Sunday, July 23, 2017


From the final confrontation in "Leveling"

Last night’s movie was “The Leveling” which I do not recommend for bedtime watching.  The plot is basically hinged on generational division aggravated by inheritance, this time a farm.  Naturally sexism, nepotism, resentment, the nature of freedom, and so on are issues, which are then completely overwhelmed by something from the outside — in this case cattle TB carried by badgers, a unique English problem that causes drastic measures, like killing all cows on a dairy farm.

So my subconscious was working on daughter/father issues all night.  This father is miserable, a widowed, psychologically maimed man who rages and blames.  He is not violent in a physical sense, but we are still wondering about the persistence of this forgiving daughter who tries to save everyone, but especially her father.  My relationship with my own father was violent — he was a “spanker”, that most erotic of physical punishments.  Then he would try to bribe and tease.  Quite Trumpian, actually, which means my ideas about that family are tainted.

So let’s not talk about him.  Instead I want to go back to two men whom I admired and who behaved the way we expect good fathers or maybe professional mentors to act.  One was Victor Sparks, the husband of Melba Sparks, my dramatics teacher in high school who then became a friend; the other was Benton Juneau, the husband of Janet Juneau, both of them “pillars” of the little Browning Methodist church whom I served as an interim for a year in exchange for living in the parsonage.  (In Montana parsonage property taxes are abated so long as the “parson” lives there.  My grub money came from babysitting the junior high study hall.)

Vic ran a company that made “Charcosalt.” which was a trademarked condiment that saturated salt with smoke.  Rubbed on meat, it suggested barbecue.  The product sold very well and was a connection to an elite clientele.  The couple lived at the high end of the middle-class scale with flair and sophistication, but not a fancy social life.  Melba was a star when it came to the Thespian scene on a national scale and she exhausted herself through the school year with producing three major plays and a series of small assemblies, like the elegant designs of gauze, ramps, crepe paper roses, and pink light for the Rose Festival Princesses — nothing like tacky Miss America pageants.  Rather Edwardian, really, which is the origin of the practice.

Vic was her backup and first aid.  When we rehearsed and worked on sets through suppertime, he brought her a jar of liver strips, parboiled and rubbed with Charcosalt.  The couple took a lot of vitamins and tended to be on the alternative medicine side.  But in the end Vic had cancer.  By that time I had been married, gone and then back.  

At one point they asked me to live with them and take care of the hilltop farm they had bought, complete with a donkey, some black sheep, and a couple of dobermans.  I declined.  They had thought it was the perfect solution for someone trying to write, but their idea of writing was conventional genre.  My goal — just developing at that time of the Sixties and Seventies — was something else, much more hallucinatory and daring, drawn up from my depths in a way that has since become almost conventional amongst youngsters.  (So, now what do I do if they occupy that space?)  The Sparks, with their fine dining, also had a taste for expensive alcohol and I quite like quality Scotch.  I could see what might happen.

When Vic had cancer and was in the nursing home near the end, people told me about it and expected something from me, a response that would help him.  (The same was true when Melba developed cancer years later, by that time married for the second time and rather clearly alcoholic.)  I went to Vic’s nursing home, was directed to his room, entered a ward with several men in it, and couldn’t see Vic.  But a very frail old man with a long white beard lifted himself up on an elbow and looked at me.  I didn’t know him, concluded Vic was not there, and — confused — left.  The man with the beard was Vic.

Melba said he would not have wanted to see him like that anyway.  But I had expected myself to say something so true and insightful that he would be impressed with ME.  In the usual narcissistic writer’s way, I had composed a script.  The problem wasn’t really that I didn’t recognize him — it was that my script was incomplete.  I had no idea what to say.  I had no idea what his thoughts were.  I was lost in the space between us.

The last time I saw Benton and didn’t recognize him was at a little café in Cut Bank, a marginal operation with a long past.  A lot of rez people ate there and stared at me curiously but I liked the burgers.  About halfway through mine, I looked into the dimness at the back of the place and in a booth was an extremely thin man who looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure it was Benton.  I considered going back to say hello, but then I didn’t know what to say in case it WAS Benton.  I didn’t know about his cancer then.  That knowledge would not have helped.  I don't think he saw me.

While I had been living at the ranch parsonage, there had been a bad winter storm that took out the electric service for the area.  I had no other source of heat except that the garage had been made into a rec room and had an old-fashioned wood stove, but it had no chimney — the stove pipe had never been attached.  Benton came out from town, struggling through the snow which was deep enough to shut down school, and put that stovepipe up, always a wretched task.  He was probably in the early stages of the cancer, as he was clearly in a bit of pain.  He hadn’t been young for a long time.  I was grateful, REALLY grateful.  It was only one kindness among many.

What should a person say, in particular a female who has received the kind of protection and care from an older man that the culture used to expect from all fathers or from honorable “superiors” of privilege?  What to say to them when they are completing their lives — especially when that lethal completion is slow, bearing down in a way that demands great courage.  

Do you count out your gratitudes, which might be major but a little embarrassing and demand some kind of emotional acknowledgement that men of a certain era don’t know how to provide?  Or should you give them privacy and assume they know how you feel about them?  I don’t know.  It’s a pressing issue.  No movie can really address something like this.  After all, this is not King Lear.

No comments: