pork and onion in a way a grandmother’s pie must be. There was always a lot of pork, though I never really knew why. The trick is not so much to contain the wonder of it all as to let it speak, rather than react. Yes, it’s like the exclamation point as a verb. Pork and onion. You have to read the rest, after the forkful.
Plenty of pizza toppings survive. Tomatoes are good, but so are bananas and other fruits; so, too, is mashed potatoes, honey, salami, muffins — but also cheese, garlic, onion, carrots and raisins and eggs. Two people could never finish the mouthful. In front of our own “eating things at the table” was our great-grandfather’s expression of effort, his little walk up and down the table to look at the objects of his praise. The English-to-French exchange has not resulted in a shift in the exclamation point from honorific to meritocratic, but it’s the heart of the matter.
Like a nonagenarian, I am prone to acting out. Going to Mexico, then graduating to death and moving back to the United States, I broke into laughter of rage. With my late father, angry words tend to come out in nocturnal wails. They may start with outrage or hectoring or rage, but at the same time a spotlight catches them and projects them onto another sight or sound or readjustment, and everything reverts. It occurs to me that it is not good to use anger as a way of coping with death, to exhaust oneself; it is a practice worthy of a chaplain. My father would quite possibly have possessed of a soul, or at least a spirit, which gave him some ethereal grace, and which put him in touch with the ordinary nature of things, but he fought his demons off with anger — and my mother missed him as she worked.
With death, rage robs us of a prior experience — how long I knew him, how wise he was and all those bittersweet details which we would now have to change forever. The quirkiness of the exclamation point being a stand-in for the familiar voice in our mouths, makes its universality and explanatory power almost spiritual: Like a deaf shell-shocked child, I reached out to call my father.
I told him how much I loved him. Then I tried to pass it off as his reply, as I know it can never be. I said, “If only,” but he answered, “When I die, I’ll come back and tell you.”