My father died yesterday. Which event, of course, marks an epoch in a person’s life, and I’m no exception to that rule. It was after a lot of health problems, which he was kept alive through by medical technology combined with the steely will of my mother (which will I hope in some manner to have inherited). But then he was eighty six, and it was time for him to go, and he did. Leaving the rest of us to remember him as best we can.
He was an affectionate man, kindly and playful with children, and what I remember most about him is how wonderful he was with us, my four brothers and me as children. As the Tooth Fairy, he would draw graceful pictures of birds for her signature on notes left under our pillows. He would organize a game he called ‘A Clue For You,’ which involved bits of rhyming clues written on pieces of paper hidden all over the house and garden, and my brothers agree none of us can remember the ultimate prize the clues led to…but we all remember those rhymes.
He would walk around the house making up nonsense songs, a fact I had forgotten until the last days I sat with him and my family in the hospital, and he began to sing the same nonsense songs there in his hospital bed. That made my brothers and me laugh.
And the reason he has found his way into this blog–aside from the fact that he has made his way into everything in my life the last few weeks–is another memory, an early one. I must have been six, seven at the oldest. We were coming home from a vacation, and he said, “One of you should publish a book of poetry. I’ll tell you what. The first child to publish a book of poetry wins a milkshake!”
Needless to say, this fired my ambition like nothing else has done, even later when I began eyeing more adult prizes. As I recall, the moment we arrived back at our San Francisco bungalow, I headed with fierce determination to my little desk in the sunroom. And wrote my first poem (which was, in its entirety: “Trees have leaves/But no bees/Except when the bees are/Tree-loving bees”). I was going to win that milkshake.
Well, I never was much of a poet. What ambition I had in that direction died completely the year I was thirteen, when a wonderful teacher (Gaby McKannay is her name, and through the wonders of Facebook, I’ve actually found her again…and of course we seem around the same age now, so many years later) encouraged me as a writer, and sent to an editor friend a clutch of poems I had sententiously presented her with. He came back with comments, approving of the very poem I was secretly ashamed of, since I knew I’d written it to get that approval, and I knew, in my heart of hearts, how specious were the sentiments it expressed. Even if I didn’t know what the word ‘specious’ meant, I knew that was true about that poem. The one poem where I had tried, with all of my thirteen year old nascent writer’s might, to express something from inside that seemed well nigh inexpressible the editor did indeed find inexpressed. So I gave up poetry. If I couldn’t express what was just out of my reach, I reasoned, what was the point in poetry?
I thought I’d never win that milkshake now. Because, you know, in my heart I still wanted that as a prize. I wanted my father to say, “Well done! What flavor shall it be?”
Then, after he died yesterday, and I went back to my desk to finish up some of the day’s mundane tasks, I was turning over the printer’s quote for our September EAP book, PARK SONGS, by David Budbill. And a little light went off over my head, and I laughed. Because I am publishing a book of poems, who said they had to be by me? That wasn’t part of the deal. And David does express the near inexpressible, in this case, with PARK SONGS, the almost goofy, sacred value of even the most forgotten human being.
Which is a sentiment I know my father, Fox News notwithstanding, would have heartily approved. So PARK SONGS is, on my side, the publisher’s, dedicated to Bill Daniels, my dad.
And as for that milkshake, Dad, I’m planning on making it vanilla. Which as you know was always my favorite kind.
PARK SONGS: A POEM/PLAY, by David Budbill (ISBN 978-1-935259-16-9)
(eBook 978-1-935259-17-6), pub date September 2012 (Exterminating Angel Press) Soon to be available at an independent bookstore near you.