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Modulate Your Voice, Please

August 15, 1993|MARK JONATHAN HARRIS | This is an adaptation of an essay Harris wrote for "Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature," edited by Liz Goodenough, Mark Heberle and Naomi Sokoloff, a collection of essays to be published next year by Wayne State University Press. Harris is chair of film and TV production at USC. His most recent children's novel is "Solay" (Bradbury / Macmillan)

It is a late Sunday morning in the fall of 1946. My father and I, wearing matching leather jackets, are visiting Nay Aug Park Zoo in Scranton, Pa. The air is thick with the smell of straw and animal droppings and roasted peanuts. The zoo is a dirty, dreary place with cramped cages and listless animals who evoke more pity than wonder. But that is an adult view, formed by visits over many years. I can no longer recall how I felt about the zoo as a child. Did I laugh at the chattering monkeys? Did I clutch my father's hand in fear at the snakes coiled behind the glass? Or did I feel some sympathy for the aging lion, staring blankly out at us, his face pressed against the bars?

As a writer, I want to fill in these lost details because I need to set the scene for what I do vividly remember about that Sunday. I want to convey how much I adore my father and how thrilled I am to be with him, even though he is probably paying more attention to a neighborhood friend who has accompanied us to the zoo. So I imagine that he lifts me up to throw some peanuts to the monkeys and that he continues to hold my hand after we pass by the boa constrictor, and that he buys me cotton candy to eat as we walk back to the car.

The car is new--our family's first--a black Pontiac sedan purchased a few months earlier. I remember my father driving it triumphantly home from work as I waited for him, as I did each evening, at the front window of our apartment. But now, when we reach the place along the road where he has parked, the Pontiac is no longer there.

Stunned, we look down the hillside. The car has plunged down the steep slope and come to rest in the brush and rocks 40 yards below. For a moment everyone is speechless. Then the neighbor sucks on his pipe and says to my father, "You didn't put on the hand brake, Norman." The look on my father's face acknowledges that he is right. He stares at the car in confusion. Other people stop to gape or laugh. I am not sure exactly what is happening, but I know they're making fun of my father. The man I eagerly watch for every night at the front window looks helpless, lost. I want to come to his rescue, but I don't know how. I begin to cry. . . .

After 45 years, why does this memory still haunt me? As a 5-year-old, how much of this experience had I language to express? A conceptual framework with which to understand? And what of that Sunday morning did I really experience as a child, and what have I invented later? As a writer of children's books, these questions are ones I constantly confront in my own work as I shift back and forth between a child's and an adult's perspective in an attempt to understand the formative experiences of childhood.

Children--and adults as well--don't have to understand the significance of their experience to be profoundly affected by it. Although I could not have articulated it at the time, I saw something that Sunday I had never seen before--my father's fallibility. The accident revealed him in a new way, one that was painful for both of us. I understood that he was to blame for the car's slide down the ravine and that he was ashamed because of it.

Yet, thinking about it now, I wonder if I also recognized the contempt in our neighbor's voice, realized the extent of my father's humiliation. Even now, I'm not sure why our neighbor was so contemptuous of my father's mistake. Had my father driven him to the park to impress him with our new car? Also, why did my father suffer his contempt in silence? Why, in fact, did he feel so defeated by what, after all, was such a minor accident? A tow truck came a short while later and pulled the car up the slope and we drove home. In retrospect, my father's paralysis, his helplessness, seem out of proportion to what prompted them. Perhaps, because I sensed, but could not voice all this as a child, I've kept coming back to it as an adult to try to clarify its impact on me.

Recently I asked my parents about what they remembered of the incident. My mother, who was not there that Sunday, remembered it as the neighbor's car which had rolled down the ravine. My father acknowledged that it was his Pontiac, but he blamed the accident on the failure of the car's brakes.

Our differing recollections of that day are another reason, I believe, that the memory of our car at the bottom of the culvert has remained such a powerful image for me. In many ways, this event, and its aftermath, crystallize my childhood. And, like most writers, my childhood has strongly influenced the kind of books I write.

When I was growing up in Scranton, our family was considered a model in the community. My father was a successful lawyer, my mother an energetic housewife, my sister and I bright, well-behaved, honor students as well as Curved Bar and Eagle scouts. But like many American families our emotional lives were very constricted. My family's denial of the events that occurred that Sunday at the zoo were typical of the way we processed painful experiences.

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