I have already reported on the epistolary talents of my father. But my father has never read Cheever; my mom has. In fact, she was reading The Wapshot Chronicle while visiting over the holidays, which is how I recognized the allusion of her (very prompt) thank-you note:
Leaves in color—breathtaking. Kitties cute and easy to love. Bookstores draw one in and reveal treasures not expected but warmly accepted. Thanksgiving dinner traditional and sumptuous—just as media pictures. Planes intimidating but can be conquered. Family good and love continues.
Fran was playing off the wonderfully clipped final lines of Wapshot. (While in Virginia, she had specifically instructed me to read them, and then read them again, after nearly fainting when I admitted to never having read Cheever.) They belong to Leander, who tucks into a copy of Shakespeare a note of posthumous advice for his sons.
[. . .] Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 p.m. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.
I admire Leander’s trust that his sons would find anything in a volume of Shakespeare, although it does seem appropriate they should discover their father there, in the company of so many giant characters. And I equally admire Fran’s faith in Cheever. It is no small thing to have parents who love literature.
We fail, sometimes, to give our parents the credit they deserve. (Of course, this goes the other way, too, as when Fran scoffed that if I hadn’t read Cheever then I must not have read much of anything!) And this, it turns out, is how Cheever uncovered Leander’s voice in the first place. “In the ’30s my father’s business failed and when he died, some years later, the only patrimony he had to leave me was an old copy of Shakespeare and the beginnings of an autobiography,” Cheever wrote in an introduction to Time-Life’s 1982 edition of Wapshot.
Some of this manuscript dealt with my father’s recollections of Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the 1870s. As a writer I could appreciate his material but the style was antic, ungrammatical and I thought vulgar, and I tried again and again to recast his memories in an elegant and a lucid prose. I was having particular difficulties with his description of riding the first horsecar that traveled from Newburyport to Amesbury. “Sturgeon in river then,” he had written. “About three feet long. All covered with nobs. Leap straight up in air and fall back in water. Hold the reins and see the sturgeon leap. Boyish happiness!” Having revised these lines as Gide might have written them, I realized that my father was a better writer than I, and using his style I went on then to invent a character and a life that would have gratified him.
Which, in a way, seems a metaphor for the tug of war we all engage in with our parents—our yearning to be free, our grudging recognition of their contributions.
So to Tom and to Fran both, I am grateful. I will stand up straight. I will admire the world.
Or at least Cheever.
IMAGE: John Cheever